Pain Companion: Rediscovering Yourself in Pain

By Sarah Anne Shockley, Columnist

Pain is so pervasive and so enmeshed with our daily experience that we can forget what life was like without it. We may lose a sense of who we were before pain entered the picture.

When I began to return from the most intense part of my own journey with pain, I realized that I was going to have to find a way to disentangle myself from it, to disengage my sense of who I was, my identity, from pain.

At the time, I couldn’t find a sensation of body-without-pain, even in my imagination, and I couldn’t envision a future without pain, though I desperately desired it. I had forgotten who I was without pain, and I wasn’t sure who I had become from the experience.

I certainly knew I had changed irrevocably, but I wasn’t quite sure in which direction all the changes lay.

Pain had become so embedded in my body, my daily routines, and my awareness, that this constant companion had become too familiar, like a terrorist and his hostage. Perhaps this is a familiar feeling for you.

The difficulty doesn’t lie in wanting to keep pain around like an old pal, far from it. It lies in the fact that pain has been with us for so long that we aren’t sure what will be left of us when it finally departs.

Will it take most of us with it? What does it mean about who we are if pain never leaves? Maybe we’re not even sure we have an identity beyond the pain anymore.

This merging of the sense of self-identity with the self-in-pain is really important to recognize.

I found that, in order to find myself again and to re-engage with the inner me (as opposed to seeing myself only as the-one-in-pain), I had to disengage my self-image and feelings of self-worth from my experience of pain and my body’s limitations.

I worried that my injury, my pain, and my being in need of assistance had turned me into a weak and needy person. I had to realize that just because my body felt weak, didn’t mean I was weak as a person. Just because my body was in pain, didn’t mean I was being a pain. Because my pain created new needs which I had to learn to communicate, didn’t mean I had turned into a needy person.

Many of us who have been in pain for a long time have been living in reaction to pain. We have allowed pain to become the organizing principle in our lives. s the only real power in life. We might shift all our choice making onto pain’s shoulders. After all, it seems to rule everything.

This seems like the only choice there is, but there is a subtle but important shift that seems to be necessary during the healing process, and that is to move the responsibility, power, and decision-making back onto our own shoulders. This is part of dis-identifying with pain and disentangling ourselves from it.

While pain is certainly the reason we can’t do many things, we need to be careful not to allow ourselves to think that it is the director of our lives. We can make the small but vital shift in our perception of who we are in pain, as we begin to find a way out of living utterly beholden to pain and connected to it on an identity level.

As far as I can tell, this process has the potential of gradually unfolding something like these five steps:

1. Pain Arrives: We resist, we do all the “right” things, including therapies and medications. Pain doesn’t leave, so we try harder to get rid of it, adding alternative therapies, prayer, more willpower, more and different medications, etc.

2. Pain Stays: It still won’t leave. It may even get worse. The longer we live with pain, the more difficult it becomes to see ourselves beyond or through it.

3. We Learn to Work with Pain: We come to a place of honoring pain’s presence and its unusual gifts. We stop fighting against pain and begin to work with it and through it, regaining a sense of self that is not utterly beholden to pain as dictator and director. We recognize pain as something that is trying to heal itself in and through us.

4. We Realize Pain is One Aspect of our Lives, Not the Totality: Pain represents a very demanding part of our experience, but it is not who we are. It is a landscape we are walking through. Our inner selves are still intact. We learn to work with pain differently, seeing both it and ourselves from a different perspective.

5. Pain Begins to Relax, reduce, and dissolve.

Ultimately, whether pain completely leaves, or it stays for some time longer, we can let go of identifying with the pain as us, and ask ourselves who we want to become from and through the incredibly challenging experience of living with pain.

When we reconnect with our inner selves beyond the pain, we can find renewal. We can accept all of our experience with pain as part of a greater path, putting ourselves at the center (rather than pain), and live with more ease, grace, well-being, and inner peace.

Sarah Anne Shockley suffers from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a painful condition that affects the nerves and arteries in the upper chest. Sarah is the author of The Pain Companion: Everyday Wisdom for Living With and Moving Beyond Chronic Pain.

 Sarah also writes for her blog, The Pain Companion.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.