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Feelings are a life-saving device

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I have two cousins who each has a partially paralysed adult daughter – the one broke her neck in a car accident and is quadriplegic the other suffered a stroke as a result of an aneurism and is hemiplegic.  With paralysis comes loss of sensation.  You don’t feel it when your bum goes numb from sitting in one position too long so you develop a bedsore.   You don’t feel that you’ve burnt yourself while you’re cooking up a storm with the other hand.  The experience of pain is a most powerful warning signal that you’re in danger. 

It’s not something that I dwell on much but recently, when my sister and I had a conversation about how to help one of these nieces in her travel plans to fulfil her dream of swimming with dolphins, I felt a surge of gratitude for my ability to feel discomfort and pain.  I don’t have to rely on someone to turn me every few hours to compensate for my inability to wriggle in my airplane seat when it becomes uncomfortable, as one small example.

It’s a short trip from contemplating physical pain to reflecting on psychic pain. What is the evolutionary purpose behind emotional pain?  If evolution has brought us to where we are now, with our anxieties, fears, anger, depression and drug addictions, what were the original benefits of such emotions?

Consider how readily you reach for a painkiller when you have a bit of a headache, a spell of arthritis or a sprained ankle.  You’ve experienced the pain and had enough of it. Your primary desire is to suppress it – if you can’t make it go away then at least you can numb yourself against it.  Perhaps there’s a deeper message in the pain though – could it be you had too much fine red wine last night and the headache is a message that you partially poisoned yourself and that you should avoid doing so in future?  Is arthritis in your fingers a signal that you’ve been eating too much red meat and it is time to cut back? After all, in evolutionary terms, how often did our hunter-gatherer fore-parents really get to eat meat?  As for the ankle –something inside there is injured and needs to rest to heal.

Our aversion to emotional pain is as strong.  We take anti-depressants and uppers; we indulge in extreme sports; we drink until we’re numb.  We want to “feel better.”  Many folk end up in therapy to discover their repressed emotions so that they can heal themselves.  In leadership training, as in coaching, we emphasize self-awareness and acknowledgement of the emotions that form part of a conversation.

I have a nagging doubt about the de rigueur emphasis on one’s personal strengths and seeing the positive/ the opportunity in everything. I fear that by saying so I’ll be swimming against the stream of current thinking in my culture. I keep envisaging the yin-yang symbol. If we spend too much of our time focusing on the strengths etc., are we blocking out healthy helpful messages about what’s threatening us? It seems as a society we are trying to swing the pendulum away from the pathological and the negative towards the positive.  We have this concept now that being positive is life giving.  It certainly is – I have a whole lot more fun in being positive.  However pain is life preserving.  We need both.  It is an ongoing struggle to find balance and I fear that the pendulum will swing so far that our clock will wobble. When my intuition or my heart or my brain signals emotional pain I listen.  I’m grateful for it.  I believe by facing up to the pain I find ways of getting through it, and return to happiness in a healthy authentic way.

Being in my flow or being happy is not about avoiding the problems, the pains, or the ‘yes buts’. It is about seeing them for what they are – life-preserving signals. No more, no less.

Update note:  June 25, 2014.  I recently worked with a colleague on a leadership project in East Africa, using Appreciative Inquiry techniques and the Marcus Buckingham research on strengths-based living.  I vividly experienced the power of reframing from the negative, looking back to mistakes and doing ‘problem-solving’, to exploring firstly, what is good and excellent, and then envisaging what can be improved. Obviously those problematic areas require improvement, but ‘improve’ feels better than ‘fix’. It doesn’t imply ‘broken’ or ‘wrong’; it implies learning, creativity, progress, and, well, improvement, towards excellence. And in the process the stuff that was wrong or broken does get fixed too.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Deborah February 21, 2014, 5:48 pm

    Negativity is a survival mechanism from our earliest times. We are effectively hard-wired for it. We are not hard-wired for the positive so we do have to be conscious of adding it in to the mix. But this is not to say that negativity has to be harmful to us. As you point out, we can learn from it. I agree, it is a question of balance and does come down to understanding and accepting the role our negative responses play in making us a whole human being. Thanks for putting the positive in the negative.

    • Delphine June 26, 2014, 11:55 am

      I think we need to distinguish between ‘negativity’ as a state of mind and an automatic frame for all we experience and what would have been needed for survival. Applying simple Darwinian logic: who would have been more likely to survive the adversity of the past 2.5 million years of evolution – those who believed in possibilities or those cowering in fear?

  • LynnSlyWrites February 22, 2014, 11:44 am

    Hear hear! We’re all about experiencing happiness and avoiding pain, but (as you say) we can learn from negative feedback too. My problem is that, lately, all the negativity about weather, war and what-have-you on the news media has tipped the scales. At some stage we need to “switch off” simply for self-preservation!

  • Ria Hodgson May 14, 2016, 4:43 pm

    This topic of pain seems to pop up all over the place! At a dinner party ythe other night some-one brought up the fact that it depends a lot upon your particular culture and upbringing too how pain is experienced. He quoted studies to back this up.

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