Pain is not ‘character building’ it’s a warning system

Nobody likes pain. Well, unless you’re a masochist… Hopefully you’re not? If you are, please band your head against the computer screen for pleasure and stop reading…

Pain is interesting in the sense that it’s an incredibly subjective experience. No one else can feel your pain yet, we’re all completely unified in our motivation to avoid it. Normally,  we think of pain as a medical condition. Something that we experience as a symptom of injury. However, the word ‘pain’ comes from Latin – ‘Poena’ – meaning punishment or Ancient Greek – ‘Poine’ – a word that suggests penalty.

This kind of broadens the concept of pain and suggests that it’s not simply a symptomatic mechanism of physical injury. Not just something to be treated in fluorescent, tiled hospital hallways among the acrid smell of antiseptic that’s desperately trying to mask the foul stench of physical injury and decay… It’s more than this.

Why do we even feel pain? Why are we ‘punished’ and have to pay a ‘penalty’? Essentially, pain is a warning mechanism. It’s a neural and chemical alarm that tells you something is wrong. The fact that pain is horrendously unpleasant, motivates us to make a change. This change could be seeking medical attention, resting, getting a broken limb to a hospital etc.

What if we didn’t feel pain? Well, there is actually a congenital condition where people do not feel physical pain. Wow… Sounds great right? No, this condition is not a blessing but far the opposite. Studies show that the inability to feel pain in these people leads to severe self-inflicted injuries and can even lead to premature death.

Approximately one million people are thought to be born with a condition where they don't feel pain.

Approximately one million people are thought to be born with a condition where they don’t feel pain.

It seems we need pain as a warning system to tell us that something’s wrong. We need to feel the ruthless, unpleasant stab of crippling pain so that we can affect change. This may be a serious change that’s life or death, or it may be something simple that only requires a minor adjustment.

If someone treads on your foot, you wouldn’t just stand there and not do anything? No right?… You’d tell the person to get off your foot and move away. Our motivation to avoid pain is perhaps one of the greatest motivators of any living thing and usually doesn’t need too much conscious thought.


The one exception is the sporting arena. That’s where, to win, athletes need to push themselves through pain to get to the finish line. A triathlon athlete feels the pain in his arms, the burning in his legs and the hot sensation in his chest as his body gasps to get more oxygen. However, they don’t stop. They don’t give up. Instead, they train themselves to push through the pain… “No Pain No Gain” right?


But, what about mental pain? What about suffering that occurs in the mind? Anxiety, fear, and depression? If we apply the same  principle that – such suffering is an alarm system telling us that something’s wrong and we need to affect change – then we should listen to these signals and make the changes we need in order to stop the pain. However, society has a weird view when it comes to mental pain…

It seems that, whether you’re an athlete or not (which most of us aren’t), people expect you to ‘push through the pain’. We could be depressed, anxious, laying in bed each night distraught, however, just like if we were cycling up a giant hill to the glory of a finish line, we’re encouraged to ‘persevere’…. The only problem is that with matters of the mind, there’s often no reward for pushing through the pain.


Even subconsciously everyone in life sends us messages with the subtext of perseverance as they sprout delicate sentences in soft voices that start with the words ‘at least’… “At least you have a job”, “at least it’s only for a couple of years”… Or, even worse, some people take the “drink a cup of concrete and harden the fuck up approach” and tell us we’re weak as they belch clichés such as ‘nothing worth having is ever easy’ or ‘nothing good came without pain’…

Going back to my, someone treading on your foot analogy… To me, this approach is like not only allowing the person to continue standing on your foot but also grinning and bearing it in some weird masochistic way to ‘push through the pain’ for a reward that doesn’t actually exist.

I’ve written before about how naïve society is when it comes to mental illness and suffering. But… Simply, I think this attitude of ‘no pain no gain’ does not belong in the arena of mental health and it further stigmatizes any conditions of the mind.

People are very good at filling our mind with suggestive passiveness that influences us to stay in shitty situations when really we should take action to get out!

People are very good at filling our mind with suggestive passiveness that influences us to stay in shitty situations when really we should take action to get out!

In my opinion, it’s brave to embrace change, take a risk and change your path when something is giving you mental pain. What’s stupid is persevering and expecting some arbitrary reward! Sure, due to several different factors we can’t always just get up and change our lives immediately. It’s not that simple. However, we can at least recognise the warning signs and start to make alternate plans. It’s not ‘giving up’ it’s common sense.

The problem is that the majority of people don’t ever consider their own mortality. We don’t regularly think about how we’re going to die and about the impermanence of everything. This is probably partly programmed in us as, I’d imagine if we did consider death every day then life would be pretty morbid. However, the fact is we will die. You can take nothing with you. Life is far too short to persevere through pain unnecessarily. Not every situation is ‘character building’ or just part of ‘hard work’. We all persevere through bad days and if we’re doing something worthwhile that we love then, we probably persevere through bad weeks, even months.

What I’m talking about here is not the acceptable ups and downs of life. I’m not suggesting we throw in the towel because we feel a bit of pain. I’m talking to those people who suffer chronic pain. Chronic mental pain that’s driven by situations and circumstances that eat away at their soul. People who, despite the chronic pain and unhappiness, stay in their situation because they believe they have something to prove by not giving up something shitty and not exploring a better path in life.


Recognise the warning signs. Be an evolved human being who knows that signs of pain indicate that something is wrong and that change needs to occur. More often than not, the result of ‘pushing through’ mental pain is not a Gold Medal or a triathlon trophy that makes everything worthwhile… It’s regret. Regret of wasting so much time putting up with bullshit you never needed to.

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