Pain is a Super-Power (If You Master It)

Pain Creates Empathy With Others’ Suffering

Painful personal experiences often bring people into the fields of nonprofit work, activism, and volunteerism.  This is because our own pain causes us to empathize with others’ suffering.

For many activists, their pain became their purpose.  We see this when the parent of a gun violence victim becomes an anti-gun advocate.

Even in less dramatic cases, there is often a personal connection between our cause and our personal history.  (What is that connection for you?)

In this way, our pain is our power.  It directs use to make the world a better place.

It Also Causes Self-Sabotage

Yet personal pain is a double-edged sword.

Untreated and unanalyzed, pain can lead us to sabotage our own lofty aims.  For every great social movement, there is are stories of schism, personal conflict, fragmentation.  Individuals were unable to deal with disagreement and hurt feelings, and the movement suffered as a result.

Destructive pain also pops up in more mundane ways:

  • A nonprofit executive director who mistrusts and micro-manages her staff;
  • An advocate who ignores his own needs for rest and burns out;
  • An activist so consumed by anger that she is unable to negotiate with an opponent, even when that negotiation would help her cause.

In all of these examples, a lack of awareness of our own past pain, triggers, and trauma causes us to be act in a way that does not serving our larger goals.  It’s also not serving the people we want to help.

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask Before Assisting Others

We enter the helping field because we seek to heal our own pain by healing others.  But we can only heal others if we heal ourselves first.

Here are some practical tips for focusing on your own healing, so you can also heal others.

  1. Be Aware of Strong Emotional Reactions:  You feel personally rejected when a colleague doesn’t ask you to speak at a rally.  You feel angry when a potential ally doesn’t respond to a request for help.  You feel despondent because less supporters came to your event than your were expecting.  These are examples of emotional responses that are disproportionate to actual stimuli.  In these cases, you have likely been triggered.  An event in the present has elicited a reaction from the past.   By understanding that your strong emotion is not actually a response to your colleague or ally or supporter, but rather is a result of your own past pain, you can make a wiser and calmer decision about your response.
  2. Train Your Mind:  Meditation is a practice that helps people be calmer and more aware.  It need not take much time and you don’t need to be a perfect meditator to begin.  You can even use the Headspace app to meditate at home.  On the app, each guided session is ten minutes long.
  3. Talk to a Therapist:  Sometimes it helps to have a collaborator in understanding our past pain.  Therapists and counselors can serve this role.
  4. Be Curious About Yourself:  Earlier in this post, I asked why the connection was between your cause and your personal history.  If that connection is not clear to you, think about it.  Recollect how you got involved.  Think about how the cause is present in your own life.  You can share those connections in the comments section below.

The World Needs Irrational Empathy

Empathy with suffering is not fun, but it is absolutely crucial to human survival.  It is these irrationally empathetic people who care “too much” and take it upon themselves to change the world.

Try to see the burden of your pain as a gift.  To the rest of humanity, it is.

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image: Flickr/TimOve