The Wisdom of Pain

Written by
Michael Wells

The Wisdom of Pain

Meet Your Personal Yoda

Written by
Michael Wells

The Wisdom of Pain

Meet Your Personal Yoda

Written by
Michael Wells
SERIES

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QUESTION
"I have never been in a relationship, and now I feel lonely. What should I do?"

One of the greatest disappointments I have with modern society is that we absolutely suck at teaching people what it means to be human.

We fail badly as a society in teaching people why we have emotions, how to respond to them, why relationships are important to us, how to build healthy ones, and many other fundamental life skills.

Today I was asked the question above, and it's exactly like hundreds of questions I see every month.

All of them have this same underlying concern;

"I feel emotional pain, and I don't know how to make it stop. What should I do?"

The thing is, your brain isn't that complicated, and it's not that hard to find happiness.

So what are we doing wrong?

How We Often Respond to Pain

For our discussion, we're going to use today's question as an example, because we should all be able to relate. At some point, it's likely that all of us have felt lonely.

When we feel a pain emotion like loneliness, here's what usually happens.

Our emotional mind observes our situation, and responds with an emotion...

"I'm lonely"

Our rational mind sees that emotion, feels that pain, and its immediate reaction is to try to figure out what is hurting us...

“Hey! Who or what’s causing this terrible feeling?”

And it begins to search.

  • Is it because this girl or guy is ignoring me?
  • Is it because people are mean?
  • Is it because I was just rejected by that person?
  • Or because I just saw a cute couple in a happy relationship?

Notice that we look outside of ourselves first.

This response is normal and natural, because emotional pain and physical pain are very similar sensations.

When we feel physical pain, we think we've been injured, and something is injuring us. It's important for us to identify it quickly, so we can avoid it and prevent further harm.

Why We Get Confused

For physical pain, looking for the cause outside of you is part of our survival instinct, and it makes good sense. When you feel a physical sensation of pain, there is a good chance that there is something outside of you that is hurting you.

And at its deepest level, your brain immediately asks...

"Who is the enemy here?"

Your reaction of looking outside of yourself for the cause of that pain is part of our survival mechanism all the way back to reptiles.

But it's easy to get confused when it comes to emotions.

Emotional pain comes from within. There is nothing physically harming us- the pain sensation is generated by our own brain in response to our own perceptions and predictions.

  • Anger... I'm being threatened,
  • Jealousy... I might lose something I care about.
  • Envy... I want something someone else has.
  • Fear... I predict the possibility of harm or loss in my future.

And so on.

But Sometimes, There is No Enemy

But what happens when you can't identify the enemy?

As humans we have a tendency to overthink, and when we cannot identify "the enemy" outside of ourselves, sometimes the enemy becomes us.

  • Is it something I’ve done wrong?
  • Is it that I’m lacking or missing something?
  • What's wrong with me?
  • Do I suck, somehow?

Not so helpful is it?

And this is the fundamental problem of overthinking. When our rational mind to solve a problem that doesn't exist, it comes us with irrelevant answers that make zero sense.

The Missing Step

When your emotional brain generates a pain emotion, seeking to identify the cause of that pain can be useful.

But even more important is choosing how to react.

Every emotion you have serves an important purpose. Pain emotions are there to motivate you to take an action.

When you feel your hand burning, it hurts, and you are motivated to take your hand away from the fire.

When you feel lonely, it also hurts.

So what is it motivating you to do?

Loneliness is not a punishment for something you’ve done wrong. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It’s not caused by anyone around you. Loneliness is simply your brain’s way of encouraging you to form healthy relationships.

You’re a social creature, and you have 250 million years of mammalian evolution to thank for that.

Today, for some reason, we’ve developed the habit of treating emotions as the enemy. We ignore them, suppress them, medicate them… all we had to do was identify the underlying problem and fix it.

Your emotional brain is surprisingly simple that way.

So here’s the thing- any time you feel a pain emotion, it’s OK to spend a moment on the question “What’s causing this?” because you might discover or learn something useful.

But much more important is this question…

What do I need to change in my life that will make this pain go away?
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First published on 
. Last updated on 
July 13, 2021

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