There are whole industries supported by our pain. Think about how you cope with annoyance, depression, anxiety.… It’s smart business to serve us immediate comfort that we return to over and over again. Imagine a world where people aligned their being and their doing - where who they were designed to be was fully realized and actualized in the world through work and living that mattered to them and utilized their gifts. And in exchange they felt a sense of acknowledgment and appreciation for who they are and the genius of their creation.
Imagine what would change if we didn’t have to cope so often, if we lived in a society where pain and discomfort were integrated into our experience rather than avoided. It takes two hands to count all the ways I cope every day. All the ways I balance out the energy and experience of my day -- pleasure to dull the pain, avoidance to dull the discomfort, indifference to pretend I don’t care. Not because my life is so bad or hard, but because we have all been taught to avoid what doesn’t feel good.
Even what we like to call self-care can have a flip side. The 10 baths I take a week are to cope. I enter the bath to receive comfort, to be wrapped in warm water, weightless and still. It’s a place to lie down and not feel lazy but instead proud of myself for a self-care routine that is healthy and vibrant. But looked at another way, it’s avoidance of dealing with difficult feelings. It’s a pushing down of what I don’t want to face or do, and it’s contagious. Avoidance in one area of life leads to another and then another, until we’re living on the edge of the most scared and unempowered version of ourselves.
Have you noticed that once you start a workout routine, or a savings plan/budget, or a commitment to a sleep schedule, that other things in your life begin to flow better too? That you’re finally tackling things you have been avoiding or being more clear and bold with your communication? This is because you are claiming your own agency, unafraid and empowered. You have beaten the mental cries of fear and rejection and embraced your ability to persevere and create your own new reality.
Competitive athletes have a leg up here -- they know that getting out of your comfort zone is the only way to get better. I myself was a competitive swimmer and can still to this day push my body very, very far. The power of the mind can quiet the screams of aching legs and burning lungs. But for me, when that pain lives in my confidence, discomfort in my identity, the screams of avoidance win… and I divert my course to what’s known and what feels good. You see, our minds aren’t trained for greatness. Our minds are trained to listen and follow, stay safe and be accepted, play by the rules and stay below the radar - humble, obedient, helpful. I hope you can reflect in this moment on what you were taught, who you were trained to be, and therefore what your tolerance for mental and emotional turmoil is.
A clue is to look at where, when and how you cope. What sets off the trigger to get pleasure quickly? Or do you live in a story that pain is your home, where there’s some attraction to being unhappy or unlucky?
The first step to self-empowerment is awareness of when you avoid your own desires and dreams because of fear. What makes you run away from the present moment to find some relief?
The second step to self-empowerment is learning to be uncomfortable. To stay in it long enough that you make it to the other side. The pain is temporary, it comes in waves, and your processing of it is what heals you, what builds your tolerance, and what allows you to do scary things (like ask for what you want, put yourself first, say no). It’s accepting the pain because you know it’s getting you somewhere closer to what you want.
Staying in your body and in your discomfort is a mental game - give yourself ample time to rest, regroup, be curious about the stories and the voice that is trying to bail you out from your own growth. It’s okay to be unhappy and unsure and uninspired. Be there. Feel it. Digest it. Use it as a tenderizer to break down the walls and stories that keep you where you are.
As referenced in the book David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, those who have been through very traumatic experiences - the worst things we can imagine - are the least fearful. (Read more about this in Chapter 5 of the book) They know what the worst pain they can imagine feels like, and they made it through. But don’t confuse someone with a high tolerance for pain with someone who seeks it or desires to stay in it. It’s those who realize they want to be out of it as quickly as possible AND understand that by being in it, they transform past it, through it, without needing to return to that specific cause and effect. Those of us who can sit in pain the longest lose. Those of us who can bear pain with action that helps us move through it win.
I am working on this too. I have waves of being very inspired and productive, and waves of feeling not enough, unsure, and like a failure. (Read my latest blog post FUUUCCKKK if you missed it.)
But I am in it. I am aware of it. I’m not running from it, not trying to rescue myself out of it, not judging it as bad or wrong, but seeing it as a necessary part of my dreams coming true. I hope this post has helped you reflect and do the same.