Eight Things I Learned from Pain.

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 We learn a lot about ourselves when we’re in pain.

We learn what we are made of, what’s really inside and how strong we are when we are in pain.

With physical pain, our reactions are pretty basic and survival-oriented. I’m rarely sick, but every few months I get a headache. You know, a headache bad enough that I’m instantly convinced I’m dying and that I hate everyone and everything (except the person I want to offer me sympathy. I hate everyone except him or her, naturally).

I have one right now.

Typically, I’d run away from it, or at least try to ignore it. Maybe if I was feeling especially kind towards myself, I would get a massage or do some self-care things to help it go away faster. Same thing with emotional pain. When I’m distraught, I go for a run. The cadence stills something in me. Or, oddly enough, I also do the opposite. I’ll meditate to try and still whatever is crazy making at the moment.

What if instead of running away from pain—or numbing it out—we leaned into it and listened to it?

I don’t mean being masochistic.

That said, this is the image that comes to mind:


What we learn from pain shouldn’t be how to escape it.

We don’t need to “go to our happy place.” The point of meditation—even tonglen—isn’t to run from pain. I don’t take deep breaths when I’m in pain in order to get over it or past it—or make it go away faster. I take deep breaths through pain so that I can stand to sit with it, to listen to it. I take deep breaths through pain so that instead of suppressing it, I can look at it, and look at myself, see what I’m really made of.

And now I’m not just talking about the brain numbing headaches.

I’m talking about pain. I’m talking about when we feel so hurt, so angry, so _________ . I’m talking about that thing that we don’t seem to have fierce enough, profane enough words to describe. That feeling that takes your breath away—and not in a good way—but makes you feel like you have a scream permanently lodged in your throat. Pain.

In America, sitting with our pain, physical or emotional, is unheard of. Take a pill. Be entertained. Cheer up. Watch something funny. Do whatever it takes to make it go away. Pain is bad. We don’t like bad stuff. Get rid of it.

Pain is a message from our bodies or from our hearts that something is wrong. If we never stop and listen to it, how can we really make anything better? How can we learn from it?

Eight things I learned from pain:

1. When we acknowledge that it’s there instead of trying to “think positive” or be happy and will it away, we feel better faster.

Ironic, no? I love how Pema Chodron sums it up:

“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”

Hello shitty day. Hello pain. Yes, you’re here. I don’t like you, but this is what it is right now and instead of cutting myself off from the present moment by pretending otherwise, I’m going to sit down and have a cup of tea with you and look you in the eye.

2. When we try to avoid feeling something, it doesn’t leave.

That anger that is stuck in your throat isn’t going anywhere unless you deal with it. That sadness that you keep throwing happy Youtube videos at would be better dealt with by a long hot bath, a good cry and acknowledgement that it’s there. You can’t go somewhere else and then begin to deal with your pain. You have to start where your pain is.

3. Physical and emotional pain are good friends.

One usually brings the other with it. Sometimes it’s tough to tell which one came first. The great thing about the mind-body connection is, if you sit and deal with one, you are dealing with both. If I deal with my emotional pain, I will notice physical aches and pains peak, and then subside. If I deal with my physical pain—acknowledge and treat my body with kindness—my mood will improve too.

4. Acknowledging pain and wallowing in self-pity are two different things.

You know it, and I know it. We know the difference between being honest about the difficulty of the present moment, and cuddling up with sorrow and self-pity. Self-pity is closed-off, self-centered and is about replaying your hurts and picking at your wounds. Acknowledging pain is about opening up, without resistance, and staying open.

 5. Hugs and music are incredibly transformative.

Maybe it’s something else for you. But for me, when I feel horrible and headachey and angry and momentarily nihilistic, a nice long hug really helps. A serendipitous just-walked-in-the-room-and-it-came-on song is second runner-up.


This isn’t about escaping from pain. This is about the things that help us as we sit with pain, like your mom holding your hand while you got a shot as a child. The warmth of a hug when you are in pain makes it easier to stay present.

6. Pain is the ultimate teacher of patience and impermanence.

It’s temporary. It’s all temporary. We don’t like to remember that when good stuff is going on. When we sit with our pain, it’s the best time to connect with that knowledge of impermanence. It hurts right now. It hurts like hell. It didn’t hurt yesterday. It might not hurt tomorrow. I can be okay with the fact that right now is painful, in part because I know it won’t last.

7. Anger turned inward becomes depression.

Want to be depressed? Suppress your pain, suppress your anger, instead of dealing with it head on. What is it about physical and emotional pain that makes us angry sometimes? Do we feel like it’s unjust? Like we don’t deserve it? Pleasure is available to all of us. Life is full of simple and complex pleasures. We accept that readily. We need to also accept and acknowledge the dark and difficult parts of life. (And P.S. the pleasure is so much sweeter when we do. If we don’t allow ourselves to fully feel everything, we cannot fully experience anything.)

8. Being strong isn’t about being impervious to pain.

I’ll say it again another way: We aren’t strong because pain doesn’t affect us. We are strong because we let the pain affect us. We feel it fully. We open up and acknowledge it. Fearlessness isn’t being a brick wall in the face of pain. Fearlessness and strength isn’t a calm facade that doesn’t allow pain to touch us. It’s the opposite. Fearlessness is a product of tenderness.

Our strength is in our raw, broken-open reality.

Don’t push it away. Don’t look away from it. Listen to it.

You are so much stronger than you know.


Photo: Pixoto

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Kate Bartolotta

Kate Bartolotta is a wellness cheerleader, yogini storyteller, and self-care maven.
She also writes for Huffington Post, Yoga International, Mantra Yoga+ Health, a beauty full mind, The Good Men Project, The Green Divas, The Body Project, Project Eve, Thought Catalog and Soulseeds.
Kate’s books are now available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com.

She is passionate about helping people fall in love with their lives.

You can connect with Kate on Facebook and Instagram.

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anonymous Aug 21, 2015 10:58pm

It's all very well and good to breathe the pain away but what if you've got serious pain like chronic agony? Breathing isn't even going to touch the sides and if you feel like cursing, then do it. Do whatever your body needs to do to get through it. Unless you know real pain, you won't know what the Hell I'm on about.

anonymous May 28, 2015 12:23pm

Ƭhanks very interesting blog!

anonymous May 1, 2015 2:55am

"…can be okay with the fact that right now is painful, in part because I know it won’t last."

And what about Chronic pain? How do you become okay knowing that tomorrow and every day after that, for the entirety of your life, you will be dealing with unending mind twisting pain?

    anonymous Aug 21, 2015 11:00pm

    Listen to your body. If screaming helps, them do it. Just do whatever your body tells you to do and don't give a fig about anyone else.

    anonymous Sep 11, 2015 7:20am

    That part got me too, it made me wonder if it's possible to hope for a cure for a pain free life possibly at some point in the future.

anonymous Mar 30, 2015 7:02am

Really when someone doesn’t understand then its up to other
visitors that they will assist, so here it happens.

anonymous Aug 5, 2014 3:29pm

This article is great like many at elephant is great at explaining why we should do something, but it isn't great at the how, or point us in the right direction.

anonymous Apr 18, 2013 8:05pm

[…] […]

anonymous Feb 25, 2013 9:22am

[…] is more productive for us in the long run: being a victim living in pain or learning to overcome pain and challenges with grace and gratitude? Being happy or being […]

anonymous Jan 31, 2013 6:12am

[…] It is painful. […]

anonymous Jan 11, 2013 4:06pm

[…] about two hours of hiking down, my knee started to ache. While I haven’t had a serious injury to it, over the years my knee had shown signs of […]

anonymous Jan 2, 2013 6:06pm

[…] The best way to simplify a complicated tale is to come clean and say my indifference with love made me careless. At this point, three years into marriage, I forgot what I really wanted from a partnership and settled for a human capsule of pain reduction. […]

anonymous Oct 16, 2012 6:02am

[…] it’s always worth taking a second look at what’s going on internally when you notice chronic pain patterns in your […]

anonymous Sep 26, 2012 8:29am

[…] I am thankful for pain. […]

anonymous Sep 18, 2012 5:28pm

[…] touches by the fingers of my mind. I no longer speak to him and hopefully never will again, but the lessons I learned from the whole painful ordeal are timeless and I treasure […]

anonymous Sep 16, 2012 7:12am

[…] me, it was one of those defining moments where we decide how to look at life. Do we hide from pain or do we face it? Do we accept the present moment, or avoid it and distract ourselves from it? I decided, then, that […]

anonymous Aug 30, 2012 5:08pm

[…] I have never experienced this in my regular asana yoga practice before today. So many limitations, so much farther to heal, wanting to do what I used to be able to do, resisting accepting my body as it is and at the same time surrendering to it. It gave me new insight into how my students feel when dealing with their own healing bodies. […]

anonymous Aug 7, 2012 12:01am

[…] depression, lack of confidence, low self esteem or any other motivation killer may have taken away freedom and […]

anonymous Aug 6, 2012 10:09am

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anonymous Jun 28, 2012 11:44pm

Beautiful article, Kate! I love how this applies to both physical and emotional pain…and how you eloquently point out that dealing with one is dealing with both. Your writing strikes me as both fearless and tender. Thank you. – Lisa

anonymous Jun 26, 2012 7:06am

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anonymous Jun 25, 2012 1:38am

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anonymous Jun 24, 2012 5:51pm

Thanks for writing this. I have reflected often on something similar, without being able to articulate it anywhere near as well. I thought about it a lot when I gave birth to my daughter without any pain meds at all. I thought about how so much of the discussion around childbirth is centered around avoiding the pain of labor, both real and perceived. And then when my daughter was 23 months old she died in her sleep, suddenly and for no apparent reason. Since then many friends have called me strong. It took me some time to be able to articulate to them that I am not strong, I am an animal, and animals are wired to survive. Otherwise there is no explanation for why I keep waking up every morning. Don't discount your animal self, if you want to live. It's your friend. Though there may be times when you wish this friend would abandon you in the woods and let you mercifully expire.

I guess my point here is that sometimes the most fucking unfair things happen to people, and yet they have to keep living, because they're not dead yet, so they just figure out how, and do it. I breathe through the pain. My rituals of self-care were so deeply entrenched already that I can't stop doing them. And I guess my point is also that you just can't fight the pain of living on the physical plane. You will lose every time. So you reach a point where you have no choice but to make room for it.

anonymous Jun 22, 2012 9:26am

[…] that which we do not have within. The wounded part of us seeks constantly to get love and avoid pain, resulting in an inability to share […]

anonymous Jun 19, 2012 2:34pm

[…] […]

anonymous Jun 18, 2012 1:19pm

Well, you get all the points for having a Fight Club video in there.

    Kate Bartolotta Jun 18, 2012 1:55pm

    Yes. If at all possible I like to include Pema Chodron, Fight Club or both in my writing.

anonymous Jun 18, 2012 10:32am

Love this. Love Pema Chodron, she is one bad ass Buddhist. Love Fight Club – it makes me want to go to the gym, like, right now. Thanks for reminding me me about fearlessness first thing on a Monday morning!

    Kate Bartolotta Jun 18, 2012 11:50am

    Yes! And of course, I would have know that you love both Pema & Fight Club. Thanks Annie!

anonymous Jun 18, 2012 3:43am

Excellent. Pointing out the obvious has always been an art.

    Kate Bartolotta Jun 18, 2012 6:33am

    Yes, and I often point out the things that I need to remember.

anonymous Jun 17, 2012 9:30pm

It’s all good if you’re talking about your own pain. If you can “just be with it” and do without medication, distractions, etc…more power to you. Just don’t try to tell that to someone else who is in serious pain, they have every right to tell you to go f— yourself if you do. Pain is a sign of life, but it is a sign of life injured, distressed, or traumatized, and in the case of serious illness, pain actually can interfere with the healing process. There is nothing “good” about pain, other than the fact that it usually can be relieved. Having been in a situation where extreme physical discomfort was my daily reality,and treatment was refused to me, I can tell you it became familiar and banal, and I learned to “deal with it.” I also long to confront those whose policy made this so, with the fact that they are torturers. Oddly, my mantra helped….but if someone had told me to meditate, my reply would have contained language unfit for this thread.

    anonymous Jun 17, 2012 10:44pm

    I used to work for a girl who, at age 27, had been an incomplete quadraplegic for 14 years of her life. I was one of her 3 caregivers, and there was never a dull moment. She amazed me – she is in a wheelchair and her fingers are curled up so she can only control her thumbs. She is beautiful. This was a person who experienced a lot of pain, and she took A LOT of meds. If I told her about karma, meditation, and my reasons for being anti-pharmaceuticals, she probably would have fired me, or at least tell me to f off. But since I used to work for her, she has moved back home with her parents, started PT and is now able to drive a car by herself! Back then she might have told me that pain was no good, but today I am sure that she would agree that pain signifies something, and is a very important part of life. Without all that physical and emotional pain she endured, I don't think she would have felt as great and accomplished as she does today. Today she is stronger than ever before. She could have blamed the surgeon who cut too far and moped about that her whole life, but no, look at her today. She is as radiant as ever, living life to the fullest because she allowed herself to have that.

      Kate Bartolotta Jun 18, 2012 6:34am

      The point of the article wasn't really to be anti-pharmaceuticals, but to be observant of our pain (physical and emotional) rather than to ignore it.

      The difficult things in life are what shape us—sounds like you worked with someone who knew that deeply.

      anonymous Jun 18, 2012 7:08am

      Anti-pharmaceutical? Star, only someone who doesn't suffer from chronic pain would be anti-pharmceutical. Count yourself fortunate that you know nothing about true on-going pain. However, don't for a second think you know what you would do if in my shoes.

    Kate Bartolotta Jun 18, 2012 6:32am

    I dealt with severe chronic pain for a few years in my 20s. Some days were tolerable. Some days every movement was excruciating. For me, I had a turning point in there (on a day when—ironically—I wasn't in pain and went hiking, only to break my leg in the mountains and have to walk over a mile on my broken leg) when I decided I would rather feel pain than feel nothing.

    Obviously, there are times that medication is the best choice, and I don't pretend to know when those times are for anyone but myself.

    Many of these are also more applicable to emotional pain than physical, but from my experiences, most of them are true of both.

anonymous Jun 17, 2012 7:03pm

“God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” ~Hazrat Inayat Khan

    Kate Bartolotta Jun 18, 2012 7:24am

    Yes! Although, I think we do a lot of the breaking ourselves.