top of page

The Problem With the Word 'Pain'

The word pain is a philosophical construct that encompasses a constellation of sensations, feelings, and thoughts.

When we experience pain, if we pay attention, we will notice that it isn’t one thing. It is, rather, a symphony of experiences changing moment to moment:

  • One moment it feels sharp, the next dull, the next achy, the next a wavy throbbing sensation. Oftentimes it’s several of these layered on top of each other, each one moving independently of the others.

  • One moment we feel surprised, the next disappointed, the next scared, the next angry, often many of these at once.

  • One moment we think it will go away, the next we don’t; one moment we think we should push through it, the next we think we should rest.

Always it is some combination of these experiences and more. Layers upon layers of experiences.

So does the word pain actually mean anything?

The answer is yes and no.

Philosophical constructs allow us to communicate about the observable reality. Of their functions is the ability to describe complex experiences using words. This can be useful. For instance, it can allow us to come to some understanding of another person’s internal world without experiencing it firsthand.

But the problem with philosophical constructs is that they are not ultimately true.

Words are merely stand-ins for the real thing, which, as we explored above with the word pain, is a complex symphony of experiences. This is not a problem, so long as we realize that distinction: the distinction between the map (words) and the territory (experiences).

So it’s not that we need to abandon all use of the word pain. But rather realize that, in the words of Lorimer Moseley, “When someone says ‘I’m in pain.’ We should not assume we know what they mean.”

Pain is merely an indicator, not a descriptor.

So when we are in pain or when someone tells us that they are in pain, the first step is to become curious. Become curious about what sensations are present, what feelings are present, what thoughts are present. Become curious about the entire experience that we or the other person is having so that we can understand it to the best of our ability.

We do this knowing—ultimately—that the most detailed description isn’t a stand-in for the real experience. So that,

  • if we are communicating our experience to someone else, we trust our experience over their concept of it.

  • if someone else is communicating their experience to us, we trust their experience over our concept of it.

Curiosity & trust. Those are the bridge between concepts and reality; between the map and the territory.

Good luck out there,


41 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page