7 Upsides to Painful Experiences (and One Powerful Queen song)

“No pain, no gain,” they say.  While I don’t subscribe the idea to be applicable all the time, I do believe that we can find the silver lining, the upside to each and every painful experiences.  If for no other reason than to help us cope with it.  By giving trying times some meaning, we make it easier to process them and move beyond them.  After all, life is meaningless until we give it some meaning.  And meaningfulness is a major source of life energy — it compels us to live and keep living, even in the face of difficulties.

So here are 7 upsides to painful experiences.

Makes Us Pay Attention

The first and perhaps the biggest advantage is that it makes us pay attention.  Our attention is our power and currency, with which we can learn or make things happen.  It’s so easy in life to go on auto-pilot, guided by engrained habits and unconscious motivations.  With practice we can learn to pay attention and grow without dramatically painful events, but sadly a lot of times we need some sort of “ouch” to kick us out of cruise control and actually look at the road we’re traveling on.

Compels Us to Reflect and Examine

Pain is usually not enjoyable, so naturally we desire to end the pain ASAP when we encounter it.  So with our attention we examine our situation, possible cause, and resolutions.  If you were not living consciously, you are engaged now.

Gives the Desire to Learn and Grow

It’s one thing to have one uncomfortable experience, it’s quite another to have it repeatedly.  When something undesirable happens, won’t you want to avoid/prevent it in the future?  Or will you learn the lesson, without that discomfort?  Pain can make us better people, if you use it to learn and grow.  You may find yourself grateful, even, for the opportunities to become better at life.

Stimulates Our Creativity

With the desire to learn and grow comes the creativity.  How will you solve this problem?  True, if the pain is unbearable you may choose to escape and take the quickest/easiest way out.  But that leads only to temporary relief, and the chances are you’ll run into similar situations again.  It’s natural to want to figure out the issue and solve it once and for all, and that requires creative thinking.  Greatest break-throughs can come out of painful experiences — or rather, perhaps our challenges are life’s way of bringing out the best in us.  Will you answer the call, or run away from it?

Helps Us Connect with Each Other

Pain makes us develop compassion for others.  This is a big one, because it’s so easy to become isolated, to believe that you are all alone.  Compassion is not feeling sorry for the fellow human being.  Rather, compassion is sharing of undesirable experiences.  Challenges are seldom truly unique, and connecting with those who have faced it before gives us energy to face them, and hope that we, too, can rise above them.

Creates a Sense of Accomplishment and Resilience

In Japan we say something similar to “strike the iron while it’s hot” to mean something different.  We recognize that beautiful jewelry and strong metal are forged through distressing the raw material and carving out the unneeded parts.  If you live through painful experiences, that makes you a survivor.  Just as we gain muscles by giving micro tears in fiber, we grow stronger through trials and tribulations.  Great character can be built through experiencing trying times.  Your living through them is an accomplishment that nobody can take away from you.

Inspires Gratitude in Ordinary

When you’re through and beyond, you’ll look at your mundane, ordinary life differently.  If you were bored or felt uninspired with it before, you will not be after something upsets you.  Life is what you make of it, and if you looked you can find things to smile about even on trying days.  After going through troubles, you’ll lower the bar in good ways, so that you can feel better about life more easily, without extraordinarily “good” things happening.

“This, too, shall pass,” they say.  Nothing lasts forever, even hard times.  But some of us do seem to live in cycles of hard times for a long time.  I believe that that means there is some kind of lesson that I’m not learning, and life is (kindly) offering me another opportunity to do so.  I’ve learned to ask “what’s good about this that I don’t yet see?” and wait for the answer to emerge (my coach Tom Volkar taught me that) rather than forcibly try to figure it out.  It usually doesn’t take long to move from resenting the hard times to being grateful for the growth that takes place, once I stop trying to run away from it.

All that said, I know it’s hard, it’s very difficult to feel that there is an upside when you’re in the thicket.  I don’t mean to say that your anger, frustration or anguish shouldn’t be felt.  Denying yourself those difficult emotions is one of the reasons why you keep encountering situations that generate them.  What I’ve learned is that I should fully embrace how hard it is, the excruciating experience and all, without believing the stories the pain tells.  Pain is desperate so it tries to make dramatic and forceful assertions, saying things like “you can’t get out of this in one piece” or “something better give or you’re going to bust.”  But those are your pain speaking, and it’s a distorted and unreliable world view.  And knowing the upsides will help you feel the feelings without accepting these stories.  It may not feel hopeful at the moment.  That’s OK.  Just remember that there is hope, that there are upsides, somewhere in the corner of your mind.  That’ll help you face your darkest days.

“When your problems seem like mountains
Feel the need to find some answers
You can leave it for another day
Don’t try so hard”

– Queen “Don’t Try So Hard”

That may seem like a counter-intuitive advice.  But if Freddie Mercury, staring down at his incurable disease, can say those words, then the rest of us can learn from them.  Challenges are not something to avoid at all cost, run away from at the earliest opportunity.  “When the storms are raging around you/ stay right where you are” he sings elsewhere in the same song.  There are upsides to this, and they will emerge when you fully face the challenges.

So, hang in there!