Article: Why is there so much pain?

Thinking about the tough questions…


Why is there so much pain?

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I’ve spent vast slabs of my life struggling with this question, and I know I’m not alone.

So many people who have been diagnosed with mental illness have experienced phenomenal adversity. Not just from our so-called ‘symptoms’, but from our life experiences. Isolation, neglect, violence, abuse, poverty, exclusion, the list just goes on.

The activist in me likes to explore these questions by looking at the world around us. I wish that we could have a world without abusers, war mongers, dictators, bad parents, poverty or pain. And I do believe this is something we should all strive for, every day: to make this the best world that we can.

The healer in me says “well and good, but do remember that no matter what you do, there will always be pain in this world.” Pain is necessary, and it has a purpose. And so we need to better understand this phenomenon, rather than put all our energy into trying to get rid of it.


Pain shows us what joy is.

There’s a wonderful chapter in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (1923) which helps me to think about pain and suffering in context:

Gibran suggests life is like a cup, and sorrow carves out the space in the cup. The more sorrow we have, the bigger our cup.
And what is the cup for? It is there to hold our joy.

I love this idea, and it feels true to me. How can we understand and truly appreciate joy, and love, without also understanding their opposite emotions?

As terrible as it is to experience suffering, it does bring us a gift – it deepens our appreciation of all that is good, and kind, and joyful in this world.

Imagine living a life of absolute painlessness. No adversity of any kind. Would we value what we had or take it for granted? And if something painful did happen, would we know how to deal with it?

Sometimes I find it helpful to think about this idea in the context of the physical world. There is no day without night. No beaches without land. No summer without winter. No life without death. And similarly, we can’t have joy without pain.


Pain helps us to grow.

The extraordinary poet, human rights activist and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, also talks about pain.

Forgive my somewhat crass interpretation of his sensitive, poetic words in the book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (2002):

Nhat Hanh says that no-one likes shit. Yet this is the substance that creates compost, and without compost new life will never grow.
Our emotional and personal ‘shit’ is kind of the same. Pain is our inner compost, from which new life, new possibilities, can grow.

I love this idea as well. For me, my pain has helped me find a life worth living – working to change our mental health system into something which is truly healing, and never harmful. Without all of the life ‘shit’ I would never have found this meaning that I am so passionate about.


Easing Suffering.

These ideas don’t make the pain go away, of course, but they can ease the suffering inflicted by the pain.

Firstly, we can begin to understand that we are not being targeted – pain is a normal part of the big, wide spectrum of life experience.

And secondly we can begin to see the gifts in that pain, that it has a purpose. Most people would not exercise at the gym on all those painful machines if they didn’t know why they were there. But knowing that the physical pain and exertion will lead to greater fitness, we see the purpose in the pain, and our suffering lessens.

Sometimes I find it helpful to think about this idea in the context of the physical world. There is no day without night. No beaches without land. No summer without winter. No life without death. And similarly, we can’t have joy without pain.

There is a Buddhist saying:

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”

I first heard this saying in a Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) session, and it made me very angry. I stormed out of the group, went home cursing at the world, and self-harmed. I really did not like this saying!

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. I mulled over it again and again, and started reading more about this idea. Today it is one of my favourite sayings, and it often holds me together when times get tough.

I think that when I first heard this saying, I took it to mean that my suffering was my own fault. I was stupid; I was choosing to feel this way, to have such an awful life.

Looking back, in a way this was true – but not in the way I thought at the time. Yes, I had chosen misery, not consciously or willfully, but because misery and suffering were all that I knew. I self-harmed frequently and violently, not to freak everyone out, or to make myself feel worse – it was actually a coping strategy. Self-harm helped me to survive, to transform what felt like unbearable emotional pain into something physical and tangible.

It was not the best choice – self harm is never a great choice. But it is a choice that makes sense when we don’t know anything else we can do. And I honour that past self-harm because it helped me to stay alive.

We can do a little, but not always a lot, about the pain that life inflicts on us.

But we can do a lot about how we respond to that pain. Changing our responses to pain take a huge amount of learning, practice, commitment and support – but it is always possible.

I encourage you to take the journey of easing your suffering, while also accepting that pain is inevitable, and that it holds gifts within it.

I don’t have all the answers, of course, but here are some places that might be helpful to start…

a. Let go of self-judgment

Your feelings and responses are not there to be judged. They just are. You, like everyone else, have done the best you can with what you know and what you have. Let go of shame.


b. Connect with others

You are not alone.

No matter how strange or awful your experiences are – there are many others who have been there too.

I spent years thinking that I was an absolute freak of nature, evil at my core, and deserving of punishment. It wasn’t true. I was a victim of others, and taking the shame that belonged to them onto me. Since I have been able to share my experiences, I have found many other women with similar experiences and beliefs. And each time I do, my shame lessens more.

Share your story and connect with others.


c. Believe that change is possible

The world is full of people who believed they could never change – yet they have. Twelve years ago I myself was told I would never recover or work again – yet here I am, doing fine. Change is really the only thing that doesn’t change!


d. Discover new ways of responding to pain

This is an area where your support workers can really help, as can your peers. Take yourself on a voyage of discovery, and know that just because nothing worked in the past, doesn’t mean you have tried it all.


e. Be patient and persistent

I once heard a woman talk about her recovery. She said everything that has made her strong took thousands of times of practice before she really got it.

I think learning new ways of being is like flexing stiff old muscles. It takes time before it feels good and right. So give yourself time, practice, and find people who will encourage and support you.

And finally, in the words of that very famous British Prime Minister (and fellow nutter) Sir Winston Churchill:

“Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, give up.

Never give up.

Never Give Up.


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  1. Thank you so much for posting that! it was good to read it in black and white and not just myself trying to convince myself of it, but to see proof xoxo

  2. Thank you so much. This is very helpful and inspirational; I am so glad to have found this article. I understand things so much better now! Thank you again. 🙂

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