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#54 Why the pain part VI: How your brain makes pain worse

We will be spending the next few weeks looking at the question of pain, specifically trying to discover what pain wants to give us, what secrets are locked within our pain and what we can learn from pain.

Last week looked at how pain can be your master (suffering) or your mentor (learning and growth), which you can read here. This week we will look at two ways your brain makes the pain worse, and what you can do about it.

When pain is your master, there are two ways that you use your mind to extend or amplify your pain:

Using your memory (past)

We have memories of things that caused us pain in the past, which we relive when we remember it in the present.

When we recall that memory, our brain naturally tries to fill in the blanks to help that hurtful situation make sense.

Maybe someone was rude to you and you think, “Why were they rude to me?” You might start thinking about what you could have done wrong to make sense of why they were rude to you specifically, and your brain gets to work filling in the gaps that don't make sense to you (that you can't know or don't remember).

Once we’ve made up stories to fill in the blanks, they become part of the memory as if that is what had really happened.

Using your imagination (future)

We also use our imagination to create pain that might happen in the future. For instance, we imagine that someone will reject us when we start a conversation, or that we will fail when we try something new. Neither of those things has happened yet, but you create pain in the present by imagining how they go wrong in the future.

Our imagination is powerful — once you imagine that future scenario a few times, you start “remembering” it as if it has really happened.

Even though it is only an imagined outcome, you start to feel all the doubt and fear in the present. This doubt and fear then stop you from taking action.


From master to mentor

What can we do about this? How can we start to turn this around to make pain your mentor instead of your master?

Simply start becoming aware of how you are using your memory and imagination to give meaning to the past and to “remember” the future. When you become aware of all the limiting ways that you are using memory and imagination, you can then start changing it.

It does not mean you can change events that happened in the past, but you can change the story that you have been telling yourself about them. In doing so, you give a different meaning to the events in the past and break its hold over you in the present.

You can also use your imagination to travel back to the future and imagine positive outcomes for future events. If you do that enough, you will start “remembering” that positive outcome and that will become your present experience. The way you think about taking action now also changes.

When you try and control the past or the future, you lose control in the present. What you can control is your experience in the present by changing the way you think about the past and the future.



  • What painful memories from the past are you hanging on to?

  • How can you change the story you are telling yourself about those memories?

  • What circumstances in the future are you torturing yourself with now?

  • How can you change the story you are telling yourself about them now?

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