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On pain, tolerance, and why there are no bullet points



“Pain is only romantic at a distance.” ~ Laurie Slateyoung woman in pain


I was on my hands and knees on the floor, and I wasn’t sure how I got there.

It was three o’clock in the morning, and I stumbled out of bed to use the bathroom. But on the way back, it hit me again as though for the first time: Ruth was dead.

She died a few weeks ago, and she wasn’t coming back. Ever.

The rawness of reality hit me hard in the stomach. I doubled over as a long wail rose from my gut and came out of my mouth as though it had a life of its own—as though it was possessed by some mad demon of grief.

I found myself on the floor, keening and sobbing.

“Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!” I gasped. The awful truth—the person I loved most in the world was gone forever—had broken through the thin protection from awareness that sleep provided.

Grief had cold-cocked me right in the heart.


The rest of the story


In most self-improvement blogs, including mine, this would be the point in the story where I would say, “But then _______ (fill in the blank) happened,” and everything was better.

I would give you several bullet points so that you, too, can feel better than ever right away! Act now!

But that’s not what happened.

The rest of the story is that I cried so hard on my hand and knees, I thought I was going to vomit.

I cried and wailed to Ruth about how much I missed her.

I thought the pain would never end. And it didn’t.

Finally, exhausted and my tears spent, I was able to crawl into bed and go back to sleep.


The truth about pain


It wasn’t pretty.

It wasn’t easy.

There wasn’t any checklist of bullet points for me to follow that made it better.

The next day, I recounted the episode to my friend, Laurie, who is one of those people who can spiritually attune to other people’s wavelengths.

“It’s not like the movies, Laurie,” I said. “They make it seem so romantic when someone is grieving.”

Laurie looked at me lovingly and replied softly, “Pain is only romantic at a distance.”

No truer thing was ever said.


Pain sucks


I was watching The Amazing Spiderman the other night and chuckled a bit when Spiderman, resting after an epic fight with The Lizard, looks down at his gashed torso and says, “That completely sucked!”

That’s how it is with pain.

I made it through my horrible wailing night, but it wasn’t the last such episode that I would experience. Intense grief was a long-term companion for me, and I was wracked with painful spasms for a few years before my grief finally ebbed away to a manageable distance.

It completely sucked.


On the nature of pain


I’m very close to my older sister, Susie. She’s been telling me about the pain she’s having in her joints.

It moves around, this pain. Sometimes it’s in her feet, sometimes in her shoulders, and right now it’s in her fingers. They’re swollen, inflamed, and so sore that it’s hard for her to unscrew the cap off a water bottle, let alone do her job as an electrician.

She finally got in to see a specialist. She’s been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis: an ongoing painful disorder.

I hate this and want to fix it.

The other day, as I rode my bike, I was pondering the nature of pain.

I was riding up a hill and challenging myself by peddling in a higher gear than normal. My breath was coming in gasps, my heart was thudding out of my chest, and my thighs ached.

It hurt.

I wanted it to hurt, because I wanted to understand more about pain. Maybe if I understood about my own pain, I could help Susie with hers.

But then I realized that I was tolerating the pain in my body and continuing to push myself because I knew my pain was going to end as soon as I got to the top of the hill and got my breath back.

I called Susie later that day and told her about my realization that my tolerance of pain was based on the idea that it was going to stop. But what about her pain that may or may not end?

“I think ongoing pain is similar to when elite athletes train for an endurance sport—like a triathlon,” she said. “It depends on how much suffering you’re willing to put up with that day. Some days you can run a marathon and other days you can only tolerate five miles.

“But you keep training anyway.”


Why there are no bullet points


By this point, you might be wondering when I’m going to get to the good stuff. When am I going to give you the magic bullet points that will make life’s painful episodes better?

I’m not.

And here’s why: I receive emails from readers who tell me about their pain and their extremely difficult circumstances that break my heart to hear about.

Bullet points aren’t going to help.

Okay, maybe they will help a little.

But what I want you to know, what we all need to know and understand, is that sometimes life cold-cocks you in the heart.

And it hurts. It just fucking hurts.

And you make your way through it however you make your way through it.

Maybe it’s by sobbing on your hands and knees until you can’t sob anymore.

Maybe it’s by calling your friend at three o’clock in the morning.

Maybe it’s by tolerating as much as you can each day.

Maybe it’s by shouting and raging at God.

Somehow, miraculously, while you’re doing these things, time passes.

And one day, you look back with wonder and say, “I made it.”


I’m interested in what you think. Please leave a comment below.



  1. Carole Lyden says:

    This article is spot on. When a loved one dies it’s as if part of you has died with them. It’s probably the hardest thing anyone has to deal with. There are no words.
    Carole Lyden recently posted…Psyche Buzz is changing. Are you changing?My Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      Of course I agree with you, Carole! And I think it probably is the hardest thing to deal with. Although, in some ways, it can be harder to lose someone to life via break-up, divorce, etc. However, the knowledge that you’ll never see the person again is what makes death so profoundly wounding.

  2. Annmarie says:

    I do agree that pain comes and go and with each pain we learn how to handle it whether we laugh, cry, talk about or just scream. The most important thing is to process our feelings. So as I say on a daily basis, we are not promised tomorrow so live for today and enjoy every minute even if it hurts.

    • Bobbi says:

      Ah, that’s an interesting last sentence, Annmarie. ” . . . live for today and enjoy every minute even if it hurts.” Yes, there is some truth to that, isn’t there? Because we will always have pain in life so we certainly can’t avoid it. I’m not sure pain can be enjoyable, but we certainly can learn from it.

  3. Susan Schwartz says:

    Here’s what I think: I think this is the most
    accurate, honest,and compelling description of grief I’ve ever read. (And I’ve read a few.) The benefit — is that when you can call a thing what it is, you stop looking for it to be something else. Sometimes things are horrible. And they do stink. And no amount of slicing them into small packages is going to make them better. That’s just the truth. And when you know that, well,at least you know. And that’s something. Thanks for putting it out there, Bobbi.

    • Bobbi says:

      Susan, I’m glad that you and the others who have commented so far get what I’m trying to put out there. You nailed it with this: “when you can call a thing what it is, you stop looking for it to be something else.” That’s exactly what I was trying to say. Except you did it in 18 words rather than 980! Thanks, Susan. And I’m still waiting for you to start your own blog so you can throw these wise little snippets out to the universe.

  4. I get pretty fired up about talks of overcoming because it automatically becomes personal. Most of us were never really taught how to endure pain, with or without bullet points. We spend so much time in blame and guilt that we never really get a chance to process pain correctly.

    Your title included the word tolerance, and that is huge. This is why people feel like some pain is so intolerable – because they think that nobody understands what they are going through. And sometimes people don’t.

    We cannot avoid pain. I have learned that the best thing to do is treat pain like giving birth. My midwife told be to push down with the pain and not against it. Sorry for the graphics – but life is real.

    If I can just translate that abstract thought to bullet points, I could help someone. Labor pain is what it is. It’s not a beach vacation.

    I wish someone would have taught me that it is perfectly okay to feel pain and there is nothing I need to do (for a while) because pain is normal. Damn! It is normal and expected, even though it is not meant to last forever.

    ~”I will not die an unlived life.”

    • Bobbi says:

      Dear Mrs. Night Owl,

      I agree that we aren’t taught how to deal with pain. We’re either expected to just suck it up, not talk about it, or get over it. No one teaches us that sometimes we just have to put up with it. And sometimes – like during childbirth – you have to scream.

      Your midwife was very wise to advise you to go with the pain and not against it.

      Maybe we can start a movement, Mrs. Night Owl, to let people know that pain is normal even if it does suck.

  5. Amen to that movement!

    I’ve got 3 grasshoppers that I’m working with in my home.

    I say start them early.

  6. Bobbi,

    You’re articles give me goosebumps more frequently than any other blog I read. And I read a ton of blogs and don’t get goosebumps very often.

    Sometimes by writing without the explicit goal of helping others we can help more than if we tried. I believe this article is one of those times. Believe it or not, but in my 33+ years, I’ve never really felt intense pain. Sure, I’ve broken bones, had family members pass away, and had my heart stepped on by girls, but I can’t say I’ve experienced grief like most people around me.

    I’m not impervious to it and my time will come. When it does, I’ll reread this article.
    Joel Zaslofsky recently posted…Pulse Check – Monthly Report for November 2012My Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      I’m flattered that I give you goosebumps, Joel!

      You know, it’s possible that you won’t feel intense pain. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Or with you. People react differently to different things. I’m neither a very private person nor particularly contained (as opposed to expressive.) So it makes sense for me that I might experience intense pain as I’ve described. And you will have your own way of reacting, too.

      I hope you never have to find out, Joel.

  7. Deirdre says:

    I am wondering what to say? Intense emotional pain? Yes it sucks so much. In the back of my head I have been having this hope that I am going to wake up one day (some day soon like tomorrow) and it will be gone and I will be myself again.

    But reading this, does give me hope. It will get better with time. I have made it so far. The insanity inside my head is getting better.

    • Bobbi says:

      I know what it feels like to hold that hope about the pain just being gone one day, Deirdre. But I’m glad that this post gives you a sense of real hope now!

  8. Judy Kukuruza says:

    I have faced pain and my initial reaction to it was to run as fast and hard as I could away from it. But some can’t be run away from and that is the kind you talked about. It felt like my heart was being wrenched out of my body when I lost two people I so dearly loved and knew I depended on. And now I face it again. There are no stages to go through. It hits and hits hard. Will I make it? Will I ever get past it? These thoughts go through my mind and it hurts beyond hurt. But the people I lost left me with something–knowing that they understood pain themselves and I loved them for that and more. It hurts so bad to have lost them, but they are in the same heart of mine that breaks because of that loss. And I can go on because I know they would have gone on and cared for those that they saw in pain. Part of the pain, a major part, is the loss of their beauty and kindness. But that is what is left when the pain abates some–the loving spirit that entwined their hearts with mine. Isn’t it true that “tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved”? I’ll bear the pain to have known the beautiful and wonderful people I knew. People who live in my heart forever.

    • Bobbi says:

      Beautifully written, Judy. Yes, I think it better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. We enjoy the bright side of love knowing that we risk getting flung into the dark side at some point. But once the darkness lifts, as you have said, the joy of our loved one remains in our hearts.

  9. Kate says:

    The pain of RA is so frustrating, and that’s because, in my experience, when it subsides you think “I’m getting better! This [fill in the blank] treatment is working!” And you shout Hallelujah that you finally found the answer, and you’ll go on the Dr. Oz show and tell the world how you healed yourself from this incurable disease, and so many people will be helped by hearing of your difficult journey. And then the next day the pain is back, and you can’t stand on your feet for more than an hour, can’t turn a screwdriver, can’t do so many things you did for many years of your life without a second thought because now your joints don’t bend anymore. You feel helpless and defeated. Yet again. Yes, we carry on, circumscribing our activities down to a pinpoint, but we’re in a constant state of grieving, for every year we lose more of ourselves to this wretched disease. We say goodbye over and over, and each loss brings a new wave of sadness because you know those joints are never coming back. Just as you said, there’s no bullet-point-inspirational happy ending in this comment. But I keep on hoping. . .

    • Bobbi says:

      I see what you mean about it being a constant state of grieving, Kate. I only wish I had bullet points that would help you, my sister, and everyone else out there with debilitating pain, but I don’t. Still, I’m with you – there’s always hope. And I know there are many ways to mitigate the pain through meditation and other methods. Yet . . . a cure would be nice.

  10. Once again you move me to tears Bobbie…both with the account of your own pain, and your honest assessment that it’s not just wished away, and there are no magic potions to wash it away. There’s just being with it. God, but that’s a hard one! After spending a lifetime assiduously avoiding pain of all sorts (or numbing it in whatever way I could), I’m now finding out that leaning into discomfort and pain might be what I was missing all along. It might take me to those places I’ve never been able to reach.

    Thank you once again for another thought-provoking and moving post!
    Sarah | Holistic Hot Sauce recently posted…Disappearing ActMy Profile

  11. Bobbi Emel says:

    Thanks, Sarah.

    I’m pretty sure that most of us try to avoid pain when we can! And that’s not always a bad thing. But yes, leaning into it can provide some interesting insights and increase your resiliency at the same time!
    Bobbi Emel recently posted…On pain, tolerance, and why there are no bullet pointsMy Profile

  12. There is SO much in this post…I’ve read it three times now and each time, like Joel did before, got goosebumps. I can’t thank you enough for your authenticity, openness, generosity and kindness here. Thank you for sharing your journey and making mine that much easier. I hope someday to return the favor.
    Greg at Tiny Bit Better recently posted…A Tiny Bit of Gratitude – 16My Profile

  13. Brava, Bobbi! I think this is my favorite post of all the excellent ones you’ve written.

    Your message of self-compassion is sorely needed, as is obvious from your readers’ comments. You’ve really struck a chord with this one.

    As a fellow therapist, and as a human being, I applaud you for your service to the online community.

    • Bobbi says:

      Wow, thanks, Tina! I have to admit I had a few butterflies putting this one out there, but I just think it’s so important that I knew I had to. I hope your clients will find it helpful, too, Tina! Thanks again for your kind words!

  14. Priska says:

    My life was like those self improvement blogs, I followed every bullet point to the letter.
    Like Sarah, I never allowed myself to acknowledge the pain, discomfort. Perhaps I was afraid of losing my mind.
    The price I paid, I lived half a life, without pain, we never understand passion.
    This post touched those places, the places where we are connected, as human.
    Priska recently posted…Blogging Boomers are Blooming.My Profile

  15. Hi Bobbi,

    You have really nailed it with this post. Pain can be all consuming, but only if we allow it to. I feel that when we feel pain, we need to sit with it and be in it until we are ready to let it go

    But so often I and maybe others as well, would rather stay in our comfort zone and avoid the pain, so we stuff it down to where we cannot feel it. I have felt that if I gave in to the pain and sunk into that dark pit, I would never come out.

    “And you make your way through it however you make your way through it.” says it all. We do the best we can and emerge a bit stronger for the experience at the other end. Thanks for a great post.
    Cathy Taughinbaugh recently posted…The Miracle of RecoveryMy Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      Thanks for your insights, Cathy. The dark pit is extremely scary, but there is a power and confidence that you gain when you go into it and come back out again.

  16. Thank you, Bobbi, for your willingness to bare your soul and share your personal pain with us.

    When something terrible happens, it feels at the time like we are entirely alone in our pain or grief — that no one else could possibly understand.

    “Nothing can fix this” is all we can think in the unendurable intensity of that situation.

    On Dec 7, 1999 (Pearl Harbor Day), my mom died suddenly and without warning. In the two years that followed, my marriage fell apart and I entered a self-destructive relationship that ended badly. Inside, my heart was fractured.

    Love and patience from people who truly cared about me, whether I realized it or not, have let the passing of time push that pain into a distant corner — someplace bearable.

    “Better to have loved…” and “Time heals…” are the only answers I could fine, too. That, and understanding that I was not alone.

    And this, from you: “Pain sucks” — exactly!

    • Bobbi says:

      Jim, I’m so sorry for the pain you’ve had to endure in your life. I think your comment about our internal thought of “Nothing can fix this” is really astute because we’re taught that everything can be fixed. And then it makes it doubly disappointing and painful when you get into a place where you learn that’s not true at all. I guess that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this post – so that people will understand that sometimes things can’t be fixed. You can tolerate them, endure them, and eventually they will ease, but they’re never fixed. As my sister said, “But you just keep training, anyway.” We just keep putting one foot in front of the other in this life.

  17. Bobbi – When I read your post I was moved by your honesty and insight. There are no bullet points to help when you walking through the valley. I too have experienced grief so deep I could not see my way out of it. Other’s words of consolation did not help, time didn’t move fast enough, cookies, chocolate, wine – nothing. I like that I know you better through your posts. I allowed grief then continued walking. Thank you for this one.
    Jane Robinson recently posted…An Art Epicurean Christmas CardMy Profile

  18. Amit Amin says:

    Yeah. Pain hurts. It is past time we start accepting that as a society and give people the space to feel pain when they need it.

    Obviously there are coping & resilience strategies, else there would be no bounce blog, but trite one-liners that actually help? I suppose not.

  19. Bobbi,
    You are such a beautiful and authentic writer. This is an exceptional post. By sharing our stories of pain and loss (without bullet points), we allow others to more fully experience their own. It has been such a pleasure to discover your work!
    Marilyn Price-Mitchell recently posted…The Immeasurable and Enduring Role of TeachersMy Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      Thank you so much, Marilyn! I’m flattered that you enjoy my writing. It is hard to write about pain, but you are right: it does help people with their own experience.

  20. Patti says:

    Bobbi, I am wordless after reading your post; it describes so well not only the depths of grief but the stumbling, painful, and slow process of getting through it. I appreciate your authenticity and your wonderful ability to write so well about the human experience.
    Patti recently posted…Special,Yet Low Cost GiftsMy Profile

  21. Tania Belkin says:


    I like your attitude.

    I like your heartfelt story.

    And I like very much, when you said, somehow I survived – this is important to remember.
    Tania Belkin recently posted…Sugar is Good for You, SeriouslyMy Profile

  22. Dave Rowley says:

    Amazing post, Bobbi, and so beautifully written.

    While I can barely comprehend the pain of losing my life partner, you conveyer the sense of overwhelming grief and isolation so strongly I could at least have some sense of it.

    When my father died I certainly went through my own strong feelings of loss, but was not prepared at all for the depths of my mother’s griefs. And I know there were times when the immensity of her grief became extremely confronting to me and while able to be there for her, I had to work really hard with my own fears to do that.

    When I think back on that time, I can see how utterly unprepared I was. A big factor in that is that we are never really encouraged to talk about death, grief, or loss. Which is why posts like this are so important and helpful to read.

    We’re all alive, and as a result we’re all going to suffer great losses at some point, and maybe the only thing that can help lessen that awful sense of isolation is for us all to be talking about it openly.

    Thank you for sharing your experience.
    Dave Rowley recently posted…noticing notes: shift and returnMy Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      Thanks, Dave. I really wish our culture was more open about death and grief, too. Not only would those of us who lose people be better prepared, but those who would comfort us would feel more at ease as well.

  23. Tom Southern says:

    “I made it” This is just what it feels like, Bobbi! That one day, after all the pain, suffering, anger, and rejection, one day you’re able to feel “I made it!”, I made it and everything became bearable.

    You have a beautiful way of nailing the truth, Bobbi. Thank you.

  24. Kim Thirion says:

    Wow. This is such a beautifully raw post. Thank you for sharing such a personal story with us. Thank you for giving us all a chance to look back at ourselves.
    Kim Thirion recently posted…3 Signs You’re Letting The Past Hold You BackMy Profile

  25. […] If you found this helpful, you may also be interested in On Pain, tolerance, and why there are no bullet points. […]

  26. Jessica says:

    Thank you. I live in a very small community, very limited resources, I do a lot of work for myself by my self, on my own simply becuase there are so few resources here. To add to that, it’s an oil town, lots of money – very little EQ – even amongst professionals in the Mental Health systems here. It’s nice to hear someone qualified for once just admit that thtere is no quick fix for the grief I am expereincing. The pre-req for entrance into eternity with Boson Higgs.

  27. Jason Lavis says:

    Thanks for the openness and honesty. When we find a way to overcome struggle it can be such a relief that our story can make it sound easy. The truth is that there are some things in life that will always be challenging regardless of how many self help books we have read or principles of wisdom that we know of. The only way is to stick to our principles and ride out the challenges…
    Jason Lavis recently posted…Financial relief might be the answer to the question: Financial freedom? Or time freedom?My Profile

  28. Cheryl says:

    Thank you for your honest post. The thing is, the world doesn’t allow us to sit with grief or pain long enough so that we can process it, does it. Our jobs just can’t stop, groceries don’t buy themselves… it always seems like grieving can only happen in the cracks, in and around everything else that has to happen in life. How on earth can it ever all be processed. I thought I’d done an amazing job of processing my grief when my Dad died in late 2011. After all I was already seeing a therapist. But yet here I am, a year-and-a-half later and it still hurts enough to make me not be able to work for the morning. Jeepers.

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Cheryl, thanks for your thoughtful comment. You’re right that grieving often has to happen through the cracks of our every day lives. We can have bereavement leave for a few weeks, but that often isn’t nearly enough time for us. Because, the truth is that for some of us, grief can go on for quite a while. It is a process but it’s a process that may not have a definite ending. The waves of grief can ebb and flow at different rates as I think you’re finding now. It’s normal, yet it’s painful. Sometimes we need some assistance if it continues to debilitate us for a long time so, if you’re still having difficulty making it to work, you might consider a grief support group or therapy to help you get back to a more functional place. You’re always going to miss your Dad, Cheryl, and you never “get over it.” But the pain can certainly ebb away to a manageable size.

  29. Cheryl says:

    Thank you for responding and for your insights Bobbi. I may just do that. I recently started fundraising for Parkinson’s – that’s what Dad passed of – and I think it’s what is bringing it all back up for me. I don’t want to stop volunteering. It does make me feel fulfilled and like I’m doing something to make meaning of all this; I just didn’t expect it to bring the grief, and even some of the guilt (unhealthy & irrational) back again. I thought my therapist had helped me work past all that again. I’ll be sure to bring this up with my therapist at our next appt. Thanks again, Cheryl.

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    U-shaped Desk recently posted…U-shaped DeskMy Profile

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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.