Life is not a tattoo: the paradox of pain and perfection
November 10, 2017
I used to take pride in my pain.
Or more so, my ability to power through it.
My “high pain tolerance,” as I called it, stretched far beyond my nervous system. I was resolute in my ability to bear pain physically, emotionally and psychologically. It was an all-encompassing tolerance. The more something hurt, the harder I worked to withstand it.
Being tough was a badge I wore with honor starting at a young age. In elementary school, it was things like pulling out my own splinters that made me feel powerful. In middle school, it was things like piercing my own ears. In high school, it was spending hours in the gym on top of a long list of extracurriculars. In college, it was binge-drinking and a "cool girl" attitude.
That badge, pinned proudly to my chest, would prove hard to take off. That badge led me to putting out a burning match on my own hand on a high-school dare. (I can show you the scar on my right hand anytime) Being tough led me to working out on an injured hip despite the aching pain. (Watch me wobble on my right side in balance poses) Being tough led me to ignoring the pain of heartbreak until I’d eventually tired of waking up with no memory of my nights before. Being tough led me chronic sinus infections in college, because I refused to take the time to rest.
“Being tough” led me to years of living with an eating disorder. “Being tough” led me to putting myself in more, sometimes long-lasting pain.
Here’s the thing about a high pain tolerance: it's not real. We made it up. For most of us, pain tolerance is really just pain rationalization.
Pain rationalization is not an official term. I won't claim to be the first person to ever use it but in my world, I just made it up. Because it makes sense. Rationalization is the act of justifying or explaining something that would otherwise be difficult to accept. Pain rationalization is doing that with pain.
Pain rationalization is saying that the pain you're experiencing is normal, that the pain is productive, that the pain is what you have to endure to get what you want, that the pain is deserved.
Upon googling "pain rationalization" to see if anyone else was using the term, I found two scholarly essays that focused on the idea of pain rationale in atheletes. mhmm. You know, the mindset that leads football players to believe they are worthy of potentially life-threatening concussions or the rationale that pushes runners through miles on broken bones, eventually landing them in wheelchairs. Are you starting to get where I’m going with this?
Pain rationalization is helpful with things like tattoos. When I get a tattoo, I know it’s a pain I selected to go through. I asked for it, I had time to prepare, and I know it will end. This takes away some of the panic and fear, making an otherwise painful, stinging sensation more tolerable. So yeah, pain rationalization can be helpful in small, targeted instances like tattoos, piercings, or, you know, for survival when you have to saw your arm off like Aron Ralston (aka the guy James Franco played in 127 hours).
Most other times, rationalizing is not helpful.
Just because you’re strong enough to withstand something doesn’t mean you should. Just because you can handle the shit doesn’t mean you should go wading through it sanctimoniously. Remember that time we talked about workout and life burnouts? This is a lot like that.
So here, I bet you’re thinking: YASSSS, ABBY, YASSS. Keep on going with your bad self! Make all the important realizations about yourself and other people but not me. Absolutely, never, no-way, would I be like that.
So maybe my examples were a bit dramatic. You might have never self-harmed, you might not have been the frat guy smashing full beer cans on your head at the party, you might have never suffered from an eating disorder. But what about the last time you were sick? Did you take a day off or did you soldier to work like the modern day martyrs we're told to be? What about the last time your feelings were hurt? Did you ask for an apology or did you accept the pain because you probably deserved it?
Despite the stately examples of my pain tolerance rationalization above, it was actually moments like this that led me to admitting my problem. It was my inability to rest in sickness and my inability to admit emotional vulnerability.
What does that say? That someone would be so afraid to admit their weakness that they’d sooner endure more pain?
Fear > Fear of failure > Fear of Vulnerability > Perfectionism.
Here’s a little paradox I’ve recently uncovered about perfectionism: Perfectionism begets pain but pain does not beget perfection.
Nothing begets perfection because, as I’m sure you’ve heard before, it does not exist.
Our fear of admitting our imperfection can come from so many places – but it’s certainly not discouraged by our current social media culture. When Facebook is praising Instagram images of perfectly manicured, slim fingers holding shiny, unblemished donuts and clean, minimalistic desks with succulents* over real-life content, how are we to fight back against the idea of being perfect and pretty and pulled-together? How can we stop over-glorifying working through pain and regain the right to stay home sick or take time to mount our losses? How can we start healing ourselves when so many invisible forces are asking us to do the opposite?
We have to talk about it. We have to admit hurt and pain and weakness. We have to be vulnerable and real. We have to own our stories.
Step One: We have to stop taking pride in our pain.