Pain And The Power Of Naming

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There are countless variations in how your brain interprets physical pain, but how many words do you have to describe them? Next time you hurt yourself, try explaining to someone, like a doctor, exactly what it is you feel. You will find yourself struggling to find the right words to convey your experience. This is probably one of the reasons why doctors rely on pain charts where you give a rating of severity between 1-10, also a dubious proposition from a psychological point of view since we know pain is often psychosomatic and that two people who have the exact same injury often report wildly different numbers.

The point of this article is to compare the experience of emotional pain with that of physical pain and think about the therapeutic effects of naming what you are going through. In the physical realm most of us just don’t have a lot of words at our disposal. You might call your pain sharp or dull, throbbing, intense, etc. But these descriptions don’t come close to cataloging the full spectrum. Your lack of vocabulary doesn’t make your encounter with a specific type of pain any less real though. It just makes it nebulous, hard to pin down, and difficult to convey.

Actually in the Buddhist tradition there exists a certain resistance to naming an experience, because by intellectually defining it you remove yourself from it. As soon as you put words to something, that something has already slipped through your fingers, losing its true quality as it is filtered through an idea with its own set of subjective connections. No matter how tightly weaved your net is some of the entity under observation will sneak through. Imagine for example that a glass of water is your experience. Then you put that water through a filter. All the gunk that is left behind is what you imagine to be the real, what it is that you have caught and can see. But the purity of the experience has vanished and now exists outside of your grasp in the other cup.

We all know this intuitively; the best moments of life defy words or definitions. They exist outside of our intellectualizations. People say things like, ‘indescribable’ or ‘beyond words’ when they want to convey the power of these moments. Sometimes it’s better to leave them alone, keeping them pure. On the flip side though, if you have endured traumatic emotional pain you might want to see the gunk more clearly, taking away the nebulous quality by finding specific words for what it is you went through.

When we name an experience it loses some of its authenticity but it also loses its power over us. We can categorize it, see its features and textures, convey what happened to others and to ourselves in a coherent way. This puts us back in the driver’s seat by letting us create our own narrative of events instead of feeling driven by forces we don’t understand and can’t see. You can easily do this by separating yourself from your emotional pain and considering it to be a living, breathing person with its own timeline, personality traits, and characteristics. Figure out when it was born and how, who its family and friends are, what it does for fun, and what your personal relationship to it is. Give it a name, a color, a wardrobe, a job. Think about how it has developed and changed over time, when and if it is expected to die. The more you can get into this exercise the more the darkness of night will be replaced by the light of day, and the better positioned you will be to come up with an action plan to move past your pain.