How Pain Can Guide Us and Make Us Whole

 “Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.” ~Bernice Johnson Reagon

We all internalize our suffering to one extent or another. Some of us instinctively take it to a point where it manifests as various physical aches and pains. When I was little, my body learned to carry the burden of the pain that was too big for my heart.

In some ways, it’s served me very well. It let me compartmentalize enough to function beautifully in certain areas. I have an Ivy League education, many work accolades, and all that jazz.

But oh, the cost to my dear body has been high. I’ve had chronic pain since I was 16, which has amplified over the years into to difficulty walking, standing, heck, even sitting. I’m physically limited in where I can go, what I can do, and how much energy I have on a daily basis.

It has been a tremendous price to pay, and I have been so resentful of my body for the life experiences I’ve missed out on.

I’m in my 30s, and there are 70 year olds who can dance circles around me. It has only been lately that it’s dawned on me how grateful I am for the sacrifice that I unknowingly made. I got through what I needed to, and it’s gotten me to a place where I have the safety to stop, lay my burdens down, and heal.

Separating from my pain and storing it in my body allowed me a container to put everything I wasn’t able to consciously hold. It also provided a buffer to keep my life experiences from damaging my soul, my faith in humanity, and my spirit. That is exactly what I needed way back then.

I don’t need it anymore. 

I have been blessed with the time, energy, and resources to find people who can gently and lovingly support me on a path to wholeness. And I am grateful for the pain, because it calls me home. It reminds me that I have unfinished business.

It is an ever-present reminder that if I want to be whole, I need to go back and grieve the old hurts and reclaim my soul. There is no way for me to live in a real sense if I’m separated into parts that are boxed up off in storage.

As put so eloquently by Alice Miller:

“The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, our perceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication.* But someday the body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.”

For many people with chronic pain, including myself, the pain is our body’s way of calling us back to make peace and find forgiveness, acceptance, and healing. And yet how easy, seductive, and culturally accepted it is to take a pill, grab a pint or two of Ben and Jerry’s, numb out on the intertubes, or medicate in some way and keep that fire-breathing dragon in its box.

As Rilke puts it, “Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love….”

I want to be free. I want to come home. I know in my heart that it is not only possible, but it is my life’s mission.

I know that making peace with those dragons doesn’t mean they will magically disappear in a puff of smoke. It’s not a deal I’m making so that my body will be cured or that I will be miraculously spring up and run a 5K.

Healing and closure are simply necessary to fully live. Healing and curing are parallel but independent. We can always heal, and a physical cure is sometimes a beautiful bonus.

The key is remembering my intentions. I’ve played with these over the years, and if this is something that speaks to you, I’d encourage you to experiment with variations on these themes:

  • To greet the pain as a valued messenger and visitor, and an honored guest. It’s to see the pain as a meditation bell and a call to practice.
  • To see pain as a “check engine” light going off and a sign that further inquiry is needed.
    • Am I hungry?
    • Am I tired?
    • Do I need more time or space?
    • Is there something else I need to include or eliminate from my life?
  • To set a “lunch date” with the pain (or inviting Mara to tea). Sometimes logistics prevent immediately pausing and listening. If my leg starts hurting on the Beltway, it’s neither safe nor wise to pull over and meditate. However, making a commitment to set aside time and space for the pain to come chat in the next 24 hours is key. It’s like telling the screaming toddler that you hear, that you care, and that you will listen as soon as you can. Honoring that time is vital.
  • To give the pain tools to express what lies behind it. That may be done through journaling, drawing or painting, therapy, dance, or even screaming.
  • To have compassion for the times we inevitably resist self-care. 
  • To set aside time to find joy in where you are, each day.

For me, the art is in remembering that the pain is a love song from my soul. It’s not punishment, but rather a gift perfectly designed to show me the way back home.

I also understand that if I have the courage to come home, that simple act is enough to ripple out to those I love, and truly, to all of humankind and beyond. 

I believe it is the sweetest of gifts that we all can offer.

“Your legs will get heavy and tired. Then comes a moment of feeling the wings you’ve grown, lifting”. ~Rumi

*Please note: While I love the Alice Miller quote in the middle of this post, it is neither my place nor intention to cast judgment on others’ decisions to use medications.

Photo by AlicePopkorn

About Cheryl Harris

Cheryl Harris is a dietitian & nutritionist, health coach, Celiac advocate, G-free cook, baker, speaker, writer & eater. Also a garden & meditation enthusiast, and a proud kitty mama. Visit her at and on Twitter @CherylHarrisRD.

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  • Alice Miller is a powerful author. I think different pains call for different measures. So you hit it on the head when you say to listen and dialogue with the pain to find out what it’s telling you. Sometimes it may be telling you that you need to heal a childhood wound. Other times it may be telling you that you need to go the ER or take an aspirin. The important thing is to diagnose correctly.

  • Oh, Cheryl! If I could only reach through the computer and give you a big (soft) hug!

    In April of 2010, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. For the 12 years beforehand, I lived with an invisible illness that caused so much pain, so many surgeries and so much mental anguish that I was not sure if I wanted to continue to live.

    Like you, my childhood had held a great deal of pain. From my drug-abusing & alcoholic mother leaving me and my dad when I was only 2 to mental, physical and emotional abuse by extended family members and beyond. So much pain for such a young girl to go through.

    But, it wasn’t until I read your post this morning, that I even thought of a connection between my condition and my childhood. And better yet, I had never thought about the strength that could come from spending time with my pain.

    I call myself the Fibro Warrior because I choose not to live within the confinements of the illness. The battle that I waged is a roller-coaster ride that is truly making me sick to my stomach. Maybe if I listened to the pain… embraced it… loved it (and my body) for the blessings it has allowed me….

    It is time to take a pause and pray on the wisdom you have shared.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • I shouldn’t say it amazes me anymore that when I least expect it the perfect message is sent my way.  This is nothing more than a perfect example of a guiding light and all I have to do is listen.  

    I’ve been struggling with chronic pain for over a year I am not able to take anything for it because it causes more pain.  After reaching my all time low I decided that if I didn’t choose to battle it I was going to let it take my life away.  I made that decision and today I struggle through the pain while listening to where it directs me.  I’ve since used the pain to find closure on many things that were lingering in my life, I’ve taken time to recognize what is truly important and slow down, and I’ve started to find direct and peace from my soul.  

    I’m glad that I stumbled upon your page in my journeys and thanks for posting this it’s almost like getting an unsuspecting message from the perfect source! 

    Blessings and Light to all those in pain don’t let it overtake you .. it can be defeated! 

  • Lenleyl

    Wonderful article. Great quote from Rilke. Reminded me of Tsultrim Allione’s Feeding Your Demons, a book I highly recommend.

  • Sylvie Lafleur

    It felt like you were writing about me!  With fibromyalgia I had to forgive my body for making my life miserable.  My body didn’t have a choice I wasn’t listening and was pushing down all the anger and bads things down .  There wasn’t any space anymore my body didn’t have a choice to let me know it couldn’t take it anymore. So now I try to live in the present with a full conscience.  Meditation and relaxation helps also. Thanks for your text.

  • As I sit here at my desk reading this I sob. For joy that someone as been able to put into words what I have been feeling all of my life. Best article ever. Thank you.

  • Hello Cheryl,

    This was such an honest post. I have many friends who I talk to that are in their early 30s and late 20s that love to play the age card. They claim the pain in their bodies is because they are getting older. I always sit silently in amazement thinking “YOU ARE YOUNG!”

    They like to play the age card because it is easier than actually owning up to the reality of their lives. It is scary to own up to the pain. You do a fantastic job pointing this out throughout the post.

    “It’s not punishment, but rather a gift perfectly designed to show me the way back home.”

    What a wonderful quote :). My most painful experiences have also been my greatest blessings. A few years ago I was in a job that gave me massive stress. I was so overwhelmed and anxious that I would wake up every night around 2 am and I would lay in bed running through all of the events from the upcoming day.

    Long story short that experience gave me the conviction to leave the job and eventually do what I am currnetly doing: living in Japan and pursuing my childhood dream – to become a ninja 🙂

  • I like this post a lot because you are now getting a chance to overcome something that I’m sure you didn’t think you would – that’s admirable! Thanks for sharing and please keep up the good practices.

  • Laurence

     Shannon, I wish I could reach through the PC and give you a big hug too !

  • Cheryl Harris

     Katie, I’m so touched.  I’m glad it spoke to you…it’s something too often left unsaid.

  • Ooh, what does becoming a ninja involve?  That sounds awesome. 🙂

  • Cheryl Harris

     I’m so glad it was the right message at the right time!  I truly hope  your new choices help you find the closure you seek.

  • Sheila

    This is unbelievably beautiful, Cheryl! Thanks so much for sharing – I love too many parts to quote them all 🙂 I’m so glad you chose to share your powerful Voice with us – it touches me deeply.

  • Cheryl Harris

    so glad it helped you make a connection.  It sounds like you are living your wisdom and finding your own ways to make peace with old hurts.

  • Hi Alannah,
    Good question 🙂

    So, as I said I am pursuing my childhood dream: to become a ninja. Now to be clear the ninja I want to become is not a traditional ninja but the ninja from my 8 year old brain.

    So what does a Ninja do according to my 8 year old brain?
    There are 3 specific things that make a up a Ninja (according to my 8 year old brain):

    A Ninja: 
    1. Intensely trains in martial arts
    2. Moves to a far away land to train
    3. Challenges the rules of life and work as we know it.

    How does this relate to my life.

    Well, I quit my job in America about a year ago and moved to Japan (a far away land) and am now focusing on training in martial arts 6 days per week. I currently live in the countryside of Japan. But this hasn’t given me the opportunites to find a high level martial arts dojo so I am leaving my current job in Japan (at the end of this month) and moving to Kyoto.

    Kyoto is a famous historical city in Japan and has tons of opportunity to train in martial arts. Sounds like a good place to become a ninja, right?  

    I also am 100 percent committed to trying to find a way to generate income while doing all of this.

    I want to prove to the world that a person can pursue a childhood dream no matter how ridiculous it sounds and actually turn it into a lifestyle.

    My big hope with all of this is not only to “become a ninja” but to encourage and inspire others to follow their dreams!

    I write about it here:

  • That’s fantastic.  I wish you success!!

  • Shirley Braden

    You always amaze me, Cheryl. This post will help so many folks on so many different levels. I, myself, will be re-reading it again for insight into my own health. While I don’t suffer from daily pain, and I am extremely grateful for that, there have been times that pain has appeared in different parts of my body for no logical reason. I’ll be sharing this with others, too. Thanks for being willing to share your personal story and life lessons, Cheryl!


  • This is such a heartfelt and meaningful post, Cheryl. My heart goes out to you for your pain and I celebrate your resilience and fortitude. To look at pain as a blessing is incredibly healing. We get to chose how we perceive our challenges. I admire you and am inspired by your grace. Beautiful post! Thank you for sharing. 

  • Cheryl Harris

     Thanks so much, Sheila.

  • Cheryl Harris

     Izmael, I have no doubt we’ll be hearing more from you in your travels. I’m intrigued and entertained and I haven’t even made it to your blog yet!

  • Cheryl Harris

     “We get to chose how we perceive our challenges”  Well put, Melissa!

  • Thank you so much for this! It really made me feel better. I’m trying to get over/through depression.

  • Stefsspa

    thats is crazy awesome and amazing. mine is to open up and keep it open vrgan and gf bakery. ive pre trial done this but its really slow because first i have mouths to feed. its not just me so its all good . its a process. very inspiring. wish u tons of success.

  • Thank you Cheryl, lovely post. As a counsellor I have worked with body with my clients for many years and believe in the whole and saw miracles happen when they listened; however I did not really start my journey of embracing the pain and hidden lost child/princess needing me until the dragon was raging!! Yoga brought it to the surface until I could no longer hide and I was forced to ask others for the love, healing touch and support that I not received in my early years. Opening myself up to pain allowed me to open myself up to love and being set free to live fully 🙂  

  • Thank you @9044c9de5549cefbce40bbc4ff848765:disqus . I really appreciate your kind comments. I hope that you are able to take some first steps and start turning your dream into a reality :). 

  • Hi @google-b65670ab0558470bb4c60e2c9ac39dc3:disqus . Well, I hope so too :). But more importantly I hope that someday reasonably soon I can break a brick with my bare fist… Now that would be super awesome!

  • Thank you Alannah. I appreciate your support 🙂

  • Tillysusie

    Oh my goodness I have been totally blown away reading this,thank you so so much,I have been in the most terrible pain and have been feeling like life wasn’t worth living. I am going to read this again and again and do what you suggest and pull myself out of this terrible place I am in,please give me the strength to do this.

  • Gingerooney7

    This article has touched my soul, in a manner that few things ever do. I will read it again and again, and pay sincere heed to the message within.

  • Cheryl Harris

    Tillysusie, I absolutely wish you the best.  I would strongly encourage you to get support–life isn’t intended as a solo journey! With support you can find a way to manage with whatever path is best for you, be it meditation, medication or any blend of support.  There isn’t one right way…and I trust there are brighter days in your future.

  • V Gomez111

    Hey! Thank you for the touching story. I had a friend that suffered from chronic pain. She never thought she was goin to get thru it. She finally did because of a meal plan i gave to her. The meal plan changes my life as well, i was taking naps after class, one week on my new nutrition plan i was waking up an hour before my alarm was going off. Thank you again for your touching story.

  • V Gomez111

    You can email me if you wantthe meal plan that made holly’s chronic pain go away .

  • Tanya Levy

    Cheryl: This article spoke to my soul and reminded me of the teaching that my pain can be, sometimes an enemy, sometimes a friend and to love all of me.