Three Gifts from Pain
I need to start with a truth that can be hard to hear:
Pain is inevitable.
We cannot avoid pain, and in fact, the harder we try to run from pain, the less equipped we will be to handle it when it arrives.
Pain is something we talk a lot about in the area of personal growth and development because there’s no way to avoid things we don’t even know are coming. But pain isn’t always about a big tragedy.
Having an argument with your spouse can be painful.
A moment where you’re ashamed of an interaction you had with your kid is painful.
Making a mistake at work can be painful.
Pain can come from major life experiences, minor disruptions and complex feelings. Regardless of how big or tiny it may be, the way we interact with pain matters. This is one reason it’s so important to build our mental strength. It’s not about trying to avoid pain, we’re learning to manage it better by changing our relationship with it.
I actually believe that painful moments can bring us life-changing gifts, if we can stay open to receiving them.
Before I unpack these gifts with you, here’s something to keep in mind. If you’re going through something painful and all you can see are the negative emotions, let it be a signal to you. Maybe you’re not ready to see the gift yet. And that’s okay, my friend. No judgment. Please don’t beat yourself up. Just be aware that you're not open at the moment, accept it, and try to stay open to finding the gift in the future when you’re in a place to accept it.
If you are open to seeing painful moments as a gift, though, keep reading...
Gift #1: Healing
Healing happens when you notice that a painful moment has awakened something in you that’s tied to a past hurt or wound; instead of allowing that wound to grow deeper or become infected, you focus on the opportunity to heal that hurt.
Imagine you find yourself in an argument with your partner about something small like what to have for dinner. You wanted to figure it out collaboratively but they told you they didn’t care, that you could make the decision on your own.
You feel frustrated and angry, and suddenly an inner narrative starts spinning out. Why don’t they care? Why are they blowing you off like this? Why are they putting the responsibility all on you?
Everything they say makes you feel defensive. In fact, you’re not even listening to what they’re saying anymore; you’re just arguing for the sake of arguing. At a certain point, you don’t even want to argue anymore, but you almost feel like you can’t stop yourself.
You take a step back from the anger and frustration that’s leading your reaction, and you notice that what you’re really feeling deep down in your soul is both frustration and sadness. You find yourself thinking, Why? Why was I feeling so defensive in that moment?
As you open room to process and to understand what was happening, you realize that you felt your partner was dismissing your thoughts and your feelings. It made you feel abandoned, like you weren’t important enough to be heard, like you didn’t deserve your partner’s time and attention.
This realization takes you back to some childhood trauma. The message you learned as a child was that when someone is not on the same page as you, they’re against you. They may ignore your feelings. They may dismiss your presence. They may leave you.
The more space you create within, the more clearly you can see that your partner wasn’t trying to dismiss you. They just truly didn’t have an opinion for dinner. They trusted that you’d make a great decision. They felt comfortable releasing control over this detail because they love you.
What you found was an old hurt that needs to be healed. When you pushed through your hurt feelings, you noticed some hard emotions and some unhealthy responses that you’ve been carrying with you for a long time. That pain had nothing to do with the argument you were having; it stemmed from your perception of what had happened.
Because you were open to seeing the gift of healing in that painful moment, you found an opportunity to heal. You stepped back from your own self-righteous feelings and tried to see things from your partner’s perspective. You took time to identify what assumptions and hurts you were bringing to this new situation. And hopefully, in future arguments, you’ll be able to come to the conversation from a place of composure, gentleness, and understanding.
The goal in all relationships is to treat one another with love and respect. If you want to truly embody that kind of healthy relationship, some painful moments with your partner might be an opportunity for you to heal other hurts that have been living inside you.
Gift #2: Growth
Healing is directly tied to a wound from our past, but growth doesn’t have to be – it can simply be about becoming better. As we stumble through life, those painful moments when we “fall short” are gifts if we see them as opportunities to learn to respond in different, more productive ways.
Let me give you a personal example for this one.
There was a week when Caleb just seemed to be making messes everywhere. It felt like something was in the air because every time I turned around, there was some new mess to be cleaned up—donut crumbs all over the kitchen floor from a dropped box, water all over the counter from washing dishes, little piles of laundry in every corner. Each one was a small thing, but they started to compound and my frustration started to build.
The first time I found a mess, I huffed a little as I called him into the room to point it out to him.
The second time, I mumbled something cranky under my breath.
The third time, I said, “Dude, if pay attention to what you’re doing, you won’t make all these messes.”
And then as he was pouring himself a bowl of applesauce, he spilled some on the counter. This time, before I could say anything, I saw him tense up, and I heard him just lay into himself: “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this! I did it again!”
It broke my mama heart to hear him talk to himself that way. And the worst part, I immediately heard my own voice coming through him—I could feel the energy I’d passed on to him when he’d made those earlier messes. Now I was seeing him embody that energy through his self-talk.
It was crushing. Cru-shing!!
I took a step back and reflected on what was coming up for me in that moment, I realized I was ashamed, and I was feeling the pain of that shame. In fact, I really started to beat up on myself: You did this, Karen. It's your fault that he’s feeling this way. It’s your fault he’s beating himself up over a little spilled applesauce.
And then I caught myself—talking down on myself wasn’t any more productive than snapping at him. I immediately said to myself, Nope, I’m not going to let him talk down to himself like that, but I need to give myself a little grace here too. I started this, but I can also try to make it right. What can I do differently? What can I learn from this?
I could see that my impatience had rubbed off on him. So I reflected on that painful feeling of shame, and then I promised myself that going forward, every time he made a mistake, I would always start with “It’s okay...”
I’ll be honest, this is a lesson I’m learning over time. But the next time he made a mistake, I paused, and without missing a beat, I said, “It’s okay, honey! Go ahead and clean it up. But it’s okay.”
Because I was open to noticing that pain and finding the gift of growth, I actively work every day to make sure my son doesn’t feel bad for making a mess.
Because guess what? We all spill. We all drop things. We’re all messy sometimes. We all fall short of how perfectly we want things done.
As a mom, what I can do is reinforce to my son through patience, love, and gentleness that it’s okay to make messes and to make mistakes. And the kind words I say to him, I can offer to myself as well. When I show him patience and grace, it’s also a chance to change my own narrative and remind myself that as a mom, I’ll make mistakes.
And it’s okay, as long as I look for the opportunity to grow.
Gift #3: Inspired Action
The gift of inspired action allows you to transform your pain into a higher good that serves others. Your pain creates a purpose that motivates you to bring more good into the world.
The example that immediately comes to mind is Prince Harry.
The pain of losing a parent at a young age is unfathomable. And Harry would be the first to admit that for years he used the wrong tools to try to cope with that pain. When he really dove deep into his healing journey, he recognized that even his royalty couldn’t protect him from having to face the realities of grief—and the long-term implications of not dealing with it for years.
Harry showed us that your status doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or what luxuries in life are at your disposal. If you do not heal from grief, it will overtake your life in the worst possible ways. Trying to avoid his heartbreak was only causing more hurt, so he learned that he had to stop trying to suppress his pain.
But once he had this epiphany, his life’s work started to unfold. Today he is helping so many people by honoring the grief that comes with losing your mother at such a young age. He is leveraging his platform to teach other people healthy tools so that they don’t have to turn to all the unhealthy ones he did for so long.
He even stepped away from an institution that would have prevented him from being completely raw and honest about his journey, which is what has allowed him to inspire and teach others as the fullest version of himself. In fact, I read an article where Serena Williams said that Harry is one of her coaches; he’s the person she turns to when she needs help sorting through her own pain.
You don’t have to be a celebrity to use your pain to become a light in the world. If you go through a painful experience, you can share what you’ve learned with the people around you. Harry has a platform that allows him to reach millions, but it’s just as meaningful that he has a dear friend who has learned from his example. It’s just as meaningful that he will use that pain to parent his children differently from how he was parented.
Those personal inspired actions are just as world-changing as the big celebrity causes. You don’t have to take your show on the road to inspire others. You don’t have to save the whole world to embrace the gift of inspired action. You just have to serve your corner of the world.
Focusing on the gifts that pain can bring will help you move forward through the hard times. Those gifts will give meaning to your pain, and when you can see the impact of those gifts, you will remember that even though you cannot avoid pain, you can survive it, heal through it, grow with it and continue to thrive.