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How Understanding Good Pain and Bad Pain Helps Me Live With Chronic Pain

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As someone with the chronic pain of fibromyalgia for well over a decade now, I really thought I knew what pain was. Pain was bad. Whether it was a broken heart or a broken bone — it was just bad. Not particularly complicated, right? But wait… how does that explain people who claim to love the agony of exercise, the gut-punch of massive rollercoasters, or even the myriad of ways pain and pleasure are intertwined in sex?

Everyone’s experience of pain, good or bad, is different — but it seems like there are a few specific things that distinguish the kind of pain we enjoy from the kind we don’t.

Good pain is usually voluntary, intentional, controllable, and temporary. You enthusiastically get inline at the amusement park, you lace up your running shoes with excitement, you engage in sexual activities with your partner knowing you only have to do what feels good, and at the end of the day, there is always some endpoint to the “blissful agony” of our positive pain adventures — giving us the freedom to enjoy it.

Bad pain is not those things. If you trip and injure your ankle, you didn’t choose to, you didn’t do it on purpose, and you can’t just decide to make it stop hurting. And while some things such as chronic pain may be lifelong, even an injury that you know will likely heal has a vague timetable and no guarantees you’ll be 100% better. Even painful emotions such as heartbreak and sadness never give us a date on the calendar when we can count on their end.

So is pain always bad? No. But as someone with chronic, and at times nearly unbearable, pain, I never thought about it any other way. I live practically down the road from a massive amusement park with some of the best rollercoasters you’ll ever find and I’ve always loved the misery of it! Yet it never occurred to me that “pain” was not a universally negative thing.

Maybe I was just scared to admit that some things can actually hurt in a good way because it might invalidate the struggles of having a chronic pain condition. But it absolutely does not. It shows that pain is a subjective experience, and you should never judge someone’s pain — physical or emotional — based on your own experiences, because their experience is unique. Like so many things in life, pain lives on a spectrum — and the spectrum reaches far beyond the 1-10 rating scale in a doctor’s office.

Getty image by Vintervit.

Originally published: December 8, 2021
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