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The Myth of Pain Avoidance

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

As every therapist will tell you, healing involves discomfort - but so does refusing to heal. And, over time, refusing to heal is always more painful. - Resmaa Menakem

The past week I learned that the word "apocalypse", that we often connote with the end of the world, actually is derived from the greek word apokálypsis which means to uncover, disclose or reveal.

I found that really interesting because these interesting times we are in are most definitely times when things that were under the surface are being laid bare for all to see - racial and income inequality, police brutality, systemic racism to name a few.

In "developed" Western cultures (especially the US) we have this myth, I believe, that we can avoid pain. Feeling pain? Take a pill. Feeling emotional pain? Pick up your phone and distract yourself. Assuming, consciously or unconsciously, because the pain went away (temporarily) that it is gone for good.

I believe that a large reason that we avoid pain is because there is so much momentum in our culture to do so. Our muscles of facing pain have atrophied culturally and individually.

And we have stories that we tell ourselves about what would happen if we did. That we wouldn't be able to cope, we'd fall apart, etc.

I think it's time we discover new (or even old) stories in regards to moving from avoiding pain to facing pain. And then begin to practice them.

Resmaa Menakem (pictured and quoted above) uses two helpful terms in his book My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, clean pain and dirty pain. I'm quoting him at length here, because he says explains it very clearly.

"Clean pain is pain that mends and can build your capacity for growth. It's the pain you experience when you know, exactly what you need to say or do; when you really, really don't want to say or do it; and when you do it anyway. It's also the pain you experience when you have no idea what to do; when you're scared or worried about what might happen; and when you step forward into the unknown anyway with honesty and vulnerability."

"Experiencing clean pain enable us to engage our integrity and tap into our body's inherent resilience and coherence, in a way that dirty pain does not. Paradoxically, only by walking into our pain or dicomfort - experiencing it, moving through it, and metabolizing it - can we grow. It's how the human body works. ... The body can then settle; more room for growth is created in its nervous system; and the self becomes freer and more capable, because it now has access to energy, that was previously protected, bound, and constricted."

"Dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, blame, and denial. When people respond from their most wounded parts, become cruel or violent, or physically or emotionally run away, they experience dirty pain. They also create more of it for themselves and others."

"A key factor in the perpetuation of white-body supremacy is many people's refusal to experience clean pain around the myth of race. Instead, usually out of fear, they choose the dirty pain of silence and avoidance and, invariably, prolong the pain."

Here's another Greek word - kairos. It's a word relating to time. Not clock time, but more like "now is the time". It's an opportune time for.... That kind of time.

I believe that the strange gift of this strange time we are in as that it has provided us a kairos moment to learn to move from avoidance to facing, to move from dirty pain to clean pain.

As a leader, how can you create a culture that moves from avoiding to facing; from dirty pain to clean pain? I believe intentionality is key. And, as you know, it starts with you.

Since we can't avoid pain, let's choose the one that takes us on the path of healing.

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See my blog post from July for more about Resmaa Menakem

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