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Cover image for The Dance of Pain
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The Dance of Pain

josepheames profile image Joe Eames ・4 min read

There is a universal law of being human, and being around other people (whether physically or virtually): you will hurt them. It is impossible to interact with other human beings for long without occasionally causing them pain. We are imperfect. Those around us who we live with, work with, play with, the ones we connect with, care about, love, and care for, they are all imperfect as well. Mix two imperfect beings, and the result is inevitably pain. "You only hurt the ones you love" is true simply due to proximity.

This dance of pain is common and fairly predictable in human relationships.

First, you do something that causes pain in another. Our "victim" then reacts. This may be an overt attack, a verbal accusation, quiet judgment, silent fury, or any of a myriad of responses. Then we react to their reaction. Our reaction generally is either defensiveness or shame. We either attack back, or we collapse on ourselves, running our own inner dialogue about what a terrible person we are, how we are worthless.

And therein lies our problem. We have now abandoned our "victim". We have disconnected from them and shut ourselves off from them. Either through an assault (defensiveness) or through our impenetrable barrier of shame.

Regardless of the method, the result is disconnection, which destroys the opportunity to bond and heal. Continued disconnection leads to apathy and ultimately the decay of the relationship. Whether this is platonic or non-platonic, the relationship is slowly dying due to repeated disconnection.

And this usually repeats in a cycle. Their reaction hurts us, then ours hurts them, and on and on it spirals, sometimes until the yelling and screaming start, and the relationship may even face an instant, untimely, and ultimately unnecessary death.

Relationships don't survive because two people don't hurt each other, they survive because two people work to maintain a connection. Humans are hard-wired to connect. Just google "wired to connect" for plenty of literary works on the subject. Connection allows our relationships to survive the inevitable damage we do to each other, whether inadvertent or not.

So are we doomed to destroy our relationships? As Yoda said, "no, there is another" (way).

In order to establish a better pattern we must accept two axioms:

First, we don't get to decide what is a valid reason for another person's pain. No matter what we did that caused them pain, we don't get to judge the action as a valid or invalid cause for their pain. Whether we have committed the most horrendous act or the most innocuous one, we don't have the authority to decide for another human being what does or does not hurt them. That is theirs and theirs alone to decide.

Whenever you are tempted to say "all I did was" or "that's dumb" or "you're overreacting" … stop. Just stop. Emotion never has been, and never will be subject to logic.

Second, your intentions are immaterial to the pain. Sure, it's worse to intentionally hurt someone, but an accidental gunshot wound has the same potential for harm as an intentional one. The same is true of emotional harm. Accidental or intentional, the hurt is still just as real to the other person.

Once you accept these two truths, you can then move on to connecting with them. We can do that by connecting with them about their pain and their hurt. Simply work to understand how they feel. And then find that same emotion in yourself. No matter how they feel, you have undoubtedly felt the same at some point in your life. Lost, betrayed, abandoned, attacked, whatever it is, you have experienced that emotion too. Once you identify that emotion, connect with it. Talk with them about the pain, and how much it sucks to be in pain, fear, and anger. Truly connect with them. Connect with where they are right now. It may not instantly heal the pain, but it gives them someone to be connected with. Someone important to them. And the relationship will be strengthened.

This may sound impossible, and when you try it, it may feel impossible. You will have to put aside your own pain, hurt, defensiveness, and shame. You will have to step aside from whatever horrible thing the other person just said to you, and instead, ask them, "how do you feel right now? How did my actions/words make you feel?", and you have to MEAN it. You can't try this as a way to just get out of an argument, you have to truly care.

I promise it's possible to learn to do this. But the only way is through habit. Doing it over and over, and failing more often than you succeed, but continuing to try and try until it becomes second nature.

For six years I have practiced this in my own marital and friendship and business relationships, still often failing, but more and more succeeding. And I have seen the fruits of working to maintain a connection with those I care about.

Who is it that you are stuck in this cycle with? What relationship are you slowly killing through repeated disconnection? Why do you want to save the relationship, why is that person important to you?

Happy Coding!

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josepheames profile

Joe Eames

@josepheames

Mormon, Christian, Father, Educator, CEO of Thinkster.io, Organizer of @ngconf, @frameworksummit & React Conf. Front end developer, and Software Craftsmanship Evangelist.

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Discussion

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Thank you for this article, it's very timely for me. Connecting while both parties are in pain is one of the hardest things for me to do. It's good to hear that it's possible to learn how to do that.

I have a question regarding this part:
"This may sound impossible, and when you try it, it may feel impossible. You will have to put aside your own pain, hurt, defensiveness, and shame. You will have to step aside from whatever horrible thing the other person just said to you, and instead, ask them, "how do you feel right now? How did my actions/words make you feel?", and you have to MEAN it. You can't try this as a way to just get out of an argument, you have to truly care."

When I am hurting, this seems indeed impossible. I know I'm supposed to truly mean it when I ask "how do you feel right now?", but I am usually stuck in my own pain from the things the other person said. How do you practice to actually mean it and care for the other person, when really you just don't want to be hurting anymore?

Do you fake it until you make it? What advice do you have on how to overcome the selfishness in the beginning until you've learned how to truly care about the other person even when you yourself are hurt?