Expected Pain Parameters

A prob­lem I some­times have is that some­one will sug­gest that I do some­thing un­com­fortable—phys­i­cally or emo­tion­ally, whichever—and they’ll ac­knowl­edge that it’s not go­ing to feel good.

And then they won’t fol­low up by ex­plain­ing ex­actly how much and in what way it’s sup­posed to hurt, let alone why or how to miti­gate that.

Look: if you’re go­ing for a run, you might get a stitch in your side, your legs might cramp, your lungs might burn. If you feel a sud­den stab­bing pain in your foot, that’s not the run. You’ve stepped on some­thing sharp and you need to stop and call for a ride, not tough it out. If you’ve been told that run­ning might hurt and that’s a good thing, a sign of weak­ness leav­ing the body or what­ever, and there’s any am­bi­guity be­tween “stepped on some­thing sharp” and “this is how it’s sup­posed to hurt”—are you sup­posed to have blisters or do you need bet­ter-fit­ting shoes? Are you sup­posed to have a headache or do you need to drink way more wa­ter than you have been? Is a sun­burn just part of a healthy ex­pe­rience that means you’re mak­ing vi­tamin D, or should you be wear­ing sun­screen next time? - then you’re blun­der­ing into a prob­lem that you would have no­ticed and solved if you had en­coun­tered it by sit­ting on the couch.

If you’re apol­o­giz­ing for some­thing you’ve done wrong, you might feel guilty, stared-at, awk­ward, re­sent­ful. If you feel like the walls are clos­ing in and you’re go­ing to puke, then you have a more se­ri­ous prob­lem and might want to get that looked into, not chalk it up to “well, ac­knowl­edg­ing that you’ve made a mis­take can be painful”. If you’re apol­o­giz­ing to some­one who’s abus­ing you, then how much it hurts is a red flag. If you’re in a badly fa­cil­i­tated ther­a­peu­tic or mod­er­ated con­ver­sa­tional en­vi­ron­ment, and you don’t know how much it’s sup­posed to hurt, then when it hurts more than it’s sup­posed to you won’t no­tice that you need to fix or leave the setup. If you’re apol­o­giz­ing for some­thing that isn’t wrong, be­cause you’ve been in­doc­tri­nated in a norm­set that’s un­healthy about what things are vi­o­la­tions, then by let­ting that norm­set also tell you that it’s sup­posed to feel bad you’re los­ing a sig­nal that could tell you to bail.

Even things you aren’t ac­tively do­ing can have this is­sue: it took me a long time to be re­ally sure that most peo­ple don’t ex­pe­rience pain when they have their blood pres­sure taken, be­cause ev­ery time I com­plained about it, an in­differ­ent nurse would say “yep, lots of pres­sure, mm-hm, it squeezes pretty tight” and not “ac­tu­ally, while you’re un­likely to be in med­i­cal dan­ger, that is not typ­i­cal; we might make differ­ent trade­offs about how of­ten to recom­mend this test if it hurt ev­ery­one like it does you”.*

And if you don’t know how some­thing is sup­posed to hurt, and know that you don’t know it, you will need some risk-aver­sion there to avoid blun­der­ing into sharp ob­jects and men­tal health trig­gers and cost-benefit analy­ses that were not de­signed for how you’re put to­gether. So this can cut off op­por­tu­ni­ties to try things, the op­po­site prob­lem from try­ing too hard at some­thing that isn’t work­ing.

If you are recom­mend­ing that peo­ple do some­thing that might be un­com­fortable or painful, tell them what nor­mal tol­er­ances are, and what the things that might be caus­ing ab­nor­mal re­sponses might be. De­mand this of peo­ple tel­ling you to do un­com­fortable or painful things too. Pain re­sponses have a pur­pose; ig­nor­ing them out­right for the du­ra­tion of an ac­tivity which flirts with the dam­age that aver­sion is meant to pre­vent is in­sane.

*If you have this prob­lem and might give birth and might have an epi­du­ral while you do, have them put the blood pres­sure cuff on your numb leg. Hat tip to Swim­mer963.

No nominations.
No reviews.