What Getting a Tattoo Taught Me about Pain and Healing

You can’t have one without the other.

Tattoo and photo by

I just got my first tattoo and I’m in love. I love the design and I loved the experience. But I didn’t expect to learn more about pain and healing than the literal pain and healing that came from getting a tattoo. Here are a few things I learned…

Self-inflicted pain is masochistic.

I wavered about getting a tattoo for years. Like many, I was scared of the pain. Would it hurt so much that I would move and mess it up? What if I started and it hurt too much to finish?

But I pulled the trigger and it wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be.

I actually enjoyed the pain…

…some of the time. Yes, I wanted it to end but there were several moments that the buzz of the needle and sustained jabbing kicked my endorphins into high gear. I wondered what this meant for other types of pain we inflict upon ourselves.

There are so many cruel messages I recite to myself on a daily basis:

  • You’re not doing enough.
  • You need to be more patient.
  • You need to stand up for yourself more.

Why do I do this to myself? Because my brain loves the feedback of familiar patterns. And so does yours. We punish ourselves — and we secretly like it. I don’t think this is a conscious choice, like getting a tattoo. But messages we likely heard from childhood or from society are engrained into the rhetoric of our lives. And then they become routine. Routine allows our brain and body to do its thing and satisfy itself with regularity. This is why making changes like altering diet or starting an exercising routine can be so hard, it’s a lot of work! So why not just do the same things over and over? Being savage to ourselves reinforces habit and even though it hurts, we kind of enjoy it.

So the next time you catch yourself repeating the same messages, remember that a part of you likes it. If you want to change things up, it will take some rewiring that may not be enjoyable. But, eventually, you’ll reap other benefits.

Don’t pick at yourself but it’s okay to slap yourself.

After my I got my tattoo, my artist and friends with tattoos chanted, “Don’t pick at your tattoo while it’s healing!” This has been difficult because the itchiness is real and I’m such a picker. But picking at it could pull out the ink and possibly cause an infection. Instead of scratching or picking at the tattoo, I was told to slap it.

I look a little weird slapping myself in the middle of a meeting but it’s good to know I am not getting an infection.

As I said, I am talented at picking on myself. It’s a subconscious habit but it hinders healing. While I fully support practicing during times of pain and , I also support the healing process.

That’s correct, it’s a process. And during this process, there might be a time when we have to give ourselves a proverbial slap in the face and snap out of it.

After my divorce, I moved into a new apartment in Chicago. I was so excited to start my independent life. Yet, after being codependent for so long, I didn’t know what to do with myself. There were days I just sat on my couch thinking about all the things I should be doing.

I should be writing. I should organize my closet. I should decorate my place with nice art. Why am I so lazy? What’s wrong with me?

What was wrong with me? Hmm…I just got divorced after an abusive relationship, I was starting a new life for myself, and I had also lost my father not long before. It was perfectly acceptable, and understandable, for me to laze around for a bit and not be “productive.”

Eventually, though, I realized that I had things to do! I allowed myself that time, but then I snapped out of it. I told myself it was time to stop thinking about doing things and start doing them. I had to stop picking on myself and get to it. And it worked. I got off the couch and started hanging beautiful new art on my walls.

Making a permanent change in your life can change the big picture.

Everyone says once you get a tattoo, you’ll want more. I laughed at that statement. Nah, I’ll just take one, thank you and goodbye. But at the end of my tattoo session, I saw a space above my new tattoo that would be perfect for another one.

Wow, that happened fast!

Making permanent changes in our lives can completely change how we see our lives in the first place. Before I got my tattoo, I saw it as a separate entity that was to be placed onto my body. Afterward, I realized that it was a complete part of my whole body. I saw it in a new light.

The changes we make in our lives are very similar. We might think we are just starting a new job or moving to a new place and the rest of our lives stay the same but that isn’t always the case. It changes the scenery of our lives as well. This is not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing that happens.

As I said, when I got my own place after my divorce, I thought I would start doing all these amazing things for myself right away. I was finally free! I could do anything I wanted! But that wasn’t how it worked. I had to process the events that unfolded in my life. I had to consider everything else that came along with these changes.

Getting a tattoo was a joyous experience — an experience I was able to own. It was a way for me to make the rules for what happens on my body. And it came with some extra lessons I didn’t expect.

You can’t have pain without healing or healing without pain. So you might as well enjoy some of it, slap yourself silly, and be ready for unexpected changes.

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Nisha Mody is a writer that works as a Librarian and has also worked as a Consultant, Recruiter, and Speech Therapist. Find her on and . But most importantly, adore her .

Writer. Feminist Healing Coach. Librarian. Cat Mom. I write about healing & justice. Read more at and hear me on my podcast, MigrAsians.

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