Hey, quick question: how do you know whether you’re in pain?

At first glance, it seems like an easy question to answer, but give it a second and see if you can think of a time where you were in significant discomfort, but if you were being really honest, you weren’t actually in any real physical or mental pain, despite your suffering. Like, nothing was actually wrong in the moment, but you sure felt like it was.

I myself am terrible at distinguishing the difference between discomfort and pain. I frequently find myself in a light existential crisis whenever I’m hurt, because as soon as I start to ask myself how bad it is, I can’t tell anymore. When an orthopaedic surgeon was setting my broken foot, and asked about my pain levels, all I could say was, “Well, it doesn’t feel good, but maybe it doesn’t hurt that badly, either?” Like he could tell me. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m either an 8 or a 2, at exactly the same time.

And I mean, not to brag or anything, but I’ve been in some decent pain in my life <>. It’s not like I don’t say “ow” when I stub my toe or experience an acute injury (e.g. break my foot/tear a hamstring/destroy an ankle: just some of the fun things I’ve done to myself over my lifetime). I have chronic Achilles tendonitis from a lifetime of dance training, which is all-consuming, excruciating agony: if you know, you know, and if not, then isn’t that nice for you. I’m a human, after all.

It’s more that often, even when I’ve done myself a significant injury and I’m really in the thick of it, I can’t distinguish between my discomfort and pain and my mental experience of my physical pain and discomfort. I’ll find myself trying to decide whether or not I actually need to take pain medication, because I can’t decide if I’m really hurting in that moment, or if I just don’t feel great, but then maybe I don’t feel bad and what IS pain, anyways?

Why I think this is pertinent, apart from wondering if I’m a total weirdo, is that I suspect that a lot of the time, we’re not avoiding things because they actually cause pain and suffering; we’re avoiding them because we anticipate that they may cause pain and suffering in the future, and that anticipation is way harder to be with than the actual pain itself.

Actual pain and anticipated pain are not the same thing, but they stop us either way.

In fact, I am pretty sure that while we can push through actual pain or discomfort, it’s the anticipation of suffering stops us dead in our tracks, more so than the actual pain itself. Often, we discover that the agony is not as bad as we’d feared, or even if it was as bad or worse than we feared, that it’s over pretty quickly.

I mean, I’m not saying that the fear of pain is always worse than actual pain, because that would be bullshit (hello, childbirth and passing kidney stones). Even in those extreme cases, however, while the real pain is probably as bad or worse than imagined, spending a lot of time anticipating the pain ahead of time isn’t going to help you alleviate your suffering, and instead may actually make the experience worse, because you’re suffering for even longer and let’s face it: fear isn’t free.

But the fear of experiencing pain can stop us from all kinds of things: getting up early to work out (or just getting up early or just working out), signing up for a race, going for that new job, quitting the safe, stable job you have to go after a dream, falling in love, having a family, worrying about the imagined critical reviews of a book you want to write (ahem)…

Sure, those things might cause you pain. I mean, they probably will, to some degree, when and if they come to pass. But what if the suffering was worthwhile, because it led to something beautiful and opened the door to an experience of life you want to have?

It’s worth distinguishing between real pain and suffering and the suffering that comes from anticipating pain and discomfort, because only one of them gets you any closer to what you want in life.

I’ve noticed that, for the most part, the actual real pain or discomfort of growth tends to be fairly acute, sharp and short-lived, whereas the fearful anticipation of pain and suffering in the made-up future can stretch on and on, into a chronic condition.

As Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

Hey, Mark? Stop yelling at me.

Perceived or anticipated pain and suffering will stop you just as effectively as real, experienced pain and discomfort. In fact, they’ll likely stop you more successfully, because the fear of pain will stop you from starting or trying, whereas real, experienced pain will compel you to take action to change it and end your suffering.

It’s kind of ironic: the fear of pain and suffering is ostensibly keeping you safe, but you’re stuck suffering all the same, and possibly more deeply and for longer than if you’d just rip the bandaid off.

The fear of pain doesn’t keep you from suffering, it prolongs it. It turns an acute experience into a chronic condition.

Where in your life are you suffering in the shadow of invented, future pain? And what might be on the other side of tearing the bandaid off?