I have a good friend who hates the dentist. I know anxiety about dental visits is not uncommon. However, this friend hates it more than nearly anything. She recently thought she was going to need a root canal. Root canals or just fillings are needed sometimes, usually because of cavities. These things cause pain but do they cause harm? In reality, the pain and discomfort from the dental procedure actually helps the person. There is a difference between hurt and harm.
The difference between hurt and harm can be hard to see, especially when we’re in the middle of the pain. This is also true when we’re in the middle of the pleasure involved with some things that actually do cause harm. Back to the dentist…the sugar was pleasurable, but actually caused harm. It caused a cavity. The “hurt” or pain caused by the dental procedure was actually a remedy for the harm caused by the sugar. Pleasure is not a good measure of whether something is harmful or not. Likewise, hurt or pain is not a good measure either.
The Real Difference Between Hurt and Harm
In reality, something that hurts us may also harm us. The fall down the stairs hurts and also causes harm with the sprained wrist or broken ankle. However, there are other times when hurt and pain are beneficial. When parents say, “No,” to their children, it causes discomfort in the form of disappointment. Yet, it avoids harm by not having a trip to the emergency room for a head injury caused by jumping off the top bunk! There are countless examples.
Is the discomfort you’re experiencing harmful? Is it only painful? It may be both, but understanding there may be a difference between hurt and harm can help you actually gain something from your pain. Also, there may be times when you bring hurt to another person but it may actually help them in the long run. Hurt is temporary. Harm is long-term.
My friend lamented to me that she did not want to go to the dentist. For her, and many others, this trip involves a lot of discomfort – both physically and mentally. However, my advice to her was to go as soon as possible. Yes, it would cause discomfort, but not getting it fixed would result in actual harm.
All of us avoid discomfort. We fight against it. We gravitate toward pleasure and avoid pain. We measure up the discomfort of doing one thing against the results of keeping things the same. The problem is, this often leads to us avoiding things that would be beneficial for us. Ask yourself, “What is the ultimate benefit of this decision or action?” Then decide what your action would bring, remembering there is a difference between hurt and harm.
Boundaries and Harm
I would be negligent to not mention interactions with others when talking about the difference between hurt and harm. We don’t have good boundaries when we constantly attempt to keep others from experiencing hurt. An example may be a family member who constantly asks us for money so he or she can support their drug addiction. Obviously, the person not having the substance causes hurt. But what would cause harm? Helping the person maintain the addition actually causes harm – not just temporary pain.
Henry Cloud and John Townsend have a highly recommended book on the subject of boundaries. In it, they discuss the difference between hurt and harm and remind us that doing what is ultimately beneficial for another person may cause temporary distress for them and us alike. Remember, improving your life requires change. Change always requires discomfort and maybe even a little pain. This is the same for others as well. Focus on what is ultimately beneficial rather than what brings pleasure or avoids discomfort.
What painful things have you experienced that were ultimately beneficial for you? Feel free to comment below. We would love to hear from you!