This simple phrase inspired Socrates to a life of learning and teaching, and, from him, Plato learned to be a philosopher and later came to teach Aristotle. Subsequently, Western civilization, in large measure, began.
This maxim – “Know thyself” -- and others similar to it were not uncommon in the ancient world. Indeed, a few thousand years previously, early Hindus and later Buddhists practiced a form of moment-to-moment self-knowledge, later coming to be called mindfulness.
The directive inherent to this maxim has two components. The first is to pay attention. In other words, slow down and observe what’s happening. In today’s language, we might express the maxim as something like, “Get out of your head and notice what’s going on around you.” When we carry out such a dictum, we become observant and perceive things that we might not have previously noticed.
Good things happen when we do. We see good things and become appreciative. We stop and smell the roses because we were observant enough to even notice them as we walked by and as a result we are able to appreciate their visual and olfactory beauty. Whereas in one moment our kid might be bugging us because her need for attention is interrupting our apparent need to make a phone call or put dinner on the table, in the next moment, once we get out of our head, we recognize just how funny or cute the kid is and we subsequently are overwhelmed by how much love her.
So much of life goes unnoticed because we are simply and persistently reacting to whatever thoughts, feelings and needs that pop into our attention. Whatever pops into our heads tends to have a sense of immediacy to which we react impulsively, without thinking in the sense of thoughtful consideration. It’s just a never-ending chain reaction of stimulus and response, like billiard balls knocking into each other. Notice that when we live life as if we are a player in a video game that goes on in our head, simply and persistently reacting to whatever momentary thought, feeling, or need that pops into our head, so much of what goes on around us gets missed. We don’t see how cute our kid is in that moment. We don’t notice that our spouse made coffee for us before leaving for work.
We don’t smell the fresh air. We don’t taste our lunch. We don’t fully appreciate how funny it was when our coworker or neighbor made that comment yesterday.
Instead, we were busying ourselves with the immediacy of whatever popped into our head at the time.
Notice too all the things we could have done in those moments but didn’t do simply because it never occurred to us. When we react to whatever thought, feeling or need that pops into awareness at any given time, it’s as if the reaction that we have is the only possible thing to do at the time. We might even justify the reaction, if anyone ever were to ask us about what we did, by saying ‘Oh, I had to,’ as if the thing we did was the only possible thing that could have been done. However, it’s not really true, and this point brings us to the second good thing that happens when we get out of our heads and start to observe what in actuality is happening in any given moment.
Namely, we become liberated from being a passive recipient of what happens to us to an active decision-maker of a well-informed life. By observing what in actuality is happening in life, and by considering the various possible ways we might respond, we exercise choice. No longer is our life dominated by the apparent must and have to and got to, but rather we are free to choose. When we pay attention, we recognize that we do not have to simply endure things happening to us. We are not victims. We have the power to choose among a number of different options as long as we slow down enough to recognize and consider the options that are available to us.
The simple maxim – "Know thyself”, then, is a truth that sets us free. It’s freedom from a determinism of automatic reactions to whatever life gives us. We no longer ‘have to’ do this, that, or the other thing, but are free to choose how we live our life. We no longer ‘can’t’ do anything but the reaction that we have automatically done countless times in the past and are now free to choose how we might respond and move forward. From moment to moment, we are free to choose how to respond even to the things in life that we do not choose – like bad things that happen to us. We still are free to choose how we react to them and the perspective by which we see them.
In sum, the second good thing that happens when we observe what’s happening is that we become intentional about what we do, how we react to things, and even how we perceive the things around us.
This ability to observe life and intentionally choose how to respond to the things that come up from moment to moment is the main goal of psychotherapy. Freud called this ability the development of an observing ego and considered analysis a way to develop this ability. In more recent psychotherapies, we call it an observational self. It’s the ability, as described, to step out of any given moment, consider what’s happening, and intentionally choose how to react. Of course, in this day and age, we also call it mindfulness.
What does developing an observational self have to do with pain?
The development of the ability to step out of the moment and reflect on how to react to pain is the initial and most important thing to do in pain management. Everything else in pain management follows from this skill.
Pain has a sense of immediacy about it. It’s a sensation that is inherently emotionally alarming and to which we automatically react with avoidance behaviors – we stop what we’re doing, pull away and guard. This sensory, emotional and behavioral experience happens all at once, of course, and it happens automatically. We don’t typically choose any of it. The sensation just is alarming and we pull away and guard without ever intending to do so.
For example, if you were out hiking in the woods and, without looking, you stepped in a hole and twisted your ankle, you’d have pain. That is to say, you would have a sensation that was emotionally alarming and to which you would stop walking and guard your ankle in some manner. The whole experience would be almost instantaneous. It would also be automatic. The alarming sensation and behavioral avoidance would occur without any intentional decision-making on your part.
However, if you had chronic pain, and you set out to pay attention to the pain that occurred with activities, you could learn to make the whole experience more intentional. You would do so in a multiple step process. You would first simply pay attention to the pain that occurs and not be taken by surprise by it. Chronic pain often has a degree of predictability that the pain of an acute injury doesn’t have. So, by paying attention, you could practice the skill of not being taken aback by the pain. Just as importantly, you could recall that you have chronic pain and that you’ve had it for some time and you know what it is. In most cases, chronic pain is the result of the nervous system having become highly reactive to the stimuli of activities that are normally not painful to do – like walking, sitting, standing up, laying. You could consider that, even though it is painful, these activities are safe to do– that you are not injuring yourself even though it is painful. In this manner, you start to control the sense of emotional alarm that you have with pain. You set out to intentionally remain emotionally grounded in the presence of pain. To this end, you also practice taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths to assist you in remaining calm. From this new-found perspective, you can also choose how to behaviorally react. You intentionally choose to engage in the activity and have the sensation while practicing remaining calm.
Suppose, for example, every time an individual with pain sits down she knows she’ll experience pain. More often than not, however, she doesn’t keep this fact in mind and she goes about her day, like most of us, simply reacting to whatever pops into her attention. She does this and that, checking things off her to do list. Each time she sits down, she lets out a soft groan, grabs whatever is within reach in order to brace herself, and becomes, for an instant or two, emotionally and physically tense. The pain is severe and it takes her breath away.
She could, though, with some proper coaching from a psychologist at her pain clinic, set out to learn and practice the ability to step out of the moment and pay more attention to her actions. She could then practice slowing down the process of experiencing pain. In doing so, she pays attention to what she does and predicts the severe pain prior to sitting down. In this way, she isn’t taken by surprise each time. With knowing that it’ll hurt, she takes some deep diaphragmatic breaths as she works and reminds herself that even though it is painful she isn’t injuring herself every time she sits down. She intentionally recognizes that it is safe to sit down even though it hurts badly. In these ways, she practices remaining grounded while having pain. With her budding abilities to remain calm in the presence of pain, she intentionally sets out to control her pain-avoidance behaviors. She makes the decision to stop letting out the groan because she’s predicted the pain and isn’t taken aback by it as she sits down. She intentionally stops her tendency to abruptly reach out for something to hold on to while she sits, reassuring herself that it is safe to sit down. She also tries to refrain from grabbing her back and instead sets out to remain as calm as she can be in the presence of her pain, even severe pain. She intentionally does all things, moreover, on a repetitive basis through the course of her day, day after day. She discusses her strategies with her psychologist each week, and her psychologist gives her pointers, which she tries at home. Over time and with practice, she gets better and better at it. By developing her abilities to pay attention, observe herself and engage in intentional decision-making, she comes to be able to control, in part, her experience of pain. She comes, in other words, to be able to control the alarming and behavioral aspects of pain and subsequently becomes able to remain grounded and productive in the course of her day, even though she continues to have severe pain. In other words, she has developed the skill of mindfulness as it relates to pain management.
This description is what good coping looks like. Good coping is not getting rid of pain, but getting so good at reacting to pain that it is no longer as problematic as it once was. It requires the development of an observational self from which you can have pain, remain aware of how you are reacting to it, and intentionally attempting to remain grounded and active while having pain.
It's called mindfulness and it's an essential skill for managing pain really well.
From the river Ganges to the temple at Delphi and all the way to the modern pain clinic, the dictum to know thyself travels through time because good things happen when we follow it. The ability to pay attention and engage in intentional decision-making when having pain is the initial and most important skill to develop in pain management.
Date of publication: 6-19-2016
Date of last modification: 8-28-2022
Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD, is a pain psychologist and consults to clinics and health systems on improving pain care. He is the founder and publisher of the Institute for Chronic Pain.