Finding Purpose In Pain: How To Grow Through Pain (Instead of Suffering) 12 min read

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Pain exists. You can’t wish it away. It visits in many ways – getting sick, losing loved ones, having a breakup, getting fired, or even small daily annoyances like traffic, spilt drinks, misplaced keys, or a stubbed thumb. However, it is how we interpret and respond to these pains that determine whether they lead to suffering or growth.

Suffering arises when we respond to pain with resistance or attach a negative narrative to it. While growth happens when we mindfully engage with pain, accepting it without judgment.

Pain can be a catalyst for positive transformation. A bridge connecting you to your core beliefs, ideals, and purpose

In this blog post, we will explore how to find meaning and purpose when dealing with difficult or painful experiences in life.

Why do we suffer? 

About 13 years ago, in a short period of about 2 months, hundreds of innocent people, including my family members and friends tragically lost their lives due to a series of terrorist attacks in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria. Properties were destroyed. People fled for their safety. 

Many had to start rebuilding their lives completely from nothing in the aftermath. While some were able to gradually recover, many continued suffering long after the events had passed and the initial pain had ended. Their ongoing suffering stemmed not from what had happened, but from their interpretation and perception of those traumatic experiences. I know because I was one of those people.

For a long time, I kept feeling like a victim, was overwhelmed by anger, and generally had a negative outlook on the world. It felt completely unfair. I was just an innocent 15-year-old boy, fresh out of high school, with dreams of becoming an architect. Now, a bunch of, how would you describe the aggressors? Perhaps “fucking religious extremists”?, came and destroyed everything. More than that, I was also old enough to see and understand its impact on my parents and what life could have been for us. It felt like I (we) didn’t deserve this.

But this mindset, while understandable, held me back. I clung to negativity, unable to heal or move forward. My suffering, I later realised, wasn’t fueled by the initial pain, but how I chose to interpret it over time. 

At 20, I met Mr. Jaz, who shared his story of how he was deported from the U.S. to Nigeria and had a strained relationship with his mom. Despite these challenges, he was happy working hard to become a Priest even though he was now in his early 40s. His story and perspective on life were inspiring and insightful. It helped me realise that our interpretation of pain is what allows us to either rebuild and grow or wither and suffer.

Do I Need Pain To Find Purpose in Life?

Although pain is unavoidable, it is not necessarily what makes life meaningful and purposeful, nor does it define our existence.  In fact, preventing unnecessary pain is a sensible approach to living a fulfilling life.

Positive experiences are also purpose-driven. Activities like gardening, art, or spending time with loved ones can serve as your “ikigai,” fulfilling you without the need to overcome hardship. Finding purpose through enjoyable experiences may be more sustainable than trying to derive meaning solely from suffering.

Nevertheless, with pain being unavoidable, it becomes necessary to learn how we can find purpose and meaning in it. 

Here is one way I could complete that thought:

Difficulties and challenges provide opportunities to solve problems. When you solve problems, you feel better about yourself. Overcoming obstacles builds self-confidence, resilience, and a sense of accomplishment. Take gaming and sports, for instance, both gamers and athletes face challenges head-on to transform what should have otherwise just been difficult (i.e. painful) into an opportunity to improve their skills, make friends, inspire others, make money, and leave a legacy.

A life devoid of adversity may feel hollow, lacking in the visceral experiences that shape our character. Overcoming hardship can instil a sense of identity, accomplishment and a deeper appreciation for life. 

Pain can remove the distractions and false fronts we often live with, exposing our true selves and what matters to us, thereby pushing us to live our purpose.  And, to do this, you should…

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Find Meaning and Purpose Through Life’s Struggles and Adversity 

Not only can you endure life’s struggles and adversity, but you can grow through pain – finding meaning and purpose in pain. To do this, you must:

Accept Your Pain

If you cannot accept your pain and move on, you will keep suffering.  This was my situation when I felt like a victim after the terrorist attack. I tried to numb the pain through various means, like isolation and adopting cynical or nihilistic attitudes toward life but it only provided fleeting respite. The underlying pain remained unresolved, constantly resurfacing to haunt me.

Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up. It’s not about believing things will magically fix themselves or that it’s all meant to happen. Instead, it’s about admitting the existence of the pain – acknowledging how it has affected you but not fighting the reality. This helps you deal with it in a better and healthier way.

Engage in meaningful work or project

Society often assigns us tasks and responsibilities that may be relevant but lack significance to our deeper callings. When we lack a sense of purpose and connection to our work, our minds can aimlessly wander, sometimes descending into rumination and breeding discontent.

However, when we pursue meaningful work that resonates with our core beliefs and interests, we channel our energy into something greater than ourselves. This meaningful work could be a creative project, a volunteer opportunity, or a career path that aligns with our deepest values and passions. It grabs your attention and provides you with goals to work towards, giving your life a sense of direction and purpose.

For instance, if you love writing and have faced personal struggles, you could start a blog to share your journey. By writing authentically, you create a connection with others who face similar challenges, offering them solace and guidance.

Through this, your pain becomes motivation, driving you to develop meaningful skills. Instead of letting pain breed negativity, you grow stronger, understand your own feelings, and care for others, knowing everyone experiences pain.

Nurture Relationships

When we are suffering we often tend to isolate ourselves. The reason we go into isolation during hard times is that we feel overwhelmed, ashamed, or afraid to burden others with our problems. Isolating ourselves can provide temporary relief, but it eats away at us.

A few years ago, I experienced death anxiety. At first, I tried to handle it alone, but it didn’t work. But things began to change when I started sharing my fears with loved ones and writing about my struggles. 

Opening up even if it’s to one person into our lives during our darkest moments can make a huge difference. Their compassion, wisdom, and reminders of your inner strength become your lifeline, giving you the hope and encouragement to keep fighting every day.

And the beautiful thing about having such a supportive person or circle is that it motivates you to make their sacrifices meaningful. When people love you enough to drop everything and be there for you during the darkest times, it fuels you to keep going strong for them. You want to honour their faith in you and prove their efforts were not in vain. Their unconditional love inspires you to persevere and give your all, driven to make them proud.

Reframe Your Pain 

All great athletes leverage their pain for motivation. You too can do the same.

Instead of solely seeing pain through a negative lens, you can choose to find meaning and value in it. This isn’t about toxic positivity or dismissing the anguish. It’s about looking for pockets of light that can sustain you.

One practice that can help is gratitude. When we make an intentional effort to notice small blessings around us – a kind gesture, a beautiful sunset, a warm meal – it disarms suffering’s grip. Gratitude reveals pain and beauty can coexist, allowing fleeting reprieves that remind us life is still happening beyond the struggle. 

Additionally, reflecting on how we’ve grown through past hardships can reveal suffering’s hidden value. Maybe it forged deeper resilience within us. Or expanded our wells of empathy and compassion for others’ pain. Seeing how we alchemise pain into wisdom prevents feeling engulfed by hopelessness.

You can either choose to be consumed by bitterness and despair. Or you can dig for meaning – the lessons, the grace notes, the delicate reminders that you won’t be shattered if you embrace what’s still good. The choice is yours.

Help others with your experience 

Using your past experiences to help others facing similar pain is a way of making your suffering meaningful. When we share our stories and lessons, our pain can become a light for someone else in the dark

Imagine, a young man who feels like an outlier, an outsider because of his personality trait, or cultural heritage. By starting a support group or foundation for others facing similar tragedies, he connects with others who need guidance and provides an outlet for their pain.

Another instance is if you’ve struggled with communication, you might develop techniques to teach better communication skills. Sharing your wisdom not only helps others overcome similar issues but also strengthens your growth.

This is the power of human perseverance – not just surviving pain but using it to develop empathy, purpose, and solutions. We become “wounded healers,” using our pain to help others. Our struggles make us make the road easier for those following behind us.

Find Rituals to Cope with Pain

Consider someone going through a divorce. Their whole life feels turned upside down, and they may feel angry, sad, or blame God for getting married to their partner. During such times of chaos, having small, special routines can help deal with those tough feelings.

One ritual could be going for a daily walk. While walking and observing nature, they can take deep breaths and find temporary relief from the sadness caused by the divorce. The familiar routine of the walk acts as a comforting ritual, providing a sense of normalcy and control amidst the emotional turmoil.

These little rituals aren’t just distractions to take your mind off the pain. They offer structure, familiarity, and a sense of grounding during times of distress or upheaval. The routine nature of rituals can provide a much-needed respite from overwhelming emotions, allowing you to regain equilibrium, even when you’re hurting.

Pick a routine – it could be writing in a journal, doing some deep breathing exercises, or anything else that feels helpful to you and that doesn’t have a negative effect in the long run. The important thing is to use it as a regular practice for healthily working through your pain.

Rituals are familiar, stable paths you create for yourself. Whenever you feel lost, you can go back to them to help you stay grounded, or maybe even find your way.

Conclusion: Struggle Can Be a Source of Fulfilment If You Learn to Transmute It

Life is like a sine wave with both high points and low points. While happy times make us feel good, facing difficulties is unavoidable. Only the dead have no pain or struggles.

Viktor Frankl in his book “Man Searching for Meaning”, reminds us that seeking temporary pleasures from things like drugs or possessions only brings short-term happiness. True fulfilment comes from directly facing life’s difficulties. The key to genuine happiness is taking responsibility, solving problems, and accepting the good and bad times. By avoiding unnecessary pain while also confronting challenges, we find purpose and meaning.

A fulfilling life doesn’t come from constant pleasure. Struggle can also be a source of fulfilment if you learn to alchemize it. By understanding, accepting, and working through your pain, you can expand your happiness beyond pleasures and find more sustainable happiness in life.

Book Recommendations: On  Finding Meaning and Purpose In Pain

  • Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl
  • The Obstacle Is the Way, by Ryan Holiday
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by Mark Manson
  • Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach
  • The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker

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