You Cannot Subtract Pain – You Can Only Add Joy

August 22, 2011

This is a guest post written by Ann Becker-Schutte, one of my favorite new voices in the blogosphere. Enjoy! xo

I have mentioned before that I regularly appreciate the wisdom of the people I get to share my days with. Well, here’s a wonderful example of that. The title of this post was something that a client said to me during a recent session, “I tell myself all the time that I cannot subtract pain, I can only add joy.” Wow. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, I told her that I was going to use that sentiment for a post. It’s such a powerful statement, and it perfectly captures one of the central ideas that I work to help my clients understand and engage with. While I can’t give my client any direct author credit for the post (confidentiality trumps!), this is definitely dedicated to all of the courageous folks who give me the privilege of sharing their walk through the tough stuff.

You Cannot Subtract Pain

I touched on this idea in the post “Life is Pain, So then What.” Each of us have challenges and difficulties to face. People that we care about will move, or change, or die. Relationships that we believe in will go wrong. Jobs will come and go. Our health will be challenged, or compromised, or changed. Pain can be physical or emotional–and often it’s both. Pain can range from disappointment to heartbreak and covers all the ground between those two extremes.

Pain is an essential part of our lives. And once pain is present, it may be permanent. The pain of losing a parent or child or loved one never goes away entirely. It fades, it becomes more bearable, it gets woven into the fabric of our daily life. The pain of chronic illness, or of a body recovering from chemotherapy can become the background music in our moment to moment functioning.

All too often, I sit with clients who want nothing more than to have their pain disappear. They want the life that they had–or the life that they believed in–before the pain showed up. That’s not how it works. I believe strongly that all of us need the permission and the space to voice our pain, to feel our sadness, to experience the loss and frustration that pain brings. We even need the ability to rage against our pain, to wish that we weren’t feeling this bad. That is true. And it’s true that our pain doesn’t disappear. Time and support and good self-care can remove the sharp edges of pain. Pain can be wrapped in cushions of healing. But fundamentally it remains. When we allow ourselves to accept the reality of pain, then we can shift our focus.

But You Can Add Joy

Shifting focus is one my “go-to” tools in therapy (and in my life). Because so much of what happens is entirely out of our control, when we shift our focus to those things that are under our control, gaining traction gets a lot easier. So, when it comes to pain, I believe in both creating the space to express our pain and remembering that we have the power to shift our focus to self-care, self-healing, and creating joy.

I frequently remind my clients that our feelings will come and go–no matter what. None of us is going to choose to feel angry, sad, hurt, lonely, vulnerable, or scared. We don’t get to choose our feelings. We do get to choose how we respond to our feelings. And we can choose to engage in behaviors that bring us into contact with joy. We can:

  • use a gratitude journal
  • call a friend
  • get outside
  • play with a pet
  • cook a favorite recipe
  • go to a yoga class
  • play with small children
  • fly a kite
  • visit the zoo
  • ride a roller coaster
  • play our favorite song
  • volunteer
  • dance
  • watch a great comedy routine
  • read a powerful book
  • go treasure hunting (try letterboxing!)

The list of things that you can do to add joy to your life is limited only by your own creativity. And if you’re feeling like adding joy is too much work when you are in pain, ask for help. Reach out to someone who can help you create a joyful moment. Let yourself be held by a friend or loved one. Bring it to therapy. Take it to an internet support group.

What about you? What’s your favorite way of adding joy?

Ann Becker-Schutte is a psychologist in Kansas City, MO.  Her practice focus is on supporting people (patients, caregivers, and providers) whose lives are affected by serious illness.  2011 has been her first year to really experience and appreciate the connection tools that are available through social media.  To learn more about her thoughts, you can follow her on Twitter, or check out her blog.