Why is everybody in so much pain?

Emotional and physical pain can be divided into two categories, acute and chronic. Acute pain is the immediate response to a problem, you stubbed your toe, or your lover dumped you. Chronic pain is the result of something fundamentally wrong in your life: bad posture, an abusive relationship… Pain, physical or emotional, is an essential part of every human’s wiring.

Emotions and physical sensations are useful, in the same way smoke alarms are useful. Sometimes they cry out because you burnt some toast, and sometimes they go off because there is a smouldering dryer fire waiting to raze your house with you asleep inside. We intuitively understand a key insight with smoke alarms: knowing the cause of the alarm is crucial to the next step. If you train yourself to ignore the fire alarm, you risk dying in a house fire.

The same is true with emotions, but seems to be less intuitively obvious to most people. Sometimes you’re pissed because someone cut you off, or you’re having an awful day because it started with a root canal. Ignoring these sensations is reasonable. Impotent rage and redundant physical pain do not improve your life. Have a drink, or a joint, or whatever, to ease your mind from a singularly traumatic event. If you find yourself “needing” these coping strategies, there may be a chronic cause. In which case, you’ve got a slow-burning fire in your life: anger management issues, a bad job, an abusive partner… Ignoring, muting, or masking these emotions puts you in peril, in the way of emotional or physical harm or just a life mis-lived.

Emotions are a feedback system from your subconscious mind, designed to keep track of an infinity of small factors and inputs in a way that your conscious mind is simply incapable of. Sometimes they tell you obvious things, “your parent just died”, or “you’re hungry”, or “your job sucks.” Other times they tell you more subtle things, “you are living the wrong life”.

It appears to me that emotional self-awareness is coming earlier and earlier with every generation. What was a mid-life crisis for baby boomers is now a quarter-life crisis for millennials. Midlife crises are much easier, however, than a quarter-life crisis. By the time the storm hit the baby boomers, they had plenty of money saved up, and could at least do something with their pain. Having this same thing happen when you’re 22 and a freshly minted college graduate is awkward timing. You’ve just committed a big pile of money and a big pile of time to something that you now realize is completely useless to you…

Emotions are designed to motivate you to take action. Why is it that people are so willing to ignore them? I think it comes from a faulty mental model. Built into patriarchy in general is the idea that emotions are a weakness. I think this mental model is simply wrong.

By their nature, emotions don’t reveal what is causing them — it’s just not how they work. For most species, that information is not relevant. However, it is vitally important for humans. If emotions came with a note detailing their origin, we’d be much less likely to undervalue them. Until they start coming with explanations, it is up to our conscious mind to figure it out.

Don’t take action on the emotion until you understand its origins. Leaving a job that sucks right now, might be the right answer, if it’s not a job that you inherently value. However, you might decide that you actually really want to see a project through, or you believe in it enough that it’s worth the sacrifice. Making this decision consciously will make it easier to cope with the difficulty of the path. Choosing your path is a powerful mental step. There is nothing wrong with choosing hard paths. Unwittingly stumbling along a difficult path you don’t like and don’t value is a waste of a perfectly good life.

Once you start paying attention to your subconscious mind, you’ll quickly learn that it is much, much smarter than your conscious mind is. It has a lot to offer, and a lot to say if you only learn how to listen.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Daniel Staudigel’s story.