How to Use Your Pain as a Catalyst
One of the problems we confront every day as psychotherapists is how to get our patients to do things that would be good for them. Dieting, exercising, leaving a bad relationship, starting a new business—these are among the many things people commonly want to accomplish but fail to take action on.
People avoid these things because, in one way or another, they involve different types of pain. If you want to lose weight, you have to face the pain of depriving yourself of the foods you like. If you want to leave a relationship, you have to face the specter of being alone. If you want to start a new business, you have to face the possibility that it may not succeed.
It wouldn’t matter if we avoided these things once or twice a year. But for most of us, avoidance becomes a way of life. We barricade ourselves behind an invisible barrier and don’t venture out because beyond the wall is pain.
We call this safe space the Comfort Zone. In the most extreme cases, people actually hide behind the walls of their home. But for most of us, the Comfort Zone isn’t a physical space, it’s a way of life that avoids anything that might be painful.
WHERE IS YOUR COMFORT ZONE?
To make this personal to you, try this exercise:
- Close your eyes.
- Think of something you chronically avoid doing—whether it’s meeting new people, balancing your checkbook, or having a difficult conversation.
- How do you organize your life to avoid doing it?
- Imagine that pattern of avoidance is actually a place you hide.
You just found your Comfort Zone.
What did that feel like? It probably felt like a safe and familiar place, free of the pain that the world brings with it.
But the exercise leaves out one ingredient that’s also part of most people’s Comfort Zone. Merely escaping pain isn’t enough for most of us. We insist that the pain be replaced with pleasure. We do this with an endless array of addictive activities, like drugs and alcohol, pornography, the aptly named “comfort food,” or constantly checking social media. Even gambling and shopping are pleasures of a sort.
All these behaviors are widespread—our entire culture is looking for a Comfort Zone.
WHAT PRICE ARE YOU PAYING FOR STAYING IN IT?
Wherever you find the limits of your Comfort Zone, you pay a huge price for hanging out in it. Life provides incredible possibilities, but you can’t take advantage of them without facing pain. If you can’t tolerate pain, you can’t be fully alive. For example:
- If you’re shy and avoid people, you lose the vitality that comes with a sense of community.
- If you’re creative but can’t tolerate criticism, you’ll never reach people who could appreciate (and fund) your work.
- If you’re a leader and can’t confront or set limits with people, no one will follow you.
By staying in your Comfort Zone you end up relinquishing your most cherished dreams and aspirations. Oliver Wendell Holmes in his poem The Voiceless put it best: “Alas for those that never sing, / But die with all their music in them.”
Unfortunately, understanding the terrible cost of the Comfort Zone isn't enough to get people to change. That's because understanding happens on the level of rational thinking, but the part of us that avoids pain is completely irrational. It lives in a primitive, unconscious world where all pain—even pain that would be good for us—triggers the same fear: “I’m going to die!” It clings to the Comfort Zone as if its life depended on it.
You can’t fight such a strong, irrational fear with rational thinking—it’s too weak. Instead, you need a force. In this case, it’s called the force of Forward Motion.
HOW TO GET INTO FORWARD MOTION
Nature is always moving forward into the future, and as part of nature, we have to learn to do the same. If you watch an infant learning to walk, no matter how many times they fall, they’ll pick themselves up and start again until one day they succeed. Unconsciously, they’ve tapped into a universal force that allows them to conquer pain—Forward Motion.
This force derives its almost magical powers from taking advantage of a secret. The secret is that your experience of pain is relative. When you move toward pain, it shrinks. When you try to avoid it, it grows into a monster that pursues you.
Imagine standing next to a swimming pool on a breezy day. You put your toes in the water and shiver with anticipated cold. Finally, you dive in, and within seconds you are warm. The dive put you in Forward Motion and changed your experience.
You can do the same thing with emotional pain and physical pain.
There’s just one problem. How do you get yourself to “dive in?” Thinking about it won’t help. We fear pain on a primitive, life and death, level. To overcome that fear we need an equally primitive emotion: desire. That’s right, to overcome pain you must desire it. When you desire something you move toward it and the pain shrinks. Of course, for most of us, desiring pain is completely unnatural. That’s where The Tool comes in.
THE REVERSAL OF DESIRE TOOL
We call this Tool The Reversal of Desire because it “reverses” the normal desire to avoid pain and shifts you into the desire to move right into it. With it you can overcome the psychic pain and fear involved in living.
One objection we hear is that this is masochistic. This is not masochism. Masochists choose highly ritualized, controllable forms of pain that repeat themselves over and over. There’s no Forward Motion in that. It’s actually how they create their Comfort Zone.
Since we practice in southern California, another objection we hear sometimes is people worry that desiring pain will invite bad things to enter their lives. This misunderstands what the tool is. The Reversal of Desire isn’t a desire for a negative outer event; it’s a desire for an inner experience of victory over pain. Its imagery is positive.
The only bad news here is that you can’t just use the tool once and be set free. Like all The Tools, The Reversal of Desire is designed to be used over and over again. You must consciously choose to use the tool each time you encounter the boundaries of your Comfort Zone.
The price for freedom is constant vigilance and effort. If you refuse to pay, you’ll stay stuck in an ever more oppressive and counterproductive life.
But if you face the pain and pay the price, you'll find yourself more in sync with the world around you. All of a sudden people and opportunities will appear, as if out of nowhere, to help you on your way. You’ll never look at pain the same way again.