Updated: Jul 8, 2021
We've all heard the phrase "no pain no gain"; but did you know that not all pain brings growth. What's seems missing from this phrase are clear instructions on exactly what kind of pain bring positive outcomes.
Embracing the "right pain" is the best way to ensure successful growth.
A few months back I answered an unexpected call from my wife. My cheery "what's up babe" was answered with an intense sound of pain amidst jumbled words. The sound in her voice, alone, was enough to communicate that something was seriously wrong. I bolted downstairs to find my wife laying on the garage floor. She was trying to find a position that would ease what I could see was excruciating pain. With time, my wife was able to communicate that she rolled her ankle when she was walking down the stairs. The action caused a break in her lower tibial and fibula. A later conversation with her surgeon explained that simple physics cause her bones to snap as her ankle was pushed in a direction it was not intended to go. As it turns out, breaking a bone can be a preferred outcome as bones are relatively easier to repair than tendons. Meaning, if my wife had not broken her leg, as a result of rolling her ankle, there is a strong likelihood she would have torn something that would be much harder to repair. This understanding did not seem to provide much solace as my wife seemed far more interested in a plan which would end her pain.
A few weeks later, I met with my doctor to discuss increasing pain in my right shoulder. I first noticed a problem when I slept on my right side. My physician prescribed four weeks of physical therapy and then an MRI if the pain did not decrease. Three weeks into physical therapy I knew something was wrong because the pain was getting worse. An MRI diagnosed a bone spur which was cutting into tissues. I met with a surgeon who instructed me to stop physical therapy because this intervention was actually making things worse. A surgery was scheduled and I was told to expect three days in a sling and about a month recovery. When I woke from surgery, I was told the bone spur tore a sizable hole in my rotator cuff and that I required six weeks in a sling and a 6-9 month recovery period. To say I was shocked does not do justice to the emotion I felt.
It seems we can learn a thing or two if we look closer at this experience. First, pain can be an accurate measurement as to the extent, and intensity, of a physical injury. In contrast, pain is also used as a measurement of progress with progress being defined as an increase in strength and mobility. Second, in an absence of energy, or work, strength is lost. I have worked in the psychological industry for going on 20 years and I have found emotional pain acts in very similar ways to physical pain. By saying this, I intentionally reference the ability of emotional difficulty to enlighten the source of my pain. In this, if we assume emotional trauma, like physical trauma, is caused by a very specific function--like a bone-spur growing into a rotator cuff or a rolled ankle resulting in two fractured bones--then we resolve the first barrier to emotional growth. A second barrier speaks of a misunderstanding which suggests that life is pain and that anyone telling you different is selling something. Taking this stance seems consistent with my wife concluding nothing could be done about her broken leg or my conclusions nothing could be done about my painful shoulder.
With respect to emotional pain, I choose to embrace a different core of thinking. In this, I have found emotional difficulty exists within two opposing categories of growth/success and atrophy/weakness. In this, I have found that embracing the "right pain" will result in growth while embracing the "wrong pain" will result in increased injury. Therefore, understanding emotional difficulty, often causes a person to seek rest from increasing pain, becomes important based on an understanding of what is necessary to overcome these tendencies. In my case, a bone spur grew because of time spent in a construction career. Modern science understands that a bone spur can be safely removed with limited damage to joint function. In regard to emotion, as a human species we seek emotional rest when events become increasingly difficult. Where there is nothing wrong with a period of rest, the use of avoidance coping--a simple concept of distracting my thoughts from emotional discomfort--often increases emotional dysfunction and an increase in belief that nothing can be done. But like my shoulder, and my wife's leg, if we concluded nothing could be done or what was required for recovery was simply too painful--if we remained at rest and avoided the work required to bring strength and mobility--we would have lost the function of the effected joint. The same rings true in the emotional world, if we remain at rest--if we constantly seek distraction from emotional difficulty--the outcome results in emotional atrophy.
With these concepts in mind, the "right pain" includes an internal inventory of what I avoid because engagement increases negative emotion. As simple as this may seem--simple does not speak of easy--there is significant strength in facing our fears. In this regard, we act in a manner which strengthens an area of weakness such that I experience a decrease in difficult emotion. In short, if I choose to act despite my fear my action will strengthen the center where my fear exists. Therefore, the "right pain" lies with an understanding that courage is not an absence of fear but a strength to act despite fear. In this, I suggest the path of success lies within a choice to embrace cognitive difficulty caused by fear. In short, embracing the "right pain" becomes as simple as acting despite fear. In this, we strengthen the area causing the emotional difficulty with an understanding that with time we experience a decrease in pain because of an increase in strength. Therefore, a simple key to life, or a key to growth and success, lies within our willingness to embrace the pain which brings growth and shun the pain which stands as a barrier to growth.
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