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4 Illuminating Questions for Writing about Pain (And Meeting People Where They Are)

July 21st, 2015 | 2 comments

Even though I want to heal the world (within and without), and I know that you do too, please know that I do not want to live in a world without pain.


It’s a provocative paradox. I want to heal pain and ease suffering: through words, hands, prayers, thoughts and resources. But I do not want to eradicate its existence entirely.


Pain is part of the human experience and my emotional repertoire. It has both protective and transformative elements. Pain is not always a problem. Let’s take the characteristically painful emotions. They’re not all bad. For example:


Fear has many flavours, as well as hidden agendas.


Anger is usually not helpful, but can be a galvanizing force to identify and overcome injustice.


Grief is heavy and paralyzing. But it is also evidence of a profound love or beautiful dream.


Sadness might sound like a huge bummer, but she is beautiful and natural and doesn’t last forever.


If business is about solving problems, then selling the benefits of our business should be simple. Simply articulate the relevant pain points. Amplify them. Then paint a clear picture of how our business takes the pain away. Problem solved. Money made. Right?


But what happens if, like me, you don’t believe people are problems to be solved? Or you know, from your body of work or your life experience, that sometimes pain is just part of the process, (even a vital part of the process). How do you write about pain in a nuanced, elegant way?


How do you write about pain in a way that doesn’t perpetuate it?


The questions I’ve been living out lately are around writing about pain in a sensitive and compassionate way? Add to this the context of my work, where pain is often the entry-point of an economic exchange.


This exchange of dialogue from The Princess Bride sums up my peculiar predicament.


Buttercup: You mock my pain.

Man in Black: Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.


You see, old-school copywriting practices and principles don’t always sit well with my soul. I’ve learnt the theory: identify the pain points, amplify them and then bring in the offer as the solution. Sometimes this makes total sense, but I’m wary of the predatory nature of this approach as well.


For myself, and for the people I serve, we know that pain isn’t always the enemy. Sometimes it is an enemy worth waging war against. But pain can also be a life-giving force, a messenger, and a sensation with a revelatory story.


So here are FOUR illuminating questions that help me write about pain in a way that aligns with my values.


Answer these questions and you will meet people where they are.


1. What is the Pain Story?


One night last week I was thinking about my mother, who has recently undergone a knee replacement and is in chronic pain. You may have already guessed this, but the primary way I show love is through words. I wanted to find a quote or explanation for the pain that would encourage her to keep going with her exercises despite the pain.


Flicking through B.K.S Iyenger’s Light on Life, I came across this:


“Right pain is not only constructive but also exhilarating and involves challenge, while wrong pain is destructive and causes excruciating suffering.”


Happy that I found a great quote, I texted mum this wisdom. Honestly, she may have thought, “Get fucked, Kate.” But because she is my mother after all, her reply was “Thanks darling.”


The story of “right pain” being constructive was an energizing one for me. But was it for my mum? I couldn’t know unless I truly understood her pain story. A pain story is a story that accompanies the physical sensation. Because I was trying to sell my mum the motivation to exercise, I was looking for something that would motivate me. But did she buy it? Possibly not. Why? Because I didn’t align my message with the stories she is currently telling herself.


When you’re writing about pain (or pain points), on one level you’re tuning into the physical sensations and emotional, energetic sensations. These feelings are the doorway. But they are not the whole story.


When I’m writing on a client’s behalf and they tell me about their “ideal client” or the person to whom their offering — service, product or workshop — is for, I need to first understand and relate to this ideal client as blood and bone. I’ll draw to mind someone I know, or an element of myself. I’m writing to a real person here and an image can help.


Now perhaps if you’re writing about pain (yours or someone else’s) you’ll notice that writing will often make you feel better. This is because writing has a therapeutic element. (But that’s a whole other story.)


Know this: in order to connect on an emotional level, it’s not enough to simply feel those emotions. You’ve got to connect to the story accompanying those emotions. In other words, you’ve got to make sure the stories match.


Which leads me to more illuminating questions to help you write about pain:


2.   What scenarios activate this pain story?


Knowing which scenarios activate the pain story means you have settings for writing about pain. Unless you can paint these pain-activating scenes your reader (or ideal client) won’t connect. Re-creating the scene helps with specificity, so they can see themselves clearly in this story.


So rather than pluck their “dream life” fantasy locations as settings for the story, just get real. Where are these pain-activating scenarios? They don’t have to be more glamourous or more dramatic or more exaggerated. These scenarios simply need to be accurate.



3. What beliefs and explanations surface when the pain story is activated?


Knowing the pain story attached to the pain will shed light on the underlying beliefs and explanations that surface when the pain is felt. You cannot influence or inspire a new way of thinking without knowing what beliefs and explanations are there to begin with.


Create some curiosity about these beliefs and explanations. Simply raising the questions creates a kinship between writer and reader.


Go gently. Don’t mock. Be curious.


Notice that both of these questions don’t even refer to your solution yet. Words are reflections. So when your writing accurately reflects the reality of a person’s experience, the more they will intuitively feel that you must have the answer. Articulating the current reality, even if it is a painful one, is healing in itself. That’s where the magic of connection is. Not your solution exactly.


4.   Why fake pain, when you can fuel curiosity and desire?


When I’m deciding how to structure a piece of copy, whether it’s a long-form sales page or not, I’ll first decide whether evoking pain points is appropriate. Because sometimes a better fit is to arouse curiosity and desire, rather than follow a problem-solution model.


Rather than fake pain that isn’t that strong, you’re much better off using a fuel curiosity and desire.


How does this apply if you’re writing something persuasive? You can use the AIDA formula (Attention : Interest : Desire : Action) instead of the PASTOR formula (Problem : Amplify : Story : Testimony : Offer : Response).


The bottom-line is, write about pain if pain is there. If it’s not, don’t fake it. Many people believe that creating emotional resonance requires pain or high drama. But this simply isn’t true. Emotional resonance applies to desire and intrigue as well.


If you’re an intuitive writer like me, it can feel overwhelming to describe, in detail, the pain story of the person you want to move to action or call to feel, think or believe something new. Please know that there’s nothing wrong with you.


Being an empath is a real gift when it comes to writing copy that truly speaks heart to heart.


That’s, after all, what Word Love is all about.



Oh, and in case you’re wondering. I figured out one narrative of my mother’s pain story. She felt heavy with pain. She also felt weighted down by the clutter around her. I sensed this when I offered a Reiki healing and she said “I’d rather you clean my kitchen.” Which I did. Along with the Reiki healing. Bonus.

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2 people have commented
  1. Oh it is interesting isn’t it…
    In relation to your mothers story (not from the writing about pain perspective), currently in that place of “pain” myself – it is almost always excruciating, frustrating, suffocating. It may be exhilarating for a brief moment when you do the exercise (or change the diet, find the new support person, or try the Reiki) but when the (physical) pain or symptom comes flooding back, you lose a little more hope and sink a little deeper with the heaviness.

    Regardless of whether your version of pain is purely physical, or emotional, or internal body functions not working properly, it gets a little heavier each time. Then the heaviness becomes the fault of the clutter, and the messy kitchen, or the loud children, not the original problem and everything gets a little more messed up and confusing.

    It is so much about the balance of the physical, and the emotional and managing the snowballs… I have been using a guided mediation recently and trying to “let go” of the heaviness, which has been helpful. Also : I will take the kitchen cleaning, in addition to the Reiki if anyone is offering 😉

    PS: I have no idea if what I wrote even makes sense or I was just rambling, but I hope your mum feels better soon xx

    • Kate Erlenbusch says:

      Oh Renee, thank you so much for sharing your perspective and story. I’m sorry to hear you are the same pain. I will pass on the suggestions to my mum as I’m sure she’ll appreciate it. Hope this eases for you soon. P.S I can’t do much about the house cleaning, but can send some healing reiki via distance xx

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