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Pain is Subjective

Caucasian woman looking distressed, seated, with ropes around her body
What hurts one person may not feel like as big a deal


What hurts you might not hurt me. That is because pain is subjective. Just as some people can break a toe and run a 10K a year later, someone else might be incapacitated for a long time. Similarly, one person might lose a pet and feel a bit sad but move along, while others can mourn the loss for years.

For those who have received complaints from their loved ones about how slowly they are recovering from trauma, I offer you a new perspective. To some extent, we are similar as human beings in the way we perceive pain and experience it. However, you may have heard of people who survived a disaster and came out stronger and more resilient as a result. This has been researched and called post traumatic growth.

Are those people somehow superior to others who suffer years of posttraumatic stress? What is the difference between those who survive and thrive, and those who get stuck in the past?

Your perceptions influence your pain

One answer to this very complex question is how you perceive what happened to you. If you think that it means you are powerless, weak, helpless, shameful or otherwise deficient, it will be a lot harder to bounce back and resolve what happened to you.

Mindful self-compassion can help you see that everyone suffers, and that your suffering is valid. You deserve to be treated with kindness and care when you’re suffering. Denying or pushing through the suffering doesn’t help you. Having patience while doing proactive things to help yourself heal does help you. Learning to be self-compassionate does not make the suffering or pain go away, but it can help ease the pain because you feel that someone (you) cares and is there for you.

Surround yourself with people who also know that pain is subjective

Of course, having understanding people around who are stable, healthy and helpful also helps you bounce back. People who blame you for what happened or deny its impact on you are not helpful. They are most likely dismissive of anyone’s pain or vulnerability. They are not helpful in your healing journey. If they tell you that what happened to you was your fault, it only adds to your pain. You can ask them to stop doing that, and hopefully they’ll listen and cut it out. But if they don’t, you might need to take a break from being around them.

If they criticize you for being weak for expressing your vulnerability, it’s possible that they’re uncomfortable with vulnerability (including their own). They don’t know how to be compassionate to others. It’s important to remember this when they’re being hurtful, and to set reasonable limits so that you don’t keep getting further victimized by their unkind words.

Each person’s pain and recovery are different

Some people cannot see beyond their own experience. If you’ve ever had discomfort or pain that other people (including doctors) don’t have, you know how frustrating and invalidating it can be. Especially if the doctor finds no medical reason that they could test for and concludes that the pain is “all in your head.” Sometimes, grief and trauma can be this way too.

There’s a trajectory for how long most people get over the loss of a loved one, and it’s supposed to be about six months to a year. However, there are plenty of people who still feel very sad and hurt by their loved one’s death years later. Yes, they’re able to function normally and make a living, etc. However, they don’t fit the mold of what the scientific bell curve says they should experience. Those people might feel bad about themselves if they’re told “you’re not grieving correctly because you still hurt.”

The majority of people who experience a traumatic event do not go on to develop PTSD; according to studies, about 8-11% of the population develop PTSD. Does that mean that everyone who underwent a trauma is just fine? Even if you didn’t develop full PTSD, you might have symptoms of it or develop another mental health concern like depression or anxiety.

Some of this is culturally determined. In Western societies where independence is highly valued, you are expected to soldier on with your life despite trauma or loss. You’re given a circumscribed time to mourn and after that, it’s back to work or school for you. In other societies, you might be expected to mourn for years after the death or given more grace to recover from the traumatic event.

What might be traumatic to one person could not be traumatic to another. Everyone has varying degrees of sensitivity to life’s hardships. While each of us has a responsibility to take care of old wounds that make us hypersensitive, we should not expect ourselves as to be uniform in our ability to heal from disturbing events.

I encourage you to be compassionate with yourself when you encounter something that makes you hurt. Rather than beat yourself up about not getting over it soon enough for other people’s sake, see what reframing the situation and self-compassion can do to ease the pain and eventually resolve it. If you need help with that, please call me at 661-233-6771.

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