Pain Tolerance: A Less Oft Discussed Character Trait

I was on the cross country team in high school and like most everything else in my life, I was also mediocre at running. This wasn’t really a problem for me as I greatly valued the fabulous camaraderie and ability to avoid homework for a few more hours everyday. This grew into a problem on occasion when we would have meets and I would somehow end up as the #5 runner — this meant my performance could actually hinder our teams standing. And it did. I tried my darnedest, but there’s that point where you are running in a pack using the momentum and energy of the others around you to spur on despite the pushing of your limits. Yet, I generally would be the first of the group to give up and back off to what I told myself was reasonable. I may not have been wrong, but I understand how this didn’t make me popular on the few occasions cross country was truly a team sport. This fact stung a little, but was easy to shrug off as it didn’t align with my values nor negatively affect the team camaraderie in any noticeable way. However, one day there was a conversation that changed me:

At one meet, we were doing our cool down run. Coach and one of my teammates were running behind me discussing how the race went. My teammate at some point asked, non-maliciously but curiously, why it seemed that I couldn’t push myself beyond a certain point.
And Coach said,”Well, I just think some of us tolerate pain differently. I think Barry is capable of pushing harder, but it’s really up to him to decide if he can or should.”

As we go through life, there are some character traits that we can generalize to help shape who we are and which may affect why and how we might do something. To simplify, I’m going to pull from my gaming background and use these loosely quantifiable traits to help illustrate my exploration of pain tolerance:

  • Intelligence: A mental trait for our ability to gain, store and access knowledge especially facts and details.
  • Wisdom: A mental trait for our ability to use knowledge from a bigger-picture point of view as well as less-concrete information such as emotions and beliefs.
  • Strength: A physical trait that can determine how much we can lift or our resilience to things that might damage us.
  • Dexterity: A physical trait that can sometimes be viewed as a counterpart to Strength. Instead of resilience and stability, this trait offers flexibility and speed.
  • Perception: I consider this a physical/mental trait as perception is a translation from gaining information of our surroundings through our physical senses and converting that information mentally to interface with our Intelligence and Wisdom.
  • Will: I consider this a mental/physical trait. Where what, why and how we do things physically is strongly influenced by this mental perception-mirror that floats between our Intelligence and Wisdom. Contributes to our emotional reactions consciously and subconsciously.

*Note: Yes, I’m leaving out some important other influencers, for the time being, such as Charisma and experience/level.

I believe the last trait, Will, is the main influencer of our tolerance to pain. Or is it our pain tolerance that is influence by a given Will trait? Furthermore, what does it mean to tolerate pain?

How are these traits connected to pain tolerance and to success?

Let’s create some simple scenarios encompassing pain tolerance and how it interacts with our character traits.

For starters, let’s define “success” as simply doing/accomplishing/completing what you want/need to do as opposed to the general over-idealized view that means over-coming our dreary mortal toil and living happily-ever-after.

We can then create a simple setup where if we want to do something and we actually do that something, then we are successful.

Let’s also define that the something we want to do as the physical act of picking a flower. Now, we’ll embellish the setup with our character traits:

  1. We start by using our Will trait that says we want to do something, specifically pick a flower. It’s not important why, we just do.
  2. We then use Perception to sense our surroundings and confirm that there is an object that our Intelligence confirms by its pretty color, alluring fragrance and general roundness with fragile-looking petal-shaped thingies.
  3. Our Wisdom confers with our Intelligence and also comes to the conclusion that we have the proper Strength and Dexterity to pick this flower.
  4. With green lights from all the other traits, our Will transfers this mental confidence to our physical abilities.
  5. Strength and Dexterity deftly pick that flower.
  6. We are successful!

Time to add some pain. Let’s rewind a step:

5. Strength and Dexterity go to pick that flower, but when our fingers grasp the stem, Perception throws out red-alert alarms that something isn’t right! Something hurts! Strength and Dexterity pull back, but it’s too late. Blood is drawn.

6. Currently, we are not successful. Flower one, us zero.

This is where we connect Will with pain and our tolerance to pain. Since we’ve simplified our traits to being physical and mental, we should probably recognize that pain might be physical and/or mental. Starting off with just physical pain we could have these two scenario conclusions:

  • Conclusion 1: Our Will says that we want that flower no matter what. So Strength and Dexterity dive back in and grasp at the stem. Perception again throws alarms, blood flows, Intelligence and Wisdom begin to lose their composure. Yet this time, Will charges out and commands Strength and Dexterity,”We WANT that flower!” More grasping, more blood, and then, the tension breaks as the grasped stem separates from the rest of the plant and the flower is ours. We are successful.
  • Conclusion 2: Our Will says that we want that flower no matter what. So Strength and Dexterity dive back in and grasp at the stem. Perception again throws alarms, blood flows, Intelligence and Wisdom begin to lose their composure. Yet this time,Will stumbles in the confusion. The cacophony from Perception and the reports of danger from Intelligence and Wisdom come pouring in. It’s too much. “No matter what” is just some words and we don’t really need the flower. Will urges Strength and Dexterity to release and step away. We are not successful, but Perception quiets down as pain subsides and Intelligence and Wisdom regroup to help assess the situation.

Back to my cross country team, there seemed to be a clear division between those who were limited by physical pain and those that could use their Will to push beyond limits established by the rest of our senses. Most notable was everyones willingness to press forward regardless of the actual quantity of forward-ness achieved by each.

Now let’s change course and think in the direction of mental pain. It is somewhat mind blowing at first as “pain” has such a physical context that I had a hard time placing it within a purely mind-only context. I was stuck at migraines for starters, but then managed to drag the though-process towards mental association from memories where physical pain was experienced. After talking it out with others though, it was clear that I needed to take a step back to thinking about what pain actually is. Focusing on physical pain again for the moment:

  • Pain is information: Our bodies have a this naturally built in “alarm” system to inform us when something not right is happening to our bodies and we perceive it in a reaction as pain. The main source of information is through our sense of touch and the perception of that touch.
  • Pain is a reaction: Physically, when something is causing pain, it is usually disturbing the natural state of our body. When we get a cut, an item causing the cut, tears apart cells and connections between them that make up our skin that protects the various structures and systems below.
  • Pain is experienced in varying degrees of intensity and time: Variations of severity experienced from barely-detectable discomforts to acute trauma — caused by massive damage. Of course, there can be enough damage that no pain is felt because the nerves have been destroyed while even just the smallest disturbance in a bodily region packed with nerves will cause paralyzing mind-numbing pain. Pain also has a variable amounts of perceivable time depending on the cause — quick acute pain like receiving a shot or long chronic pain of an injury that doesn’t seem to want to heal.

Moving back to looking at how pain can be mental:

  • Mental pain is information: Instead of a reaction to information sent via our physical senses it is usually a reaction to information gleaned from previous experiences including not only the physical sensations, but the emotional reactions as well.
  • Mental pain is a reaction: We feel pain when hit by a swinging branch and then when a branch swings at us again, we flinch. The branch may not hit us, but we respond in a way the would help us avoid the pain. However, even though we avoid the physical pain, we relive the experience of the original infliction and it becomes a form of “virtual” pain a.k.a mental pain.
  • Mental pain is experienced in varying degrees of intensity and time: The replay of emotional reactions plays a big part in making the event more “physical” and we can perhaps postulate that emotions are the mental “senses” that mirror our physical senses. Eventually some of these experiences are pushed to our subconscious and we are able to react to things that swing at us with the proper physical reaction (moving out of the way) with minimal mental reaction (reliving the experience of being hit). However, we could relive the mental reaction so often, that we ingrain the emotional sensation to a point that we literally “feel” the pain of being hit despite the fact that we have not been hit. As physical pain is a reaction to disturbances in our body, mental pain is a reaction to disturbances in our mind. The translation to pain and the perceived intensity of such pain is connected to our ability to tolerate these disturbances.
TL;DR — Physical pain is a reaction to physical disturbances informed by our physical senses while mental pain is reaction to mental disturbances informed by our experiences and heavily influence by our emotional reactions.

Now that we have a better tab on mental pain, let’s incorporate it into our flower picking scenario conclusions. Recapping on our conclusions:

  • Conclusion 1: We overrode the physical pain with our Will and despite the blood, pick the flower and were successful.
  • Conclusion 2: We were unable to overcome the physical pain with our Will and left with no flower or success, just blood.

Remember, that these where the first attempts to pick the flower, so we had no prior experience. So let’s add mental pain into the picture on a second flower picking experience. By the way, adding mental pain makes the scenarios more complicated, and since it would be a pain to write (and probably read) extended scenarios with all physical and mental parties involved, we’ll just run with more recapped versions.

  1. High physical pain tolerance: In our prior first conclusion, we were able to endure the physical pain.
    Conclusion 1: We go to pick the flower, and though we know it will hurt, our Will is pumped up by the prior success and overrides the mental pain of reliving all that blood. There is more blood, more emotional screaming from Perception, Intelligence and Wisdom, yet there is another flower with our grasp. Success!
    Conclusion 2: We go to pick the flower. Will becomes deflated as it recollects the alarms from Perception, Intelligence and Wisdom last time. Intelligence and Wisdom give the concession that we still have a flower. No blood to wallow in, just failure.
  2. Low physical pain tolerance: In the prior second conclusion, we were not able to endure the physical pain.
    Conclusion 3: We go to pick the flower. Will become deflated as it recollects the alarms from Perception, Intelligence and Wisdom last time. Intelligence and Wisdom further note that we failed last time and don’t have a flower. It’s no contest, we’ll just live with failure.
    Conclusion 4: We go to pick the flower. Will become deflated as it recollects the alarms from Perception, Intelligence and Wisdom last time. Intelligence and Wisdom further note that we failed last time and don’t have a flower. Will says that it would still be really nice to have a flower. Perception concedes,”Well, if it wasn’t for the stupid spiky things.” Intelligence and Wisdom make a connection and illumination occurs. “We have an idea! What if we grab the flower in the area without spiky things?” The trait party is dumbfounded. A moment later, Will yells,”CHAARRGGGEE!” Intelligence and Wisdom create a new plan that is delivered by Perception to Strength and Dexterity. The flower stem is grasped in a thornless region and plucked. OMG! This is amazing! Against all odds, we have a flower AND No Blood!!!

I apologize for getting carried away with conclusion 4… Psych!

As you recall, I confessed to having a low pain tolerance, so I had to boost my ego by showing that despite having said low pain tolerance we could still be successful by learning from past experience plus not create gaping bloody wounds. That, we were able to side step both physical and mental pain by assessing the knowledge gained from the first experience and laterally shifting how we achieved our goal. Yes yes, of course, those with a high pain tolerance could of learned too. Don’t be a pain!

I could leave it at a happy ending, but the inspiration of this post was the result of ponderings about the complex reality of who we are as individuals. Though I confessed I have a low pain tolerance, I think I should re-declare that I have a low physical pain tolerance, but have a relatively high mental pain tolerance. How does that work?

Well, the truth is, there is no rigid answer. No defining barriers that delimit one type of pain tolerance to another. In this case, if I were asked to do something physical, like running, for 5 minutes or something mental, like writing, for 5 minutes, it’d be a toss-up on my mood. You can already see that both activities actually have both physical and mental elements. Now if you increased the time for either activity to 30 minutes, I would start to lean heavily towards writing with total certainty of doing so if it were an hour.

That’s a simple example of what I would do while not looking at any of the actual thought processes that brought me to that spectrum of an answer. Looking at all the people around me and postulating how they would respond shows, on this scenario alone, what wonderfully diverse and complex individuals we are.

At this point, we’ve very generally explored pain and hinted at what the tolerance of said pain might be. I’m going to make a conjecture that pain tolerance is not merely withstanding (or surviving) any form of pain, but being able to act as we desire beyond that pain.

Back to running a race, in those few moments, those few fractions of a second, where one can choose to push ahead despite the pain or to slacken to lessen the pain. In my earlier statement, I personally would slacken because my tolerance was limited to not wanting to experience a certain level of pain any longer (Running at any level caused me pain, but I managed to push over some portion of it on a regular basis). But that’s looking at just the handling of the physical pain. What about the mental pain of knowing the pain I would be passing on to my team? The pain from personal reflection of that pain? The pain that, despite all the potential mental pain, I would still “give up” and “selfishly” meet my own needs/wants/desires?

There’s no clear answers, just complexity. Moments of experiences that I still reflect on. Moments upon moments of pain tolerated, or not, building up to who I am now. And that’s who we all are.

This is a rough, meandering piece that could keep on rambling for a painfully long time. Or even ideally split off into many directions of further exploration. But for the time being, I will just end with some random thoughts that were initially to be squeezed in.

  • The mention of pain tolerance by Coach effected my life-long journey by creating another metric by which I measured things as I went through life. For worse, like my tendency to poo-pooh How-To articles that have the answers for how everyone could be Successful — because it assumes we can all overcome Pain. Or for better, where I can find myself being more tolerant of the pain caused by others because I’m certain there is great underlying pains that was caused upon them — I don’t condone or appreciate their pain-creation in any way. Rather, I am sad that I feel powerless to help them overcome their pain in way that would allow them to stop projecting it upon others. (Also sad, that I’m not so magnanimous to always project that type of thinking.)
  • That gateway between the physical and the mental, between Perception and Will. A casting spectrum of not just how we tolerate, react and act upon pain, but of all our sensory inputs and emotional outputs.
  • The pain exchange — I see such transactions all the time. The amazing and sometime horrifying ability of humans to exchange physical pain for mental or vice-versa. And usually more horrifying, exchanging those pains upon other humans, especially without consent.
  • How to embrace pain to overcome stagnancy and cultivate growth while maintaining a healthy balance of respecting boundaries that help to maintain well bodies and minds.
  • How we can work together to overcome the pains that hold us back and help each other.
  • How we’ve place strong positive values on Success despite the costs on our own well-being and those around us. How can we refreshen up such a direction of thinking into a happier, more-sustainable direction?
  • Exploring other general character traits like Charisma and experience/level and how they effect pain tolerance. For example, I’m certainly not in the shape as I was in high school, yet I can confidently say that I have a much greater mental Will that allows me to have greater physical pain tolerance. Another example, I feel that I have lower Charisma which increase my mental pain when interacting with others. Perhaps a more in depth exploration of all traits and their relationship to pain/pain tolerance.
  • What are your thoughts on pain, tolerance and success?

Thanks for reading! These writings are just purely anecdotal explorations of my personal thoughts as a way to drag myself out of my cave and into interacting with that big-wide-beautiful world. — Barry