It seems that one thing most of us have in common is our desire to avoid pain. I see this with clients who so desperately want to change or heal while also desiring to avoid the extremely difficult work of unpacking and sorting through past pains and trauma. I see this with friends as they have stayed in relationships or with jobs they know are unhealthy but don’t want to face the pain of a breakup, possible rejection, and starting over. And, I see this with myself as well, attempting to avoid pain by getting things “right” and doing what’s asked of me.
We don’t like pain. And of course, this is rational. This is normal. This is human.
This all came back to mind recently while we were taking a birthing class. Giving birth is a well known painful experience, yet it is one that people endure because the reward is great and the pain temporary. Clearly, no one in the class was caught off guard that labor and delivery will be painful. It is simply a given. Even amid this truth, our instructor went through the stages of labor acquainting and familiarizing us with the pain as much as possible. She recently gave us an acronym that I quickly stored away as something helpful both in and outside birthing prep.
P...purposeful. Pain is clearly purposeful in labor and delivery, serving as an indication and call to action, but what about beyond? Most all pain serves a purpose and call to action. It indicates something is wrong. Physical pain prompts us to move our hand away from the stove or head to the doctor for our sprained ankle. Emotional pain can serve us similarly, motivating us to change our circumstances or relationships. And when this isn’t possible, it can push us to change ourselves. The key is allowing that motivation to move us towards healthy ways of change rather than avoidance and false fixes.
A…anticipated. Labor pain is anticipated and expected. Outside the hospital, pain must become a foreseen part of our existence. Though we all desire to avoid it if we are to create a more balanced relationship with pain we come to be less avoidant, upset, and caught off guard by it. I often tell clients that to be in relationship with others means you will get hurt. Not because people are intentionally out to get one another, rather because we are humans and we make mistakes, say things we regret, protect ourselves, and generally get it wrong at times. If we can learn to accept this pain alongside the benefits and joy of relationship with others, we can thrive in the give and take, the ebb and flow of human connection. Please know this is not a pass for abusive relationships, rather a recognition that it is normal to have feelings hurt in common misunderstandings.
I…intermittent. In labor, contractions start and stop and eventually cease upon the birth of the baby. Similarly, pain most often comes and goes. While some pain is chronic, the pain of both birth and growth is temporary, intense and momentary, allowing for periods of relief and recovery. As is the pain of healing—it will not last forever. Rather, it will be significant and then lessen as it is worked through. Similarly, the other pains in our lives will almost always have periods of intensity and then periods at a lower volume, where we can tune into other things in our world besides the pain.
N…normal. Labor and delivery pain is normal—as is pain in general. Back in November, I wrote about pain and how pain will find us. Because pain is normal, we do not have to run head-on into it. Rather, perhaps we do not avoid pain at all costs. Pain often times isn’t good or bad, it just is. It’s a part of our experience and a part of our life. If we can come to believe we are not given the choice of pain or no pain over the course of our lifetime, we can allow it more easily into our experience.
To be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with this acronym. The therapist in me loves it and tries to live it and invite others to live it as well. It makes sense and helps me make sense of the pain in my own life. There is another part of me, though, that hates it. I want to keep doing what I’m doing because avoiding pain is more comfortable. I don’t want to normalize and anticipate pain, I don’t want to find purpose in it, I simply want to avoid it. And still, I know I can’t. It only takes a day or two of trying this old way and I find myself once again wrestling to accept the existence of pain in my experience and world because my attempts to avoid it have failed me.
So perhaps we must learn new ways to accept pain as necessary for the lives we want to live and the men and women we want to be. We must practice ways to endure pain for the pleasure, peace, and possibility that lie on the other side. Perhaps pain isn’t the worst of all possible options. As I head into my final trimester of pregnancy, there is discomfort in sleep, in sitting, in eating, and in the Dallas summer heat. And to be sure, there is a much larger physical pain to come in a few short months. But oh the possibility and promise that lies on the other side of that pain. For the temporary pain of birth seems momentary amid meeting our kiddo and doing life together.
Written by Lindsay Williams, MA, LPC.