Vale of Tears

Resisting Pain-prone Reactions



Resisting pain-prone reactions

Sorrow is a fruit.
God does not make it grow on limbs too weak to bear it.
Victor Hugo

Whilst we have all watched people bearing hardship bravely, I am, for obvious reasons, more concerned here to help people who are faring less well. Dr Cecily Saunders once asked a patient in great pain what it was he was looking for from those who were caring for him. “For someone to look as if they are trying to understand me!” he replied.2

Not all of us are blessed with healthy genes and strong constitutions, and many of us find it difficult to adjust to new realities when our body begins to weaken and fail. Some project their frustration outwards at this point, and put the blame for their misfortunes on someone or something else: the treatment they are receiving, the ineptness of their doctor, or any one of a thousand other scapegoats. If those who are standing alongside are not alert to this ploy, they risk missing the real point, which may actually lie in the difficulty they are having in coming to terms with their mortality.

Those who are excessively goal-oriented, or who are suffering from mental or chronic illness, often have great difficulty trusting that there is a way forward in the face of the pain and disorganisation that loss brings in its wake. Longing to be in control of their circumstances, they may resort to using their pain as a deflection mechanism, and to make others feel guilty that they are not doing enough to help them. It is important to realise that all such manipulative behaviour backfires sooner or later.

When people start to use their pain in such ways, even comparatively minor ailments quickly assume major proportions. This is hardly surprising, since most forms of psychological pain revolve around feelings of guilt. Again, those who are trying to come alongside people caught in this cycle will miss the real point if they direct their efforts only towards their superficial complaints.

Our litigation-conscious generation is becoming far too used to looking for someone to blame for any distress or difficulty that we go through. We will do better if we consciously choose to “bless and forgive” rather than proceed down this road.

Many newly-bereaved people likewise “blame” their partners for abandoning them. Deep down they wonder why they deserve to be treated like this. Superficially it may look as though such people are full of bitterness; it might be nearer the truth, however, to realise that they are simply “deflecting” something they are finding too painful to deal with.3

At the same time the Lord wants to remove the underlying humiliation we may be carrying around, either as the result of our own inadequacies, or from being unable to do anything about someone else’s. May the Lord lift any guilt we have allowed to settle on us, for shame and guilt risk shrinking our zeal and limiting our freedom. This is not quite as straightforward as it may sound, for some of us are more prone than others to hold on to these things. Let me explain.

Those of us who have “pain-prone personalities” often suffer from deep-seated feelings of worthlessness, which fuel the sense of shame and humiliation that I have alluded to. Strangely, we often enjoy better health when we find ourselves up against particularly difficult circumstances. The reason for this is that we feel we are reaping what we deserve, and set ourselves to cope accordingly with whatever comes our way.

Deep down, we view punishment and pain as the proper outcome for our chronically ingrained guilt. By contrast, when things are going better outwardly for us (or for others) we may find ourselves less able to rejoice than we should be. That is because other people’s success can make us feel no longer needed. The risk then is that people will tire of sharing “cheerful” things with us, because experience has shown that we are unable to enter into their joy.

Who is most likely to use pain in such ways as a form of comfort? It is surely those who have not been shown unconditional love, or who have been the victims of some kind of abuse. What are the tell-tale signs that it may be present in our lives? Not only inner anxiety but something as simple as the tendency to say, “Yes but” . . . every time someone proposes a path that would lead to a promising outcome. Because we consider ourselves unworthy of success, something deep inside baulks whenever we get within sight of achieving some worthwhile goal. Alternatively, we develop some untimely ailment, which causes us to miss out altogether.

If this pattern of using pain and grief rings bells in your experience, the following prayer is just for you. Ask the Lord to continue His work of sanctification in your soul – and refuse to let your pain-prone personality come up with human substitutes.

Reflect and Pray

Lord and Straightener of the heart,
I give You my many complexities.

Keep me from using pain as a substitute
for the authentic work of Your Spirit.

Free me from all distorted perspectives
that would knock my trust, or put others down.

Realign my heart with Yours
so that the fullness of Your love flows freely through me –
joy without measure
and comfort without manipulation,

In Jesus’ name, Amen.


2 Lishman, W. (1971) The Psychology of Pain, p.17 in From Fear to Faith, Studies of Suffering and Wholeness. SPCK. London.
3 This is a common depressive reaction.

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