Tiny Wisdom: The Pain of Anticipating Pain

“If pleasures are greatest in anticipation, just remember that this is also true of troubles.” ~Elbert Hubbard

The other day I had to get some moles removed after a biopsy showed they were “severely atypical.” Since they were both on my back, I laid on my stomach while the doctor’s assistant numbed the areas with lidocaine.

He repeatedly asked me, “Are you okay?” And I repeatedly said, “Just fine!”

Since it didn’t really hurt that much, it surprised me when he said, “Wow. You’re strong!”

I do believe I’m strong, but I’ve always been squeamish around needles—going back to my first childhood finger prick, which I resisted with blood curdling wails.

Still, this time the needle prodding didn’t even faze me.

So what was different this time? One thing: I couldn’t see it. And because I couldn’t see it, I responded only to the physical sensation, not the expectation of pain and discomfort.

How much of life’s toughest challenges would be far less painful if we didn’t anticipate the sting?

How many difficulties would seem more bearable if we didn’t ruminate over them, stress about them, expect the worst of them, and then create a state of panic that compels us to resist and fight?

Most things aren’t nearly as bad as we imagine they’ll be when they happen. In fact, sometimes they’re pleasantly surprising.

Sometimes you get laid off and feel a sense of freedom, possibility, and vitality that you haven’t felt in years.

Sometimes you end a relationship and come into your own in a way you never imagined possible.

And sometimes when your whole world falls apart you feel grateful for the opportunity to put it back together in a way that feels more authentic.

I realize this isn’t universally applicable. Some things hurt even when we consciously decide not to expect the worst.

But most things burn far less when we approach them from a place of clarity instead of overwhelming ourselves with fears about the fires we’ll have to put out.

When I originally had the moles biopsied, I told a couple of family members, one of whom asked me, “Do you think it could be cancer?”

I responded,  “I don’t think anything because I don’t yet know.”

As a lifelong worrier I felt proud of that moment. It was a choice not to freak out about what might be coming.

We can’t always be certain where the paths we fear may lead us—but we can choose not to hurt ourselves as we walk toward what will be.

Photo by sherrattsam

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha's Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • Hi Lori,

    My first comment on the Tiny Buddha site. Looks like a great community here. I liked your post and I so agree. A friend of mine and I were discussing getting shots the other day and I told her that I look away when they do it. Much easier. She looks at it and freaks out. Case in point!

    I love your point about there being good things sometimes coming out of painful moments. The Chinese character for “crisis” is the same character as for “opportunity”. That tells me that you are on the right track here. 

  • I used to do this all the time. Live the moment in my mind before the living the actual moment. Then I started convincing myself that if the experience was going to be bad, why “live” it twice? This has helped. But, it seems we are all capable of finding those negative thoughts first.

  • Thanks Lori…I think you hit on something important at the end as well, when you said you felt proud of that moment. I often forget this part, yet it is so important to acknowledge and congratulate ourselves when we make even tiny steps in our spiritual journey. It is very tough and demanding work after all. And lots of tiny positive steps, properly recognized, lead to transformation and growth.

  • Lori, wonderful post. I myself am a lifelong worrier and at times it can cripple me. So much of what you said was so familiar and at times it takes a reminder from someone else to show how much of life is beyond our control. That worrying about what might happened offers no positive as we go through life. I myself currently find myself unemployed, and though a financial hardship, it has opened my eyes to the world around me and where I truly need and want to be. All the best to you…

  • Hey Lori, great post and so true. It’s interesting that other people can make us worry more if we let them, what seems like concern actually dramatises the unknown ..good work for being strong on the inside and not joining in 😉

  • Shweta Kulkarni

    This post couldn’t have been more timely, ask me! It’s been a week since I’ve been grappling with this fear of losing the ones I love; a fear felt by all, you may say, but in my case, it snowballed on me to the extent that it affected my work, health, creativity and of course, relationships, filling me up with negetivity that was stiffling, almost literally. And now that I’m convalescing (irrational fear is an illness, I feel), I realize that I have irreversibly lost some precious hours of my life over something that was utterly unnecessary. Thank you for this post. God bless.

  • I responded, “I don’t think anything, because I don’t yet know.”

    Perfect response, Lori. Worry is the interest we pay on what may or may not come due tomorrow…or ever.I’d spent years halting my breath in my chest, as though in anticipation of something fearsome happening. It became a physical manifestation, as though there were truly something wrong. Once I learned full diaphragm breathing, the knot in my chest disappeared. I learned to breathe through uncertainty. As the founder of Gestalt therapy Fritz Perls said, “Fear is excitement without the breath.”

    I’ve learned some harsh lessons in life, but would never learned at all had they not happened to me. Some may even be interpreted as blessings…although I could not have been convinced of that at the time. That is why it is necessary to endure, to breathe through what is happening NOW and forgo the anticipation.

    Worry never bought a better tomorrow.

    ~ Mark

  • jas

    It never fails, Lori. Your posts always relate to my life on any given day. Such as today… I just got back from having my first root canal ever and right before I opened the link to the topic, I thought to myself “watch it match my day!”.  I had a tooth infection that needed to be taken care of and I hestitated because I thought, maybe I could treat it with healthy food. When the garlic, oregano oil and coconut oil pulling wasn’t really helping, I knew I had no choice. I hope that makes sense. I’m still having some pain but I’m glad I went through with it.

  • I’m taking away this wonderful reminder from your article: “…a choice to not freak out about what might be coming.”
    Thank you! I needed that today!

  • Cindy Padova

     craig, “where I truly need and want to be’ applies to me also as I am currently unemployed. your statement helped to put me at ease with my situation and not worry so much about it.

  • Tyhansen222

    That writing is beautiful. Thank you. 🙂

  • Welcome Amy =) Isn’t it funny how that works–if we don’t see it coming, we don’t stress as much! That’s fascinating about the Chinese characters–and very insightful!

  • That’s a great way of looking at it. Regarding what we’re all capable of, I suspect it comes to that negativity bias thing (we’re wired to find the negative first as a way or protecting ourselves from danger). It always helps me to stop myself and say, “My brain’s playing tricks on me. This is not a crisis–and if it will be, I don’t know that yet. I don’t need to freak out.” Of course, this doesn’t always work, but knowing there’s something biological at play often helps a great deal!

  • I’m glad to hear you’re doing well and embracing the opportunities in unemployment. All the best to you as well!

  • Yes, definitely! I remember once when I was going through a painful break up, a friend kept asking me about it every time we spoke. I knew she was anxious to hear all the details, and was trying to be supportive, but talking about it over and over again was the worst thing for me. It was a great lesson that I need to set boundaries for discussion when something isn’t healthy for me.

  • You’re most welcome Kate!

  • You’re welcome. Thank you for reading and commenting. =)

  • You’re most welcome Shweta. I could relate to what you wrote, about worrying about losing people you love. Sometimes irrational fear can seem crippling! I’m glad this helped somewhat.

  • I love that quote about fear! What an insightful thought, and very comforting too, to know that feeling can be transformed and then channeled into something positive. 

  • Thanks Jonathan. It’s a nice feeling to stop and take stock of the progress we’ve made. I often forget this one too, being a perfectionist at all. I love what you wrote about tiny positive steps, properly recognized. Beautiful. =)

  • And I’m glad this was helpful to you! I hope your tooth starts to feel better soon. =)

  • Hansheat

    Really enjoyed this post.  I’m one of those people who have spent a lot of time worrying about things that never happened.  Just yesterday I was dreading going to an event where I would have to speak briefly, and I was worried about it for a good 12 hours.  It ended up going very well, and all the worrying was for nothing.  Thanks for the reminder that expectations can hold us back.

  • Mary

    Wonderful post Ms. Lori as you always do. Thank you!!!

  • Beautiful post!!! Thank you, Lori. 

  • You hit the nail right on the head, that is, on my head.  I am having some family issues that I am trying to deal with.  Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (replacing one thought with another) I say out loud to myself, “NO!” when I think about my troubles.  I am trying my best to replace these negative thoughts with positive ones – and talking out loud a lot!!  I know that what I am feeling and imagining can’t possibly be as bad as it really is.  Pain comes in all different shapes and sizes.  Following your advice will definitely help me work with this one!  Thanks again, Lori.   Cathy

  • Thanks Nikki!

  • Thanks so much Mary. I’m glad you found it helpful!

  • That’s wonderful you’re practicing reframing your thoughts to help with the family issues. I actually first learned about CBT because of my own family issues, when I was in therapy as a teen. It helped a great deal!

  • You’re most welcome. I’m glad it went well! =)

  • Littlemoonbe

    Hi,always the runner appears when called upon!!!You are mine for today,I just had hip replacement 2 months ago and will know on Fri if I have to go back in for knee surgery.Pain is a addiction and I am now over mine;;;Blessings,Littlemoon(nancy brugger)

  • I hope everything goes well with your appointment on Friday!

  • B79

    Reading this couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I am getting ready to be sentenced to 11 days in jail and 6 months of work release in a facility with others. It was because of a horrible mistake of multiple DUI’s. It’s been almost a year coming and I have changed and grown as a person in this last year of sobriety and treatment but the anticipation of being “jailed” and away from my kids has brought me to more pain than I have ever imagined. I have lost 30 lbs and my ex boyfriend took my sons away from me and they are just babies. I am doing everything I can do make things better and after reading a lot of your blog posts and also the book Buddhism plain and simple. I have taken huge steps in helping control the way I think in order to become a better person and to let things go. I only have control over so much and in 2 short days, ALL of my control and freedom will be taken from me. I hope to learn a lot from this experience and take advantage of it to make myself a better person and when I go to work everyday and have access to a computer….reading your posts is will be the highlight to my day

  • I’m sure it’s not easy to share these experiences, but I admire that you did–and that you’ve grown so much since your DUIs. I’m glad Tiny Buddha has been helpful to you. I hope it provides more inspiration while you continue learning, growing, and turning things around!

  • Tyler

    This related so much to me and how my year has gone, and what’s to come. I’ve taken on moving out of state, it not working, going back, worried about my job, the company closing down, worried about the next steps. And recently I started to just focus on the present, and not fearing the worst, but entering those challenges with a clear state of mind, and seeing this reaffirms that I’m okay, and on the right track. I feel now that I can really step back, and let life be as it will, and know I will overcome it with a clear mind.

  • I’m glad this was helpful to you! I think worrying is mostly an attempt to maintain control, and yet it doesn’t actually work that way. It’s really just the illusion of control since dwelling on something that could go wrong doesn’t actually prevent it. A clear mind is definitely more helpful when facing the unknown than a mind plagued by panic and terror!

  • Klarissa Mae

    Great post Lori! I am a total worrier too! I had recently experienced this when my mom told me she could possibly have cancer, but she hadn’t gotten the results yet. I decided not to worry about it until we got the results. I think its a natural situation to worry especially since its my mom and its ‘cancer.’ Because knowing you have cancer will bring up a slue of feelings. I took it one breathe at the time and was thankful at the end knowing she didn’t have cancer. It helped me recognize that I could go there. I could worry endlessly, but I decided not to. I am human and will have moments of it, but thats ok. Its ok to not be ok 🙂

  • Thanks Klarissa! That’s wonderful, that you were able to take it one breath at a time. I’m so happy for both you and your mother. =)

  • kelseyyork

    I had the exact same surgery in December. I had two moles removed from my back, and I just grabbed the thing I was laying in the entire time. It took about an hour total. It actually came back stage 1 skin cancer… Luckily the second mole was not cancerous. I wish I was as strong as you are, because I couldn’t sleep more than a few hours a night until I got my results back. Great for you for being able to let go in that moment.

  • I’m so sorry to hear about your diagnosis–but glad it’s only stage 1! I wish I had realized sooner in life how important sunscreen is. Lesson learned…

  • Junnaquacks

    Hey, Lori!

    I’ve realized that this is a relatively old post, but it’s fine because I’d like to thank you for this post! Indeed, far too many times we are trapped with our own thoughts and emotions – making each thing in the future looking seemingly catastrophic. However, we all know that it is always not the case to assume the worst case scenario out of everything.

    We should be more confident of ourselves, and stop anticipating pain nor failure. Only then, will we be able to live life painlessly!

  • You’re most welcome! I’m glad this spoke to you. =)

  • Almichael

    I agree with alot of it. Even when an experience is very unpleasant or painful, I’ve gotten this feeling of relief when it happens because my constant anxiety and fear ridden anticipation is finally over. At least it’s happened now and the long stretch of anticipated fear stopped. There are exceptions though where the experience itself is still horrible.