Navigating the Two Pains

Survivor to Thriver

Pressing down hard on my suitcase, I am scarcely able to finish zipping it before I hear the car horn signal time to go. As if watching myself from the upper corner of the ceiling, I watch myself walk out the door, leaving behind everything and everyone I know, off to a land I have barely set foot in, with little money and nothing resembling a real plan. Bound for India, all my earthly possessions occupy two check-in bags and a carry-on. The story I tell myself is that I am brave and headed for adventure.

If that day was any indication, then God truly watches out for fools and children. In some ways, I was both.

The truth I see so clearly now but could not allow myself to acknowledge back then is that I was willing to go to extreme lengths and face tremendous dangers, all for the sake of escaping one thing in life: pain.

Not just any pain – soul-wrenching, heart crushing emotional pain. Physical pain, I could manage – but this…the longing, empty, aching, and searching pain that radiated within me, seeping out and infecting every element of my life. This, no one taught me how to deal with, or even that I could.

Running Away From Emotional Pain

Does this resonate? What is emotional pain like for you?

A headache comes and you reach for the Tylenol bottle. Sore throat – where are the lozenges? Broken leg…okay, you can’t fix that yourself, but you know what to do. Who has ever taught us what to do with heartache from loss? Or the seething anger of injustice? What about spine-snapping fear? What then?

I spent more than forty years of my life running from emotional agony. I became quite adept at it. Sometimes, I ran by holding perfectly still, slowly shutting down the pain receptors in my heart and mind so I could pretend nothing bad was happening. I soldiered on, quelling one ache with another, duller, less compelling one.

Other times, I ran physically, often leaving one damaging situation for another before anyone even knew I was unhappy. In the years between eighteen and thirty-eight, I moved over forty-four times, living in three countries, six states, and over twenty different cities. Whenever life became too big, which often happened in my social life, a change of scenery provided the false security I needed to think I was safe. The illusion of, “just fine,” continued and all was well…until it wasn’t.

The Two Types of Pain

Why do we do such crazy stuff to avoid pain?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that no one tells us there is more than one kind of pain: Destructive and constructive pain. Although I highlight emotional pain here, this can extend to mental, physical, and spiritual pain for some, as well. Whichever one it is, knowing which pain you face can make all the difference.

Destructive pain is that which diminishes us. Pain that destroys hope, wrecks relationships, solving problems only on the surface, while wreaking havoc in the depths falls under this label.

On the other hand, constructive pain causes us to grow. We are challenged and stretched, sometimes to uncomfortable levels, but if we slow down long enough to notice, we can often see – even in the midst of it all – the end result will be an increase in wisdom, strength, purpose, and character.

The Problem with Pain

Whatever the source, issue, or manner, all pain hurts. Please find solace in the fact that our brains are wired to escape or minimize pain. The fact you do not like it and go to lengths to avoid or end it does not make you weak or bad in any way. It simply means no one taught you to detect the difference or how to manage it when you do.

As mentioned, all pain hurts – and herein lies at least part of the problem. If all pain hurts, then how do you know which agony to run from and which to embrace?

For example, what about those particular circles of people who would have us believe because they are family, friend, religious leader, or other specific designation we actually have no rights? For them, there is no real concept of consideration. We are simply at their disposal, and we are meant to take what they dole out with a smile. Here, we are encouraged to accept destructive pain.

Then, there is the fact that we live in a society that extols the virtues of security, ease, and haste. Here, we are coaxed toward rejecting constructive pain. Think about it. If you have to push past your comfort zone, struggle with an issue, or wait for an outcome, your well-programmed brain will send you signals that something is wrong. Recall some of the commercials and shows you watch, the billboards and advertising you pass, and the rants that fill social media. How on earth can you think any other way if you leave your brain in charge.

More evidence for why I proclaim my mantra: You are not your brain!

Learn the Difference

Hopefully, you are beginning to see that, though some pain needs to be steered clear of, some may need to be endured, and maybe even sought out and embraced. I think on some level, we all know this – but the problem is, life moves so fast that we rarely stop to check out the fullness of our circumstances. “React first, analyze later,” seems to be the way to go – except that it is not.

If you want to grow and build a life of abundance, then you will need to learn the difference between the two pains. There are no cut-and-dried, one-size-fits-all for this. You must use thoughtfulness and wisdom. However, there are a few rather ubiquitous markers that we are heading toward danger or health. Here are some ABCs to help you begin the task of differentiation.

Destructive Pain


In my work as a trauma therapist, I have interacted with more people than I care to count who have learned the art of justifying abuse. Often, it comes down to a history of maltreatment during formative years that left them not really understanding what abuse is.

Merriam-Webster defines abuse as, “improper or excessive use or treatment.” Abuse can be physical, emotional, mental, sexual, and spiritual. I believe respect and dignity are solid markers of how to treat a human properly. Disagreements are fine. Abuse is not. At all times, you deserve respect and dignity in every area of life.

How about the excessive bit? Contrary to the belief of some, you were not put on this planet to be run into the ground. You are allowed to have your own priorities and contexts. You are allowed to say no. In fact, if that right is taken away, you no longer have a relationship and the words for what is happening is slavery or coercion. When in doubt, return to the first half of the definition – respect and dignity. If someone wants to persuade you into their way of thinking, there is no problem with that, as long as they maintain thoughtfulness about how and allow you your no when you need it.

Boundary Crossing

This is another area where we consort with the enemy, joining them in the belief we do not have a right to say no.

Boundaries are necessary for a healthy relationship to thrive. We must allowed to say no and to ask for what we want. We will not always have our wishes granted, but the right to ask must remain. At times, we can bow to the message from loved ones that implies our relationship means we have no real rights. At other times, we can wear our martyrdom as a badge of honor. “Look how much I will do for you – to the absolute death of anything called ‘me’.”

Boundaries define us and prevent exhaustion and relationship killing resentment. If you are not allowed to set and enforce boundaries, the relationship needs work. Get help or get out, but do not be complacent with having your boundaries crossed.


It is healthy to consider the advice, concerns, and requests of others. It makes us good friends, family members, and team players. However, you do not have to give up the reigns in your own life to anyone. If someone in your life is attempting to control you, consider it a neon-level warning that something is seriously wrong. Do not be fooled by supposed good intentions. At the same time, be aware that we can send deferential signals to others that we willingly give them power to run our life when we routinely refrain from drawing boundaries. If you have done this, own it and realize it likely came from that unspoken contract I eluded to earlier. Work to find or build the courage and support it will take to break free.

Constructive Pain


Being you – the real you – is hard in our culture. However, it is a worthy and necessary endeavor. If you do not know who you are or what you want, you may have to do some work to figure it out. If that is the case, then please do the work. Think about this: Your friend invites you to a movie you do not like, but you fear she will not like you if you say no. You go. You are miserable. Your friend picks up on that and asks you what’s up. You deny any issues, further distancing yourself from the truth of who you are. A seed of resentment is planted. After a while, it blooms full force, and you find yourself avoiding your friend. Some time passes and she confronts you. You finally admit what the problem was and she tells you picking a different movie would not have been such a big deal but now she is unsure what you say she can trust. A breach that is very difficult to repair is caused by such actions. Fight the lie that says you are somehow nice when you consistently give yourself up for others. Do the work it takes to be yourself.


Here’s this word again. In the earlier paragraph, the fact others can cross our boundaries was highlighted so as to persuade you not to settle for that. Here, the idea is to encourage you to do the hard work it takes to figure out and draw your boundaries with others. No one likes to hear no. It won’t be fun. However, those who truly love and care for you and who also have growth mindset will quickly figure out your no will not kill them. Here’s a twist – remember that most people you come across really are strong enough to hear your no. Treat them with the respect and dignity inherent to that belief.


People are frustrating sometimes. Most of the pain we try to avoid in being authentic or drawing boundaries comes from the response of people around us. We can get to the point that we no longer wish to try, and we succumb to giving ourselves up. Building community is challenging. That said, it is also a pain worth undergoing. If you maintain your unique self and keep your boundary lines, then the benefits and payoffs you will receive from community will be immense. We are not islands unto ourselves, but thanks to the comparison fallacies rife in our modern world, we often wish we were. Do not fall prey to the idea that you do not need others. Interdependence, not independence, is the highest level of maturity.

If you read this article and think that those around you will not support your engagement with constructive pain preferring you to stay subject to them in destructive pain, then you may need to find another tribe. Do not be afraid to reach out to professionals, clergy, mentors, teachers, or others as a start. Heck, find a really good TED talk, podcast, or memoir to spur you on to start if need be. Whatever it takes to help you manage growing pains is worth the effort.

Photo Provided by Isabel Thomas. For more information, contact, subject heading: Photo Inquiry.