Naturally, we understand that physical or psychological pain may directly influence our ability to manage conflict. Do you recall the last time you were in physical pain? How did you handle even small conflicts that arose during that time? Did your experiences of pain create even more interpersonal conflict than existed before the onset of the pain you were experiencing?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the influence of pain on conflict because I have been experiencing deep, physical pain as a result of a long-standing case of endometriosis. After surgery nearly eight years ago, I thought I was through with the pain I had endured since my mid-teens. Yet, as my google searches confirmed, many patients experience recurring pain even after fairly invasive surgeries to mitigate the growth of tissue that causes regular internal bleeding.
Considering the Question of Pain
Many philosophers, theologians, and regular individuals like ourselves have questioned and studied the role of pain in human lives. In clinical medical settings, we are asked to rate our pain on numbered scales based on our own perceptions. In terms of mental, emotional, or spiritual pain, we may attempt to use similar numbered scales, but many experiences of pain are difficult to express in terms of a numbered, orderly system. With a wide variety of manifestations, physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual pain may leave us at once immobilized, ready to fight, or even holed up in retreat from even simple daily activities.
As I have experienced periods of intense physical and/or emotional pain, I have noticed certain natural instincts in terms of conflict. When confronted with a wide variety of types of pain, I have been less resilient at handling interpersonal and other communication conflicts. While this decreased ability to manage conflict when experiencing pain seems natural, we can turn to a few methods of conflict management that will allow us to better move through not just pain, but the interpersonal conflicts that we experience. These simple, but straightforward methods include:
(1) Acknowledge to yourself and those with whom you’re experiencing conflict that you are in pain. An acknowledgement may be as simple as saying things such as:
“My entire body aches right now. I don’t know where this pain came from, but it’s overwhelming.”
“I feel like my mental stress is too much. I need to find a way to release this tension.”
When we see someone bleeding, we have instant cues to understand that a person may be experiencing physical and/or emotional pain. However, with many types of unseen pain, we cannot assume that others will intuitively know that we are in pain and are unable to manage other difficulties in the same way we usually do. How often are you willing to admit to others that you are experiencing some type of pain?
(2) Acknowledge the importance of addressing the conflict and communicate that you may need time and space to heal, release tension, or slow down in order to manage conflict while you are experiencing pain. Possible communications may look like the following:
“I know that this is an important problem to discuss. I don’t feel like I have the ability to address this right now, but I want to. Could I let you know when I’m feeling well enough to address it with you?”
“The issues you bring up are really important. I would like to work with you on some solutions. Do you mind if I take a few days to recover before we have that conversation?”
Rather than immediately try to resolve the interpersonal sources of conflict that may be inflicting emotional or mental pain, triage the sources the best that you can. If I have a fever, I may ask for time for my fever to come down before I wrestle with a difficult family relationship. Again, when addressing physical symptoms of sickness or pain, we are often quick to understand and allow the other person space to heal. Yet, when we are dealing with unseen sources of pain in another person, we may need to graciously accept their request and give them the benefit of the doubt.
(3) Finally, I have learned to a greater extent recently that slowing down when I’m in pain is essential. Because I don’t like pain, I often want to take some kind of pill, check off all the other sources of difficulty in my life, and get through conflicts in a hurry. This method of hurrying up to plow through hard things may actually set me up for more conflict (and pain) than I started with.
Slowing down enough to heal physically, mentally, emotionally, or otherwise allows me to get my own house in order enough to be able to work with another person to settle a conflict. While good attitudes influence many social outcomes, we may reach personal thresholds that limit our ability to manage adverse conditions. If we are experiencing individually adverse circumstances that involve deep personal pain, we may need to slow down all parts of our lives to focus on the essentials.
Yesterday, as I lay down on my bed, overwhelmed by physical pain, not only did my body settle down, but my mind did also. Physically laying down and removing myself from the hurry of every day life allowed me to focus on the essentials. Slowing down does not mean that I avoid important issues, but it does mean that I consider (and allocate) the amount of personal energy that I am able to spend on other issues after managing any type of pain. Have I already completed a heavy dose of pain management weightlifting for the day?
Of course, as truly social creatures, we need connection with each other to overcome a variety of types of pain. I mostly want to encourage you to be wise in estimating your strength and resilience to manage conflict when in pain. Even when life is not so groovy, as Simon and Garfunkel sing: “Slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the moments last.” Rather than trying to skip over the healing process to quickly resolve conflict, perhaps, we can slow down to make sure that real personal healing occurs. When healed, we will find the strength to reconcile other important conflicts along the way.