Personal Growth Through Pain Learning

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Using Pain as our Ally

“When you welcome your emotions as teachers, every emotion brings good news, even the ones that are painful.” ~ Gary Zukav & Linda Francis from The Heart Of The Soul

Pain is a powerful motivator in our lives. The effects on our behavior is easily seen and felt as we tend to gravitate away from events and situations that will cause us pain – emotional or physical. In fact, it isn’t pain that controls our behavior, rather, it is the perceived and anticipated pain that guides us. Even the energy expelled towards pleasure seeking behaviors doesn’t outweigh the energy directed towards pain avoidance.

We all experience pain in our lives, and it is how we choose to deal with the pain that makes all the difference. Do we choose to permit the suffering to continue? Do we secretly enjoy the pain because of the unique status it brings us – being the victim? Or do we open our eyes, look pain in the face and say ‘there is something I can learn from you!’

Unless you’re a masochist, I assume you don’t enjoy pain, and you do what you can to avoid it. I hope today can bring a new perspective on the value of pain and bring light to new methods of how to respond when pain comes a-knockin’ – and it most assuredly will.

Your response to pain and your pain associations will shine through within your behaviors, habits, and overall life success.

The Joys and Agony of Pain Learning

When we are young, we have the similar mental outlook as any clueless puppy with floppy ears would have. We do not learn or take instruction through rational means, we simply react to what feels good and pleasing, and what does not. Fortunately for us, we tend to learn a lot faster than puppies and quickly note which behaviors promote a desired response.

During early development, our repeated behaviors are primarily governed by the avoidance of pain and the seeking of pleasure. This is a basic concept that most living things in existence follow. As we get wiser (and sneakier), usually around the age of 2, we start debating if the pleasure or reward is worth the pain that follows, or vice versa, but in all its simplicity, this is how we initially learn.

These mental battles usually morph over time: is the cookie worth a spanking? Is lying to my parents worth the risk of punishment? Is going out partying worth being tired at work? Is the money from this job worth the suffering? And of course – is the difficulties and sacrifices of child rearing worth the joys of parenthood?

Pain, distress, uncertainty, stress, jealousy, hate… these types of emotions are typically viewed by sane individuals as something to be avoided at all costs. And ironically, it is our needs and desires to avoid these emotions that help guide our behaviors, actions, and thoughts.

When we make mistakes, say the wrong thing, or even whack our thumb with a hammer we have to deal with the consequences of the pain and distress – and what happens after? We Learn!

Pain is the quickest path to learning and programming our future behaviors and beliefs – let’s discuss why this can be a good thing AND a bad thing.

The Benefits of Pain Learning

“Pain by itself is merely pain, but the experience of pain coupled with an understanding that the pain serves a worthy purpose is suffering. Suffering can be endured because there is a reason for it that is worth the effort. What is more worthy of your pain than the evolution of your soul?” ~ Gary Zukav – from “The Seat Of The Soul

With pain, comes an increased urgency to learn how it can be avoided in the future. This is why we try to learn from our mistakes and the difficult situations we face… because we plan on having them again!

If you say an inappropriate joke and the group finds it distasteful, you have feelings of anxiety and nervousness – unfortunately, hiding under a blanket no longer gives us an escape from experiencing these emotions, trust me – I’ve tried. We quickly learn that these types of jokes are not welcome here.

Same applies in relationships. If you do something to anger your partner, you may feel the pain in your back from having slept on the couch as well as the emotional pain from having plenty of time to think about it! I’m sure the dog appreciated the extra bed space.

Some our biggest life lessons are commonly learned through pain and pain avoidance. Sometimes it takes the death of a friend or loved one to truly understand the value of life and to start living the life you want. This is unfortunate, but pain can be a big eye-opener.

Let’s look at a few benefits from pain learning:

  • Rapid learning – The brain wakes up and pays attention! It quickly adapts to the new parameters and forms new beliefs around them. Our rational brain may be quick to forget the reasoning behind some of our held beliefs, but our emotional brain will not forget to remind us when the time comes. Ever feel fear or anxiety and don’t know why?
  • Learning Awareness – Pain is usually an obvious sign that something can be learned. When you experience pain, do you gripe about it? This may make us feel a little better since we feel we’ve validated the suffering, but it leaves us no better off than moments before and usually attracts more. Pain is a call to action! Discover the source, learn from it and grow!
  • What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger – The more we handle today, the more we can handle tomorrow. When you have a truly painful experience, you gain a new perspective over other pains. Emotionally, you no longer sweat the small things. Physically, you no longer fret about a bee sting. Etc.
  • Self-Understanding – By discovering what we fear and why, we learn a lot about ourselves.  Do I fear public speaking? Why?  Do I fear heights? Why?  Do I fear being loved or loving someone else?  Why? The biggest challenge is to start asking yourself these questions.
  • Positive & Rapid Behavior Modification – Sounds like a sales pitch, but we’ll discuss what I mean a little further down.

How has pain benefited you in the past to inspire change?

Problems that Can Arise from Pain Learning

One primary negative consequence of pain learning is that we usually form our beliefs and associations towards pain subconsciously, and we allow them to guide our behavior.   Sometimes our attributions of pain can be misplaced by a bad teacher or parent, a bad coach, an admired peer, or a hero.

If you were discouraged every time you raised your hand in class, your inquisitive nature is shoved behind closed doors.  If you were taught that failure isn’t an option, than your drive to attempt new aspirations is subdued by fear.

Pain associations are not always justified, and we need to discover if these associations are benefiting us, or hurting us.

The Woes of Pain Learning and Pain Associations

  • Improper Programming – Perhaps you had a bad first experience that occurred from external influences.  You build up a negative association to avoid that experience again, when it may have been situational.  Ask a girl on a date and get turned down?  Fear is a result, but this doesn’t mean the next one won’t say yes.  (There are billions of fish in the sea right?)
  • External Programming – Negative criticism can help us if we discover how it can benefit us and don’t allow the initial sting to beat us down.  Sometimes when we receive negative feedback, we choose to give up on the endeavor because we feel we aren’t cut out for it.  We are also programmed by the reactions we get from people we respect, and we need to be wary of what we are internalizing.
  • Fear – Fear is a built-in response to pain.  Fear is also the biggest barrier to breach and causes people to live in stagnation from fear of change, failure, shame – anything!
  • Procrastination – Ever procrastinate on an assignment?  We wait until the last minute to start, why is this?  In short, it is less painful avoiding the assignment than actually doing it.  BUT, as the deadline approaches, the pain of NOT doing it overcomes the pain of doing it and we kick our butt into gear.

Will-power is our ability to use the strength of our rational mind to make a positive change.  Usually, this is not enough and we fall back to our old ways quickly.  We have the ability to associate pain and pleasure in areas of our life which have an emotional impact that affect our behaviors and habits.  If you can master this next technique, then you can make quick and lasting changes to your habits.

Using Pain to Change a Behavior or Habit

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” ~ Joseph Campbell

Are you a person that hates exercising because it’s not fun, painful, or boring?  Does the pain of exercising outweigh the benefits of a healthy body and mind? As time passes, the repercussions of NOT exercising – joint pain, fatigue, foggy thinking, etc. – overcomes the pain of exercising.

As you start associating exercise as having a healthy body and ridding yourself of these bodily pains, you start creating doubt towards the previously held belief that exercise is more pleasant being avoided. Upon seeing positive results you start associating pleasure instead of pain. ‘Exercise nuts’ are able to sculpt their bodies and push themselves to the limits because they associate pleasure with the physical strain they give their bodies because they know what it means… growth! Healthy body, healthy mind, increased energy and motivation!

As we’ve discussed in the Belief Series, our associations to pain and pleasure, our behaviors, and our habits are products created by our belief system.  A belief is not a passing thought and is deeply internalized, and has a direct connection to our emotions that drives us to action. Our emotions have a much stronger capacity for affecting our actions than rational thought alone.

Let’s look at a simplified version of how we can change a behavior or habit by changing our associations to pain:

  1. Recognize the disempowering belief that is holding us back from our potential.
  2. Create doubt in the disempowering belief and associate pain with the soon-to-be old belief.  Ask yourself, what is ludicrous about this belief and why do I have it?  How is this belief negatively affecting my well-being and happiness? Start debunking your belief by discovering reasons that prove its inconsistencies.  Create a foundation for converting this belief to an empowering one.
  3. Change the belief to be empowering by associating pleasure with the new belief and the behaviors it promotes. I don’t like exercising because I don’t like to sweat and it hurts to run. –> Exercising keeps me healthy and strong and I love how I feel! I have so much energy, and love pushing myself to my limits!
  4. Add emotional intensity to the new belief and strengthening the belief into a conviction which drives you to action.  What behaviors does this belief encourage?  Start today and turn it into a habit by repeating this behavior regularly. Need some encouragement?  Find a healthy reward to give yourself every time you complete the behavior.
  5. Review. Have I made progress?  Am I happier, healthier, or more productive because of this change?  Review your progress and validate your benefits!

Here is a short version with an easy acronym to help you remember! HABIT!

  1. Hit on a Disempowering Belief.
  2. Associate Pain to the Old Belief.
  3. Bind Pleasure to the New Belief.
  4. Intensify New Belief.
  5. Test and Review!

Yes, I actually spent a few minutes trying to create a silly acronym, even if I had to take some creative liberties to make it work!  Hope it helps Winking smile Try it out!

How has pain shaped your mental outlook on life? What associations to pain and pleasure are helping you, and what aren’t? Think of two disempowering beliefs and start changing them today!

This post was written by

Greg has written 69 articles on Student of Me.

Greg is the creator and primary writer for Student of Me. He probably spends way too much time on the computer writing, researching, programming, and working on his photography. He loves escaping from screen-time to travel, ride his motorcycle, experience the outdoors and spend time with loved ones. You can contact him at greg (at)!

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