On Trying to Measure “Normal Pain”
Think back for a second to a time you visited a doctor, because you were experiencing some type of pain.
For me, it was sitting quietly filling out new patient paperwork in a small physical therapy office last winter after I’d eaten some serious pavement trying to help move a mattress into a moving van. Turns out I could only use and refreeze so many ice packs before conceding that my swollen ankle wasn’t going to fix itself.
During these medical visits, there are always the predictable paperwork nuts and bolts – basic biographical info, emergency contact, insurance information – but then it’s time to talk about why you’re there. The pain. And inevitably, we’re asked to measure it on some kind of scale. The scale either ranges from 1 to 10, or from smiley face to scowling frowny face, but it’s our job to identify exactly how bad the pain is.
1 is practically non-existent; 10 is unimaginably awful; 5 is middle of the road.
So if it sounds so simple, why do we inevitably sit there staring at that scale, silently bargaining with ourselves and talking ourselves in and out of so many different answers? Why is it so hard to answer that question?
When we try to objectively assess our own pain, the subjectiveness of both the scale and of our experiences leave plenty of room for second guessing.
Is a “10” the most pain I’ve ever felt? Or the most pain I can imagine feeling? Or the most pain I can imagine someone else with a way worse injury feeling? Does that make my stupid probably-barely-sprained ankle pain a 1 or a 2? Maybe a 3? What does a 5 even mean? “Normal”? But normal for who - for me? For a stranger who’s got a higher threshold for pain than me?
When you’re trying to measure something like pain or suffering with a ruler whose markings are fluid and totally subjective, it’s hard to put much stock in that measurement.
We’ve all second-guessed and played tug-of-war with ourselves trying to answer these questions in a doctor’s office, but that same doubt shows up in full force when we try to gauge our level of suffering in day-to-day life compared to what’s “normal”, “par for the course,” or “nothing to worry about.”
At what point does work-related stress bleed into symptoms of a toxic environment, or even a cue to jump ship? Where’s the tipping point between “normal relationship struggles that everyone goes through,” and something bigger?
We do this dance, where we start to notice a pain that keeps popping up. Sometimes it's sharp and other times it's dull, but we know on some level there's something going on, something's not working. But then we tell ourselves our pain is less real because of what we imagine other people are probably going though, based on an imaginary barometer we hold in our minds. We talk ourselves down, we pretend it's not real, we try to move forward like nothing's wrong.
Why do we insist on dismissing our own suffering based on what we imagine is "normal"? Why do we give ourselves permission to stay in a situation that may not be working, instead of addressing the pain?
Because addressing the pain is scary.
The fact is, there’s no uniform ruler to give us peace of mind and tell us where our pain falls relative to Everyone Else’s; no tool to calibrate that scale before trying to use it ourselves; no regulated rubric that standardizes everyone’s answers to these deeply personal questions. And yet, we all try to put our answers through the “is this really something to be concerned about, or just normal suffering?” filter.
But when we give into the tendency to write off our pain as no big deal just because ‘it’s probably not as bad as someone else’s’ or because ‘other people must go through this all the time,’ we end up cheating ourselves. It can be an incredibly empowering experience to acknowledge our pain, because only from there can we look our pain points in the eye, name them for what they are, and be receptive to opportunities to do something about them.
When questions like, “am I overreacting? Is this just ‘normal suffering’ that comes with the territory?” come up repeatedly, forget the Everyone Else Scale and listen in close.
See what happens when you acknowledge the pain without calling yourself names, and notice any patterns. What happens when you try trusting the hunch that your maybe-this-is-just-normal-suffering voice might be trying to drown out? What reality might you be left facing?
It may mean confronting some hard truths about some circumstances you've opted into, but finding the strength to sit with those truths and the willingness to start there (even without a clear path forward!) is sometimes the best we can do for ourselves. Choosing to acknowledge the truth in our suffering holds so much more power than denying that your pain is real.