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By Sarah Blackmore

How to Cope with Pain Using Acceptance and Willingness

How to face painful life experiences without avoidance and resistance.

How to Cope with Pain Using Acceptance and Willingness

What would it be like to face our painful life experiences with acceptance and willingness instead of avoidance and resistance?

This might not be a question you have asked yourself or even considered. And that makes sense because it is intuitive to want to run from or push back against our painful life experiences because they are PAINFUL! Emotional pain, like physical pain, is uncomfortable and overwhelming and for the most part, we would rather go through life without encountering and having to cope with this pain.

As human beings, we will inevitably experience emotional pain. At some point in our lives we will encounter:
  • Stress
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Failure
  • Rejection
  • Loss of loved ones
  • Low mood
  • Unfulfilled goals
  • Disappointment
  • We will make mistakes and experience guilt and shame
  • And on... and on... and on...

When these painful experiences come up for us, we often respond by resisting and struggling against them. At the outset, this makes sense because this emotional and psychological pain is uncomfortable and hurtful.

However, let’s consider the flip side of these painful life experiences for a moment.
Reflect on how you respond to joyful, exciting, fulfilling, and pleasant life events. Do you avoid and resist your experiences of being happy?

Chances are probably not.

Again, this makes sense because being happy feels good. For the most part, we tend to accept and willingly experience joyful sensations and moments.

Through socialization we have learned that being happy is good and being unhappy is bad.
This idea, along with the uncomfortable feelings that come along with emotional and psychological pain, motivate us to avoid and resist our pain. In order to avoid our experience of emotional pain we might engage in certain behaviours or thought patterns.

In our best efforts to cope and resist pain, we might use behavioural avoidance strategies like:
  • Use substances
  • Isolate ourselves from friends and family
  • Restrict our diet or overeat
  • Engage in self-harm

Cognitively we might avoid pain by:
  • Experiencing negative and judgemental thoughts about ourselves
  • Blaming ourselves
  • Ruminating about our mistakes or painful experiences
  • Projecting ourselves into thinking about the future

When we avoid and resist our emotionally painful experiences through the above mentioned behavioural and cognitive strategies we grow our pain into suffering.

In the short term, these avoidance and resistance strategies provide relief. For example, if attending a social engagement is something that initiates an onset of overwhelming anxiety, then an avoidance strategy would be to cancel those plans and not attend. Immediately following this decision, we might feel a strong sense of relief and resulting dissipation of our anxiety. In this case, we have successfully avoided a painful life experience.

However, what are the long term results of this avoidance strategy? Most likely we will use this avoidance strategy again because the short-term relief following our decision to cancel will serve as positive reinforcement. Over time though, this avoidance strategy may start to negatively impact our lives by straining our relationships, contributing to isolation, and impeding our ability to do things that are really important to us.

Let’s reconsider the initial question again:

What would it be like to face our painful life experiences with acceptance and willingness instead of avoidance and resistance?
Instead of growing our pain into suffering by adding unhelpful behaviours and thinking patterns, what if we were to make space for and support ourselves through the inevitable painful life experiences that will come our way?

The alternative to avoidance and resistance is acceptance and willingness.
Let’s unpack these terms a bit.

Acceptance does not mean that we welcome our pain with open arms and believe we deserve our pain; acceptance refers to making space for what is real – in this case our pain.

Through acceptance we acknowledge our painful experience without trying to push it away or repress it.
Willingness goes along with acceptance. Just as we are willing to experience joy and happiness, we can practice being willing to experience our emotional and psychological pain.

Approaching our pain with acceptance and willingness would relieve us of all the energy and effort we put in to avoidance and resistance strategies. Instead of working hard to try to escape and fight against our pain, we can put this effort towards helping ourselves cope with our pain through practicing self-compassion, connecting with others, and engaging in self-care.

Kelly Wilson, one of the founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, has written about how emotional and psychological pain is inevitable for human beings but suffering may be avoidable. Suffering is what happens when we add to our pain through behaviours and thinking patterns that in the short term might feel good and relieving, but in the long term may lead to further problems (e.g. isolation, addiction, weight loss/gain etc.) that add to our pain.
The alternative to this human suffering is an approach of acceptance and willingness towards our pain supplemented with helpful coping strategies.

So the next time a painful life experience shows up for you, see if you can remind yourself of an alternative to short-term relief and long-term suffering:

The practice of acceptance and willingness.

Blog Post by Sarah Blackmore, MA, RCC. Book a counselling appointment with Sarah here.

(Photo by Rio Hodges)