Last month’s email about trigger warnings was an unexpected hit. I can’t remember the last time I got such an overwhelmingly positive response from people about a subject.
But I also got a lot of questions about pain, trauma, challenge, and struggle. Most of these questions were some variation of, “Is there such a thing as being exposed to too much pain?” or “Are there situations where pain and struggle aren’t helpful but only hurtful?” or “What about trauma? Clearly trauma is a thing.”
These are all great questions. And for this month’s newsletter, I’m going to knock them all out with a deep dive into the psychology of pain, trauma, healing, and building resilience. In the words of the great Tom Brady: let’s fucking go.
Table of Contents
“This Amount of Pain Is Just Right”
Everyone remembers the children’s story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You know, this porridge is too hot, this one is too cold, this one is just right.
Well, pain kinda works in the same way. Too much pain will lead to trauma and helplessness. Too little pain will lead to entitlement and selfishness.
But just the right amount of pain and struggle: that’s what allows us to feel a sense of accomplishment and meaning in our lives, which then builds up our sense of autonomy and self-worth—the bedrock of a mentally healthy and happy person.
So, how do you define the Goldilocks Zone of Pain? How do you know how much pain is “just right?”
Generally, research finds that when we’re challenged or struggle in ways that we believe we’re capable of overcoming, those struggles eventually invigorate us and lead to a sense of meaning and accomplishment.
But when confronted with struggles and challenges that we feel powerless to overcome, that’s when we get demoralized, and in extreme cases, experience trauma.
Pumping Psychological Iron
When it comes to understanding the value of mental and emotional struggle, perhaps the best analogy to understand it is physical exercise:
- If you never move your body or strain your muscles, you will become soft and weak and fragile. You’re more prone to injury. You have less physical power to keep yourself safe and healthy. In the same way, if you never mentally or emotionally challenge yourself, you will also become weak and fragile. You’ll be more easily upset and emotionally triggered by the world around you. You’ll have less psychological strength to keep yourself safe and healthy.
- If you try to do way too much exercise—or move way too much weight—you will injure yourself. This injury will lead to chronic pain that is outside of your control and will prevent you from having any agency with that part of your body. Similarly, if you experience psychological struggles that overwhelm you, you’ll be traumatized—and you will experience chronic psychological pain and feel debilitated in that area (or in many areas) of your life.
- The way to grow physically stronger is to progressively challenge your body to do slightly more difficult movements, lifts, and exercises than before. As you do this, your body adapts, becoming more resilient, more flexible, and more durable. This gives you more agency in the world and more ability to protect yourself and others. Similarly, the way to grow psychologically stronger is to progressively challenge yourself to confront experiences that are both challenging but also within your perceived ability to manage. As you do this, you will gain psychological strength and resilience, allowing you to have more agency in the world and remain healthy and resilient to whatever life throws at you.
Throughout history, people erred on the side of subjecting each other to more pain. This is because most of human history fucking blew. War, famine, plagues, slavery, tyranny were the norms of the human condition, not the exception. So people were hard on their kids, hard on each other, and had little sympathy.
This changed about a hundred years ago with the rise of Freud and widespread acceptance of psychology. These days, you could argue that in some ways, we are probably too soft. And the reason I think this happens is a confusion between sympathy and compassion.
Sympathy vs Compassion
I believe the problem today can be summed up simply: people mistake sympathy for compassion.
Sympathy is feeling bad for someone and wishing they didn’t feel so bad.
Sympathy is noble on the surface (“people should suffer less!”) but can often end up being subtly self-serving (“people should suffer less because I don’t want to feel bad for them anymore.”)
Compassion is similar to sympathy but different in an important way.
Like sympathy, compassion begins with feeling bad for someone. But instead of simply wanting the person’s suffering to go away, compassion involves someone who is willing to suffer alongside that person so that they may overcome their challenges.
Sympathy is sending flowers and a card to a friend when a parent dies. Compassion is driving to their house and holding them as they cry.
Sympathy is letting a screaming child have that toy they want so they’ll stop screaming. Compassion is letting them cry because you know they will be better off once they understand that they can’t always get what they want.
Sympathy is changing your profile picture on social media for whatever the new cause du jour is. Compassion is actually giving time or money to victims, listening to their stories, helping them rebuild their lives.
Sympathy is a good thing. We need it in the world. But it’s also easy. It’s short-term and short-sighted. It’s an, “Aw, I feel bad for him.” Sympathy is focused on the feeling rather than the person. “I hope they feel better.”
Compassion is about the person. “I don’t just hope they feel better, I hope they become better.” Therefore, compassion is more involved. It takes more effort—both mental and emotional.
Sympathy is trying to remove as much strain and struggle as possible. Compassion is trying to help a person move through a manageable amount of struggle so they can grow into a better person.
I believe that as a culture we’re over-optimized for sympathy and under-optimized for compassion. This is probably largely social media’s fault, but not entirely.
Sympathy is easy to communicate online. It’s also easy to see sympathy communicated between others. Compassion is like sarcasm, it is not communicated well online. It’s also harder to recognize between others.
We’re probably also over-optimized for sympathy because it’s easier to measure and study. It’s relatively easy to measure how good/bad a person feels. It’s incredibly difficult to measure whether someone has grown or not.
Physiotherapy for the Mind
To keep our exercise metaphor going, when we injure our body, how do we heal and become better?
With a combination of medicine and physiotherapy, body parts are eventually able to heal, regain function, and eventually become stronger. But it’s a long, painful process.
When confronting trauma, much like physiotherapy, you have to introduce tiny amounts of challenge extremely gradually. If you broke your back, you wouldn’t get up and run a marathon.
The goal is to first get up and take a step. Then two steps. Then walk down the hall. The marathon is likely not an option without years of consistent effort.
The problem is that psychological trauma is much more difficult to diagnose than a physical injury.
It’s difficult to tell the depth and scope of one’s emotional pain. It doesn’t help that the definition of trauma has pretty much expanded to include anyone who is emotionally triggered by anything, no matter how mundane or irrelevant. Therefore, it’s often difficult to know exactly what is just enough challenge for that person to heal and what is too much. This is why self-awareness is so important.
And this doesn’t even get into managing the emotional side of growth—i.e., how to better handle our emotions after we’ve been triggered and become incredibly hurt and upset.
If you’re interested in more on these subjects, you can check out Chapter 7 of my book Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope for an even deeper understanding of pain and struggle and how it operates in the mind.