I met once with a woman who was desperate to fix her daughter. Her daughter had been in and out of drug rehab clinics and her mother was perplexed with her negativity. She said to me, “Sometimes I think the problem with my daughter is that she’s attached to her pain”. Another time, I was at a seminar and I walked in on a speech that another speaker was giving. The topic of that speech was why chronic pain patients sabotage their treatments and act like they don’t want to get better because they like their pain. This concept that people like pain, and that because they like it, they are attached to their pain, is an especially pervasive one in the psychology, self-help and spiritual communities. And it is a concept that is doing a great deal of damage. This narrative needs to be changed immediately.
Let’s get something out of the way very quickly… People do not like their pain. End of story. And when we talk about attachment, there is the implication that a person has some dark affection or fondness for their pain and that this penchant for pain keeps a person fastened or connected to pain. This is just wrong.
When it seems like someone won’t let go of something that you judge as painful, such as a behavior or a strategy or a belief or whatever it is, it is because that person believes that regarding whatever situation they are in, they will be in MORE pain without it. And they might be wrong about that, or they might in fact be right about that. Therefore, the thing you judge as painful is something that they perceive to be decreasing their pain and bringing relief. So that you can understand what I mean, here are a few examples:
- Margery suffers from chronic pain. Her doctor is perplexed because Margery makes appointments and complains about how much pain she is in, but never follows through with any of the treatments or suggestions that her doctor gives to her. Her doctor is starting to think that Margery wants to stay sick. Margery is in very real pain. But what is causing her health to break down is complete isolation. She believes that no one cares about her and that no one benefits by being in her company. This creates so much distress that she is truly becoming more and more ill. Because of this, she must subconsciously try to find backdoor ways to be cared about. The only time that anyone ever cared about her as a child, was when she was sick. She does not want to be in pain and she does not want to be sick. But being in physical pain and being sick, if it means that she gets to have some company at her doctor visits and she gets cared for and paid attention to, is less pain than the alternative. Staying sick actually decreases her emotional pain. If she were to follow through on treatments and to get better, she perceives that she would once again be totally isolated.
- Justine is 15 years old. She routinely engages in self harm. Cutting and burning are the most typical forms of self-harm that she engages in. Her parents are absolutely perplexed about how someone could want to do things like that to themselves. They seek out counseling for Justine to figure out what is so wrong with their daughter that she likes and is addicted to pain. But the problem isn’t that Justine likes pain. The problem is that in the household that Justine lives in, Justine is deeply unhappy. She feels like no one sees her, no one understands her needs and therefore, she will never have her needs met. She is alone even when her family members are in the room. She is not important and therefore, she has no reason to live. But on top of this, there is no tolerance in the household for negative thoughts or emotion. No matter what she may be acting like, her parents have a solid truth that they are good parents and that Justine has a good life. They have already decided that she should be happy and that if she isn’t, something is wrong with her. This means that no matter what strategy Justine uses to try to get her parents to change something so that she feels better, they are both unresponsive. The idea that they want to maintain about themselves and about their life is more real and important to them than seeing the reality of their daughter is. Because of this, self-injury is not Justine’s way of being in pain. It is her way of desperately trying to decrease her pain. Because her parents are so unresponsive to anything she does or says, self-injury is a way of escalating her message of desperation so they might just get that she needs something to change immediately. When she cuts, she feels relief because there is an alignment between how wounded she really is on the inside and what is happening on the outside. Her experience is therefore no longer a gaslight. And when she bleeds, she feels like the poison of the negative emotions that her parents won’t tolerate her expressing, finally has an outlet to get out of her being. And the list goes on and on. Justine doesn’t want to be in pain. She doesn’t like it. And when people say she is attached to her pain, she’s right back to that torment of not being seen or understood. The pain of being in emotional hell and alone, because her parents have already decided that the truth is that she isn’t in hell, she’s fine. What the pain of self-injury does, is it serves to decrease her pain and it serves as an attempt to try to self-preserve in an environment that is both dysfunctional and destructive.
- Mitch is driving the people that know him crazy. People hate spending time around Mitch. They describe him as “negative”. He is cynical and pessimistic and he is always focused on what is wrong and what is bad. Mitch never misses the opportunity to make people who are feeling happy aware about the negative reality of that thing that they are currently happy about. Mitch doesn’t actually enjoy seeing the world in a totally negative light. He hates the way he feels towards people and towards life. The problem is that several times over the course of Mitch’s life, he experienced catastrophic blows to his belief in others, his hopes, his dreams, his goals, his trust, his faith, his desires, and his positive expectations. These blindsiding and crushing experiences were so psychologically and emotionally traumatizing that Mitch decided that a state of positivity is inherently vulnerable and is an invitation for pain that he can’t handle. Subconsciously, he decided that had to buffer himself against and protect others from positivity at all costs. Mitch began to use negativity as this buffer against pain.
What any example of a person maintaining a painful behavior or a painful strategy or a painful belief will show you is that you can’t say that they like pain and you can’t say that they are attached to their pain. What you can say is that they are using a painful strategy to attempt to reduce or avoid worse pain. To understand more about this, I want you to watch my video titled: There Is No Such Thing as Self Sabotage. And if we don’t get this through our heads very quickly, we will simply ADD to their pain and make it worse. We will simply prove that we ourselves “don’t get it”, which means we are part of the problem and which means we are leaving them alone in pain. We will start to corrode their self-concept by making them feel like something is wrong with them because of some idiotic idea that they should be able to just decide to feel good. We will continue to make them feel condemned and forsaken to suffer by implying that we think they derive pleasure from something that actually is so painful for them that they would choose pain to get out of worse pain. And we will not do the right things in order to help them to find the right way to get out of pain all together.
No one likes being in pain and no one is attached to their pain in the way that most people mean it when they use the word ‘attached’. We need to stop propagating this idea and therefore, because of their connotation, we need to stop using these words. I ask you to join me in this understanding.