Comparing Physical and Emotional Pain

Comparing Physical and Emotional Pain August 13, 2017

I had to learn to push my body enough to train, but not enough to injure myself. Now I see the same process happening emotionally.

A still shot from a dance performance about working through emotional pain, taken by P. Shypula Photography.
A still shot from a dance performance about working through emotional pain, taken by P. Shypula Photography.

I’ve been a soccer player, dancer, martial artist, and distance runner throughout my life. I’ve absorbed a lot of folk wisdom about how to handle pain, and I think some of that wisdom applies to emotions and relationships as well.

When it’s about our bodies, we learn to distinguish “good pain” from “bad pain,” as in, the kind that’ll leave you sore from the kind that’ll leave you injured. I’ve heard a lot of talk about dull/sore vs. sharp pain, though obviously that’s not a universal metric to diagnose injuries as more likely to be short-term vs. long-term. I’m still growing my knowledge of anatomy, but I have developed over time a sense of what works for my body, and a set of language to use with my dance students.

But we all push ourselves sometimes. I’m fortunate to have never broken a bone or seriously injured myself. Some of that is undoubtedly dumb luck, and some of it is due to knowing my body and knowing when to back off. By knowing which activities are more likely to push me to the point of inducing muscle soreness, and which might instead seriously strain a muscle or torque a joint, I’ve been able to build my fitness level relatively safely.

The fact that there might be an emotional parallel to this physical phenomenon has been floating around my head for a bit, but it’s quite nicely articulated in a blog post by Lola Phoenix, Thirteen things I wish I’d known before choosing non-monogamy,

Phoenix writes:

Pain is the body’s way of telling us something is wrong. And sometimes you have to experience emotional pain before you really understand that you have a boundary or you have a need that isn’t being met.

This is in the context of describing just how hard and terrifying communication can be, and how when you’re embarking on exploring an entirely new relationship style, it’s possible that you’re not getting your needs met simply because you didn’t know what they’d be in this context, let alone how to communicate about them.

I’m drawn to the idea that pain often happens for a reason, and if we’re pushing ourselves emotionally too hard/fast, we might encounter resistance in ourselves that deserves to be treated seriously, with compassion and respect. Just as the “just work through it!” advice for physical fitness might not fit every situation, so too the idea that one should “just deal with” emotional discomfort isn’t going to be ideal, and in fact may be abusive in some cases.

We don’t have good language for describing emotional pain. Not everyone is raised in an emotionally aware household, nor do American schools offer comprehensive fact-based sex education that includes information on relationships, emotions, and communication. One of my favorite sex educators, Emily Nagoski, has done some great work in this area, including blog posts on how to feel your feelings, how to talk about your feelings, and the rather-more-meta topic of emotion coaching (and its ugly opposite, emotion dismissing).

See also: Gaslighting


I believe that, like physical pain, emotional pain can alert us to when something is wrong, when we are pushing too hard, and when we should back off. But similar to physical pain, not all emotional pain is a sign that the situation is one that will leave us with a long-term injury. Perhaps we need to rest more before we challenge ourselves in significant ways. Maybe it’s that we’re in too tough an environment to be doing something strenuous right now. Or it could be that our workout buddy (a.k.a. relationship partner) is doing something that is legitimately harmful, and we need to GTFO.

Just as it can be difficult to understand the source and consequences of physical pain until we have more experience with our bodies and the activities in question, it can be tough to comprehend the source and scope of emotional pain when it’s new, and raw, and hurting. Everybody (literally, every body) is different, so other than generally aiming for self-awareness, I think we’ll all need different strategies to do so.

I’m curious if anyone has strategies that seem to run parallel for listening to your body and listening to your emotions. Mine tend to involve a lot of quiet time, rest, and reflection, which are already in short supply in my life.

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