Thursday, July 25, 2013

When Pain is Good

It's such a basic idea that I sometimes wonder why so many of us have such a hard time with it, and why, as societies and cultures, we struggle with it so: the notion that Pain is often extremely useful.

How many levels and manifestations are there of this basic notion? They are infinite I think:

- The Pain of being Full can alert us to stop eating - even when the food is really, really good. (This has been key in my own life, as I used to regularly eat to the point of pain when the food was really, really good. Thus the struggles I've had with weight)

- The Pain of labor unrest can lead to better working conditions in an industry.

- The Discomfort of the rock in my shoe will make me stop and take it out, before it ruptures my skin, leading to an open sore, infection....

- The Pain of having my butt spanked by my Dad kept me from commiting a lot of willful acts that might otherwise have been too tempting to pass up. (Yes, I know that's a controversial one. Many parents manage to set firm, instructive limits without inflicting physical pain. Instead, they use measured psychological discomforts - like disapproval, taking away privileges, etc. The parents that scare me are the ones afraid of subjecting their kids to any form of negative pressure at all, leading the child into the infinitely more Painful condition of having no limits, no internal controls, and no reasonable sense of how the World works)

- There is the Pain of physical exercise, that makes the body stronger.

- There is the Pain of self-sacrifice and self-awareness, that makes the Spirit stronger.

- There is the Pain of Laws and their enforcement, that allow societies to function.

- There's the Pain of the flame, which teaches us not to play with fire. (There's an unforgettable lead character in the fantasy series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson. Covenant is a leper, and lacks tactile sensations. He runs the constant risk of severe injury or death, because he cannot feel when he is burning or being cut, or experiencing any other physical harm that his other senses don't pick up.)

And there are obviously so, so many more.

Which is on my mind because there's been a reshuffling at work which has removed me from the auspices of the most Pain-Inducing Boss I've had in my five years at my current job. The other bosses I've had have all been very supportive, able to give direction, and quick to acknowledge good work and to offer encouragement. But only my most recent boss has been willing to offer direct and specific and consistent critiques, and specific direction for correction. She is, by far, the most micro-involved of the supervisors I've reported to. I don't embrace all of her controls, and her style generates a degree of grumbling among the staff. But her supervision has made me stronger in precisely the areas in which I'm weakest, while she's left me to employ my strengths totally at my own discretion. Which, it seems to me, is exactly what good supervision ought to accomplish.

There's an aspect of professionalism that inclines us not to welcome close supervision and critique. We like to think ourselves beyond the need for such support. Which is great when supervision is not necessary or beneficial. But when it is needed, it can be so hard to apply when the defenses of professionalism are in place. And I've worked within programs and agencies where there was such resistance to serious self-examination and critique that stagnation was the rule.

This is all kind of ironic because the recognition and acknowledgement of Pain, as a natural consequence of life and the choices we make, is such a fundamental part of Social Work, that I can hardly imagine doing without it. So Here's to Useful, Growth-Inducing, Healthful and Enlivening Pain. May we all Survive it and Thrive!


  1. Kirby - Thank you for this excellent post. My current boss offers no, absolutely no, supervision whatsoever. It's actually horribly demotivating. A lesson in how not to lead. I think what you say about pain makes a lot of sense. It would be good if more people realized it.

  2. Wow Inspiring, Just what I need....Great motivation Kirby

  3. I studied the book, The Challenge of Pain, at McGill, by Professor Melzack in his
    first year Psychology class...He was also working with amputees at a clinic in Montreal...The most important thing I learned about pain is that sometimes it is regrowth...A growing pain...Physically it is important to know about regrowth or growing pain, so that you don't medicate it with painkillers...Painkillers will actually impede that regrowth or growth...So many teenagers go through growing pains by medicating with marijuana(a painkiller)...If they learned that growing pains are painful but that it was good pain, they might be better able to cope with those feelings...Adults too...We have become a nation of weaklings, medicating at the slightest twinge of pain...Unfortunately, painkillers cause memory loss, which we see now in our current generation of elders who popped aspirins daily to protect their heart, but now have Alzheimer's disease...

  4. Thanks for the Great Comments!

    I so hear you, Nelson. I've had bosses who are afraid to give feedback, others who don't have the skills, and yet others who are either too lazy or lack motivation. They too can hide behind professionalism, with comments like, "You're a professional. Why do you need ME to tell you what to do?", and disowning their own responsibility to offer fresh perspective.

    Sari, what you add is so key and applies in so many ways! Yes, how often do we cut short healthy growth out of our aversion to Pain? As you say, it's become part of the culture. I see what you cite in my youth work every day.

    And UnitX, what I appreciate hearing MOST OF ALL is that something I write here is helping someone to get on with Life. So I'm very glad for that acknowledgement!

  5. Kirby...Can you turn on Comments settings or something so that when you or someone else answers a comment, we all get sent an email? I'm not sure how to do that, but it helps to keep conversations going, & also to know when someone replied? (Right now I am just checking in once in a while to see if there are any replies)...(because mainly I LOVE reading what you have to say!!!)(You are so nice!)...