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We may not like it, but pain can have a purpose

18 June 2024

There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
Carl Jung

Most of us try to avoid pain in our daily lives. instead we seek pleasure. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, and obviously it’s important to allow ourselves pleasurable experiences.

But if we’re thinking about psychological growth then uncomfortable or painful experiences play an essential role. By ‘pain’ I am referring to emotionally painful experiences, such as sadness, dissatisfaction, emptiness, loneliness or fear. It is these experiences that force us to go beyond our zone of comfort, to stretch ourselves and become ‘bigger’ people.

I don’t mean by this to minimise the experience of, or provide a glib response, to those people who suffer from chronic pain - whether that be physical or psychological. Such experiences can be overwhelming to the person concerned and there are no easy answers to such conditions. Nevertheless, there is probably something of value in taking a more curious attitude to such conditions than one of simply trying to get rid of the pain.

There is probably a universal tendency to try and avoid pain, whether physical or emotional, but this tendency has grown more powerful in recent times. Older cultures understood that pain and loss were inevitable parts of life and needed to be honoured. For example, the greater emphasis given to the ritual of grief and mourning by earlier generations were a way that they coped with the death of loved ones.

Lost rituals and customs

Today we have lost many of those rituals and customs and it can be harder for many people to process grief in a society where there is an implicit expectation to ‘move on’.

I would argue that it is the avoidance of pain that causes many of our problems. For example, addiction can be seen as the avoidance of pain. We become addicted to a substance or activity in order to avoid difficult feelings of some kind. Of course, what happens then is that the addiction itself begins to create even greater pain.

Psychologist Carl Jung said: “Be grateful for your difficulties and challenges, for they hold blessings….In fact, man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health, personal growth, individuation and self actualisation.”

For example, grief is a universal pain that we all experience at some point. In a previous blog I touched on the role that extreme grief played in the life of musician Nick Cave and how, in some form, it helped him develop as a person.

One of the hardest things is bearing pain - whether that be loneliness, grief, despair, rage, betrayal. We tend to try and escape these feelings by distracting ourselves with activity, such as work, social media, going to the gym, or by numbing ourselves with alcohol, drugs, shopping, or sex.

Sometimes distracting ourselves is understandable, including going ‘unconscious’ through drink or other substances. But at other times If we can practice experiencing the discomfort or pain we can come into a different relationship with ourselves and the world.


I’m thinking of loneliness, for example, Most of us feel lonely from time to time, and for some of us it can become a semi-constant companion at certain times of our lives. A ‘quick fix’ is to try and escape the loneliness by distraction - we throw ourselves into our work or other busyness, or we drift into some form of addiction that transports us away from the feeling temporarily, while leaving us feeling worse in the longer term.

Again, in my view there is nothing wrong with distraction in the face of difficult feelings as long as it does not become a habitual, unthinking response. It is important, sooner or later, to accept the feeling of loneliness, to not automatically try to escape it. By accepting it, allowing it, we can begin to feel it. We may then discover that, although it is not a comfortable emotion, if we don’t fight it then it becomes more manageable.

Acknowledging and allowing the loneliness can then prompt us to a deeper reflection on our life. Perhaps it may help us become more empathic towards others in a similar state or who have even greater emotional challenges. We may take up a volunteering opportunity helping others. Or we may explore other activities, such as walking in nature, that help soothe our inner pain. Or perhaps it prompts us to take greater risks in making connections with other people, developing courage in ourselves.

In these ways allowing ourselves to experience loneliness can enable us to grow psychologically.

Expectation to be happy

In his book The Other Side of Happiness psychologist Brock Bastian argues that the modern emphasis on ‘positive thinking’ has led many people to try and banish painful experiences from their life and create an expectation that we should be happy. But, ironically, this trend has occurred at the same time as use of anti depressants has soared and mental health problems are prevalent.

It is not about depriving ourselves of pleasure - having enjoyable experiences is important. But the problem is when we tell ourselves that is only through seeking pleasure that happiness can be achieved.

Bastian says that as well as seeking pleasure we need to allow and accept pain: “By ‘pain’….I mean the anxiety of a significant challenge and the loneliness of failure. I mean the sadness of a relationship break up or the fear of our own mortality. “

The other thing to remember is that pain is part of being human. The essayist William Hazlitt, quoted in the book Swamplands of the Soul by James Hollis, says: “Man (sic) is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.”

Psychotherapist James Hollis states that the goal of life is not happiness but meaning, because moments of happiness are fleeting and cannot be willed into existence. He draws a distinction between choosing to experience the inevitable suffering in life - such as grief, loss, loneliness, fear and melancholy - and neurosis. Neurosis is a kind of anxiety or stress that can take the form of negative or obsessive thoughts, but which can be a way of unconsciously avoiding deeper pain.

Hollis says: “Authentic suffering is a realistic response to the ragged edges of being. The purpose of therapy is not, then, to remove suffering but to move through it to an enlarged consciousness.”