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Why We Run From Pain and How to Overcome It By Leaning In

Why We Run From Pain and How to Overcome It By Leaning In

When you were little, what was the first thing your mom or dad did when you got hurt?

They checked to see how you got hurt and if you were okay, right? What about after that?

If you were crying hysterically, or clearly shaken up, the likelihood is they then distracted you by asking if you wanted some candy, ice cream, your favorite snack, a sticker, or anything else they thought would draw your attention away from the pain. I know my mom did this when I was younger.

This is the beginning of a bad pattern, one which the outside world only continues to encourage as we get older.


Face your life, its pain, its pleasure, leave no path untaken.

– Neil Gaiman

So, what am I talking about exactly? It’s this very destructive pattern of behavior:

Avoiding the problem and distracting yourself with things that give you short-term pleasure.

There are two problems with this:

  1. You’re avoiding the problem. And until you learn to face it, you’ll just continue to suffer (and suffer more).
  2. The things which you’re using to distract yourself are often just temporary pleasures and not great for your well-being, if not outright bad.

When you were a teenager, what did you do if you experienced social pressure or conflicted with family at home? Most teens today close themselves up and use the Internet, video games, drugs, alcohol, or partying to distract themselves from the pain.

And when we get older? This tendency just gets worse. Maybe we grow up and get out of our angsty teen phase (and maybe we don’t), but we still distract ourselves by surfing online, watching TV, drinking, having sex, and a million other things depending on what we're challenged with and how we’ve learned to deal with it.

Most of us were never taught how to effectively handle our problems, and this has a more significant effect on us as we grow older.

If you notice this destructive tendency in yourself, what are we supposed to do instead? Sure, maybe it’s clear that we need to stop drowning ourselves in TV or whatever else we use to distract ourselves. But that’s what not to do. That’s only so helpful.

So, what positive action are we supposed to take?

Lean in.

That’s right. You need to turn around, face the problem, and walk towards it.

I know that for most people, even the thought of it is terrifying. We’ve run from our problems for so long that we’ve grown the issue in our mind into this giant, 10-foot tall beast. And we’ve never been very good at facing our problems, so why would we be able to handle them now?

But no matter how difficult it seems, it’s the one and only answer that will allow you to overcome the challenge for good, or at least learn how to live with it more skillfully. And until you do this, you’re never going to truly find peace.

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How to lean in: Part I

Now, I understand, “lean in” sounds like a nice bumper-sticker. But it’s not all that effective at explaining what we’re actually supposed to do.

So then, what does leaning in actually look like? And what does it involve?

Leaning in is about clarity and honesty, so first and foremost it involves you working on:

  1. Ceasing to make excuses for your behavior, and...
  2. Stopping the constant cycle of distractions.

When you begin to work on these two points, you’ll likely feel more pain and discomfort than usual. But over time you’ll begin to experience a liberating feeling of peace.

You’ll still experience pain, but you’ll begin to develop the ability to handle it without it tackling you to the ground and tapping you out. The relationship you’ll have with the pain will be significantly different and much healthier moving forward. You’ll now be in control as opposed to the other way around.

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How to lean in: Part II

It’s at this point that it becomes very important to do something else: develop self-compassion.

The process of leaning in is a lot like you’re cracking this shell you’ve covered yourself up with and are now exposing yourself for everyone to see. The reality is, for the most part, everyone is too busy with their own problems and doesn’t really care. But when you walk down the street you can’t help but feel more vulnerable and “visible”.

This process of opening up can lead you to criticize and beat yourself up, so developing self-compassion is an important effort.

How do you do this? Begin by practicing this simple meditation, which is a variation of loving-kindness meditation that’s easy to practice anywhere:

  1. Stop somewhere or take a seat.
  2. Ground yourself by becoming aware of your in-breath and out-breath. Just do your best to stay aware of it for a few seconds. Nothing crazy here.
  3. Place an image of yourself in your mind. Make this image as crisp and as clear as possible.
  4. Lastly, imagine sending feelings of caring and compassion to yourself. If you find this hard to do, the mantra “Be well. Be happy.” is effective.

To make this even more effective, you can take time after step four to imagine a loved one. This is best done with a loved one you also have a great level of respect for (a parent, teacher, or mentor). Let the feelings of caring you have for them grow in your mind and then imagine transferring those feelings to yourself. By doing this, you can begin to cultivate the self-compassion and self-love needed for traversing the difficult path through your challenges.

The path is difficult no matter what. But by leaning in with the spirit of openness and honesty and cultivating compassion and love for yourself, you’ll be able to traverse the path and realize greater peace and joy in daily life as a result.

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