Tattoos Hurt, We Avoid Pain (at Least I do), but it can Make Us Feel More Alive

Getting tattooed wakes you up. (So does going to the dentist). Pain does that.

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As I was laying on the table, having my second tattoo etched onto my forearm, I had an insight: Having a tattoo gun scrape the surface of my skin for an hour is painful.

I tried using mindful breathing, paying attention to the waves of pain, noticing the way the pain makes the hairs all over my body stand on end, feel the way the pain shoots inside of my skin like tiny electrical shocks, and seeing the pain as vibrant explosions of color. These things helped, but I couldn’t ignore one thing: it hurt. The tattoo felt like a combination of burning, scratching, and tearing at my skin.

For an hour, that tattoo artist had my full attention. Pain has a way of getting you to look up and notice.

For an hour, that tattoo artist had my full attention. Pain has a way of getting you to look up and notice.

Why did I do it? Why did I willingly pay for pain, for an etching on my skin that would burn, scratch and tear at my skin?

I don’t have a profound answer. I just like tattoos because each tattoo tells a story on your skin. It’s like a skin-book. The real story of a tattoo is not how it looks, but what it does inside of you.

Getting tattooed wakes you up. (So does going to the dentist). Pain does that.

I like to paint with acrylics. I most enjoy painting outside, often in the mountains. Why? Sure, I paint in the mountains because it’s beautiful. But really, I paint in the mountains because it’s harder to just throw the painting in the garbage, and then down a bag of chips and a beer.
It happens every time, usually about half way through. I have to fight the urge to chuck my canvas to the ground and stomp on it. The painting feels like it is going all wrong and I am lost. If you stay with it, usually get you through and it looks like something recognizable. Sure, art awakens a sense of creative excitement, but it also drags with it a series of skeletons that I’d rather forget.

The process of creativity requires faith in ourselves.

The reason we create is not to be great, or successful, or famous, or noticed. We create to feel alive.

We all do it. When you get onto the dance floor, you feel like a fool. Unless you are like my friend Michael, or my brother Kevin. They just go for it. I love that, and I envy them at the same time. For me, when I dance I am a bundle of nerves. My mind tells me that everyone is watching and I look like a fool. But what Michael and Kevin know is that we all feel like fools. But they know the secret: So what? Just shut up and dance.

Whether you dance, paint, lead something at work, write, build or whatever. We can all judge ourselves harshly. We recall past attempts and conclude that we will never be able to _______ (fill-in-the-blank). Any creative act brings us head on into a part of ourselves that is messy, uncomfortable and even sometimes painful.

But here is the twist: where we are uncomfortable, our senses wake up. That is, unless we drink/eat/work/sex ourselves into a coma so that we don’t have to feel.

Pain, depression, addiction, breakup [aka Taylor Swift] is literally in-your-face. You can’t look away. For a moment, life takes over our senses. Sometimes you will feel lost and want to give up, you will feel self-judgment and comparison, you will want to chuck it away and you will curse. Go ahead, curse.

But then do it again. The reason we create is not to be great, or successful, or famous, or noticed. We create to feel alive.

Contrary to the culturally toxic tortured-genius myth, to create is to celebrate rather than bemoan life.

I have a friend who is a junk artist. If you want to read about Don, follow this link. Don doesn’t paint. He doesn’t dance or make music. His house and his yard is literally a space for reclaimed items. I am sure that at times his wife feels the pain(s) that accompany his creative clutter… but his yard makes him feel alive. I feel it every time I am with with Don and his family.

Where we are uncomfortable, our senses wake up. That is, unless we drink/eat/work/sex ourselves into a coma so that we don’t have to feel.

Pain gets your attention. It brings your senses into full awareness. In this way, pain can awaken us to a side of life that is too often ignored. I believe this is, at least in part, why we go through a mid-life crisis. When we ignore a part of our lives (our past, our pain, our skeletons, our identity) for a long time, it will confront us.

The success and achievement industry, some biographies and most of the internet is full of crap. Life is not about great achievements. Life is about waking up and being alive.

Are you in pain today? Could be physical pain, emotional, or existential pain. You don’t have to celebrate your pain or even feel good about it. You don’t have to apologize. Feel whatever you feel. In feeling whatever your pain is, also see that there is life. You feel deeply, but you are alive.

How do you live with pain? I am curious. What helps you through your grief, pain, hurt or despair? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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If you enjoyed this article, I invite you to read some of my other work:

What Gets You Through the Hard Times?

Are You Addicted to Approval?

What Creativity Can Teach Us About Recovery

This is where I am supposed to write some serious stuff about myself. But in reality, I just hope that you enjoy what I write. I hope it makes you smile, makes you feel a little lighter and enjoy your life a little more. Nope, it’s not therapy, but I am sharing the good stuff… the stuff that helps me.

If you like it, sign up for my blog and share my work. And if you want to go the extra mile, click here to vote for my page on Psych Central’s list of mental health blogs.

Keep it Real


3 thoughts on “Tattoos Hurt, We Avoid Pain (at Least I do), but it can Make Us Feel More Alive

  1. When despair hits – I get through mostly by keeping busy. Creating my cards helps me, talking to one of my friends help, sometimes crying helps! My biggest help is prayer. I should do this first but often not.
    My knee bothers me a lot and I’m not into physical pain so then, I need to rest. That is when a good book really helps.
    Good article by the way. Really made me think about what I do when things get to me! I have decided too that I can only do a little tattoo!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I get through the pain because 1: its really not that bad, or you wouldn’t see so many people covered in ink ( it still hurts even someone like me who is covered up, and no we don’t enjoy the pain ). But it is part of the process and knowing how it works and that you will walk away fine helps a bunch. If you really want something large and meaningful don’t let the pain scare you away!

    Like

    1. That said as someone also recovering from anxiety and depression it is a wonderful reminder of how pain is always there and sometimes more then skin deep. Its very therapeutic in someways in that since

      Like

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