No Pain, No Gain?

As a massage therapist, I am amazed by how often I hear statements like this: “Don’t worry, I can take a lot of pain. I’m tough. Plus it’s gotta hurt in order to feel better, right?” Not necessarily! This myth seems to have originated in the fitness industry. It’s a persistent misconception, and it speaks volumes about social attitudes toward wellness.

I suppose the easy answer is that these people are simply closeted masochists, eager to suffer in a socially sanctioned way. But it’s not that simple. People are generally only willing to suffer if they think something good will come out of it. I think it’s more to the point that there’s some pervasive belief in our culture that through pain, success of some sort is achieved. Or that any success worth achieving is bound to be painful.

An interesting article by David B. Morris in The Scientist entitled “Belief and Narrative” discusses the cultural dimension of pain. Morris observes, “’No pain, no gain’ is an American modern mini-narrative: it compresses the story of a protagonist who understands that the road to achievement runs only through hardship.”

If there’s some validity to those previous ideas, it also follows that those things that are good for us (or will lead to some increased “achievement” in some area of life) cannot be pleasant, or enjoyable. Nutritious food must be taste-less or unpleasant. Exercise must be onerous and painful. Massage, too, must be painful in order to be beneficial. So it sets up an expectation that anything that is in the name of health, healing, fitness, or general wellness is likely to be, in short, unpleasant.

Morris goes on to explain the importance of narrative related to pain, in terms of “the patient’s own story.” He notes that pain is largely a subjective experience and that a variety of social and emotional factors have an impact. For example, “Chronic lower back pain is often impossible to trace to an organic lesion, such as a prolapsed disk. The narrative that describes pain as a reliable alarm system justifies countless unnecessary surgeries. It cannot, however, begin to explain why the two strongest signs predicting that an American worker will develop chronic back pain are job dissatisfaction and unsatisfactory social relations in the workplace.” In other words, many times pain has a non-organic cause, and continually searching for an organic (ie medical, physical) cause of pain is an increasing source of frustration for a lot of people I see in my line of work. Often pain is related to other factors and it’s hard for people to understand that at first.

There is a Buddhist aphorism that goes something like this: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” This is an homage to the idea that in life physical and emotional pain are unavoidable. They are part of the experience of being here, and being in a body. But the suffering part, that is the part within our control. We can directly impact the experience we have by the stories, the narratives, we create around our experiences. The Buddhists would say that when we try to avoid pain, that is when we suffer the most.

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