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Posts from — June 2016

Displaced Pain

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.
| From the film “War Games,” spoken by Joshua, a supercomputer after running all permutations for “Global Thermonuclear War”

Displaced Pain

As a rule, destructive behavior will lead to painful consequences for the perpetrator, but in relational systems, the resulting pain is dynamic—that is, it can move to someone else within the system, provided the host is willing to accept and carry it. Since painful consequences are inherently instructional—if only in teaching us what not to do—appropriating someone else’s pain preempts his or her opportunity to learn, self-correct, and develop. It is an act of meddling that interrupts the natural circuit of another’s evolution, deforms love and compassion into martyrdom and victimhood, creates a closed system of chronic imbalance and disorder, and leads to potentially harmful outcomes for everyone involved.

Destructive behavior ranges from rash or reactive judgment and ill-considered choices to more damaging forms, such as antisocial acting out, passive-aggressive manipulation, narcissistism, victim thinking, and the aberrant interpretations and justifications of the sociopathic psyche. In all cases, such behavior gives rise to increasingly adverse consequences—”increasingly,” because life lessons deferred by the displacement of pain tend to become more insistent the longer one puts them off, due to the dialectical nature of experience.

In philosophical counseling sessions, we see this most among parents who are carrying responsibility for the choices and behavior of their adult children. The weary mother whose adult son or daughter keeps ending up in an abusive relationship or in trouble with the law, the father of the drug user or shoplifter, the grandparents who, seeking to insulate their grandchild from the inevitable adversities of growing up, unwittingly interfere with the child’s development are examples of how pain can move, since in each case, the well-meaning parent or grandparent pays the price of taking on the displaced pain in the form of emotional, financial, or even physical suffering. As if this weren’t enough, the one to whom the pain rightly belongs may come to resent the one who has taken it on, because—good intentions notwithstanding—usurping another’s pain is an insidious form of interference in his or her life curriculum and development—which is why it’s been said that “the one for whom you do the most resents you the most.”

The mother who lets her teenage children control her through tantrums and the withdrawal of their love may suffer the displaced pain of this mutiny so deeply that she becomes an emotional hostage. It may not occur to her that the pain she’s carrying is not native to her choices or actions but originates in her children, that they count on her to be in pain as proof that they have power over her, and that her enabling distracts them so they never deal with the painful consequences of their destructive behavior. The woman who suffers in silence while being verbally abused by her husband is carrying displaced pain. In some cases, the displacement is obvious; in others, it may be difficult if not impossible to map, but in all cases, pain resulting from the actions of someone within the system is being appropriated by someone else in the system, enabling continued destructive and irresponsible behavior.

Those carrying displaced pain may at times feel half crazy. Their experience doesn’t add up, because it isn’t their experience. One way philosophical counseling can help someone immersed in the murky waters of displaced pain is to ask questions that encourage “surfacing” into an awareness that the suffering isn’t original but appropriated. Some of these questions are:

  • Whose pain is this?
  • Where did the pain of this situation originate?
  • Is this pain being carried for someone else?
  • What would follow from refusing to carry the other’s pain?
  • It’s wise to keep in mind that a relational system that’s been deformed through the displacement and misappropriation of pain has been significantly compromised, and that solutions aren’t likely to spring up overnight. It may take more time that we’d like for those in the system to get the message that the rules have changed, that the old configuration no longer will be accepted. That said, the relief of refusing to participate as the usurper of another’s pain can be immediate and profound. Refusing to take on another’s pain restores order in the soul, puts the perpetrator on notice that destructive behavior will no longer be enabled nor the consequences deflected through reframing the system in terms of power, and frees the one to whom the pain belongs natively to experience both the consequences and the instruction implicit in them.

    We give a priceless gift to those we love when we remember that love is not a license to interfere. One of the greatest forms of love is respect for another’s curriculum and timing. Getting out of the way so we aren’t standing between our loved ones and the lessons they need to learn takes clarity, strength of character, and a deep and abiding conviction that, as Michael Crichton writes, “Life will find a way.” There is a distance in all genuine closeness, and no buried treasure is ever found without the hardship of digging.


    Individuals dealing with domestic violence should contact local law enforcement, social services, abuse shelters, or other community resources for immediate intervention.

    June 20, 2016   Comments Off on Displaced Pain