The Four Stages of Pain

and the struggles you face today will be your best tale tomorrow.

Hoang Nguyen

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The Four Stages of Pain
Photo by Ron Lach

Where there is pain, there is growth.

— Sudhandira

Unlike joy, which often goes unquestioned, pain lingers, engulfing us in its depths. Yet, precisely in these depths, we unearth life’s most invaluable lessons.

I do not know what a life worth living looks like, but I do know it would be a waste to let the pain pass without learning anything from it. After all, the challenges that don’t defeat us return with greater force, teaching us until we fully grasp their lessons.

Everyone has different ways to overcome pain, but a crucial question arises: when can we truly say we’ve conquered our trials?

  • With this recognition, we can avoid overlooking the lessons embedded in our experiences.
  • Without this awareness, we risk being trapped in an emotional labyrinth, unable to move forward.

This article encapsulates the stages of pain I’ve endured, offered in the hope that it may guide you on your path to deeper self-understanding.

The Four Stages of Pain
Image provided by author

Stage 1: Formation of Pain

When pain first begins, it’s easy to become trapped in it.

I had a golden cat, a companion for over a decade, who witnessed nearly all the ups and downs of my life’s journey. In times of weariness, as I lay on the bed, she would clamber onto me, her soothing purrs leading us both into the comfort of sleep.

One day, while at work, I received a message from my mother: the cat was nowhere to be found at home. I casually thought, “She must be napping on the air conditioner’s outdoor unit again, her favorite spot.”

Things became more serious when I got home and couldn’t find her anywhere. The time I spent leaving the house, taking the elevator down, and speaking with the security guard was agitated.

That day, she marked her decision to abandon her life as a house cat, aspiring instead to be a free bird in the sky (hopefully, in her next life, she will fulfill this wish).

For me, there was no final goodbye, no last glimpse, as her presence had already been erased.

I hesitate to delve deeper into this stage, wary of evoking sorrow in you, the reader. What I’ve learned are reasons why we easily get trapped when pain first emerges:

  • We’re trapped by our attempts to distract ourselves, a natural defense mechanism. This approach temporarily relieves the full extent of our suffering, but it risks prolonging our entrapment.
  • We’re trapped by a desire to self-punish, burdened by a sense of responsibility for the events that unfolded.
  • We’re trapped by uncertainty, not knowing how to address and heal from the aftermath.
  • We’re trapped as the pain integrates into our identity, fearing its loss might erase the memories and reasons it originated.

Navigating beyond this stage necessitates embracing and experiencing the breadth of emotions the pain brings. At times, acknowledging the harsh reality presents the most significant challenge.

The Four Stages of Pain
Image provided by author

Stage 2: Easing of Pain

As time progresses, the sharpness of pain gradually subsides, yet it doesn’t completely vanish. It’s akin to embers that flare back into flame when the wind blows. As these moments:

  • When Facebook brings up memories of posts and pictures with my golden cat.
  • When the pepper-colored cat (once nurtured by the golden cat) begins to act indifferently, perhaps blaming me for the loss of its companion.
  • When hearing a friend describe their playful, golden-furred cat.

Such instances are like inadvertently touching lingering fragments of pain within. The ache silently endures, softly reminding me,

“There’s an unlearned lesson here, take heed.”

As the poet Rumi eloquently stated:

“You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.”

During this phase, a segment of our hearts is still sealed, not ready to embrace new happiness.

My experience is to openly discuss this pain with myself and with those who genuinely wish to listen to my pain. Then, at some moment, I realized I had stopped drowning in it.

Stage 3: Separation from Pain

Those who practice mindfulness often state:

“When you recognize the mountain, you stand apart from the mountain.
When you acknowledge the river, you are separate from the river.
When you understand fear, you transcend the fear.”

So it is with pain. When I came to the point where thoughts of my golden cat no longer brought sorrow, she transformed into a cherished memory, a chapter of my bygone days. My feelings about memories with the cat have settled into tranquility, resembling a calm lake, undisturbed and serene.

This phase is perhaps what many call “healing,” and as I often tell others:

“Healing is when the pain no longer bothers you.”

The Four Stages of Pain
Image provided by author

Stage 4: Gratitude and Appreciation

More recently, I’ve come to identify yet another phase in the journey through pain: a phase of profound appreciation.

There are past pains- once potent enough to reshape my life’s perceptions — which I can now reflect upon with a light-heartedness. The stories about them ease the reception for those hearing about it and offer comfort to those enduring similar pains.

One day you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through and it will be someone else’s survival guide.

— Brene Brown

In our journeys, we encounter and overcome pain in ways unique to our experiences. We are fortunate to have language, technology, and various resources enabling us to share these experiences.

I extend my heartfelt thanks to all who have devoted their precious time to reading, listening, and discussing my shared insights.

I wish you all valuable pains and lifelong lessons!

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