My New Year’s resolutions in the past generally consisted of the same three things; write more, spend less money and to try and be a calmer, more patient parent. Have I made progress in these areas? That depends on what yard stick I measure myself by. Being “more or less” of something left the measurement of my progress too murky. This year, I decided to overhaul my resolution making process completely. I chose instead to go right to the root cause of many of my problems: pain.
To be perfectly honest, I hate pain! I vehemently avoid anything that bites, stings, throbs, or stabs. My aversion to pain isn’t unique. Many people fear pain to the point that it debilitates parts of their lives; keeping them from exercising, seeing the dentist or doctor, start a hobby or even travelling on an airplane. Instead of discussing why most people have a biological and psychological aversion to pain, I choose instead as a writer to look toward the dictionary for the definition.
The Miriam Webster dictionary defines pain as a generalized unpleasant bodily sensation that causes mild to severe physical discomfort and emotional distress. In short, pain is a signal. The question is, how are we supposed to interpret that signal? For example, if my hand gets too close to the stove while cooking, the intense burst of pain from touching the flame is a signal for me to move my hand away. However, if I feel the sharp prick of a needle while getting a flu shot, that is a signal that my body is uncomfortable, but safe. Learning to distinguish between these signals will help me go from a fearful little bird, to free.
In the past, I have let the fear of discomfort stop me from the most basic of tasks such as driving on the highway, flipping fuses in the fuse box when something trips, and having my blood drawn. At the time, my reasoning seemed to be sound. Discomfort meant pain, and pain meant danger in my mind. Avoiding discomfort meant keeping safe, and wasn’t safe the best way to be? Yet I didn’t feel safe at all. In fact, I had never been more scared in my life because these fears had trapped me in another sort of way.
Several years ago, while snug in my bed, I was watching Steve Harvey, an American comedian and television presenter. He said something that I will never forget, “Comfort and success don’t keep the same company, so get up and try, because sitting on the couch isn’t rewarding.”
I wish I could tell you that I jumped up right then and there and began working on my story outline for the next book I wanted to write. Instead, I finished the popcorn I was eating, made some more tea and thought about his words. Slowly, slowly, I began confronting my challenges, but fear remained fully in the driver’s seat. But then about six months ago, Steve Harvey popped back up on my Facebook newsfeed and I knew it was a sign that the time had come for a complete overhaul.
The next morning, I came up with a three-part plan for myself to handle discomforting experiences.
1. Embrace – Accept that the situation is uncomfortable.
2. Resolve – Fight as best you can through the discomfort.
3. Reward - The prize for beating pain.
I put the plan into practice while exercising. During a shoulder press, I felt my muscles begin to fatigue; instead of quitting the exercise, I embraced the pain and then resolved to deal with as much of the burn as I could handle, promising myself a yummy (healthy) snack at the end of the workout as my reward. The result? I happily worked out the very next day knowing I had succeeded the day before.
Wondering if this practice worked with other challenging parts of my day, I tried it again with a confrontation I had with my daughter. As I was making school lunches, my daughter started complaining about scrubbing the four dishes in the sink I’d asked her to wash. She moaned that I gave her too much housework. Feeling the strong pain of irritation pulse through my body, I caught myself before yelling, remembering my three-part approach. I embraced the irritation, resolved myself to stay quiet while my daughter hurled complaints, and thought of the comedy show I’d enjoy as soon as the cleanup was finished. My daughter did the dishes, I finished school lunches, there was no yelling and the sitcom I watched afterwards felt well deserved.
Please don’t misunderstand me, pain shouldn’t be ignored completely. It’s a signal. Sometimes the message is a warning about impending danger and should be heeded. To leave my hand by an open flame is silly, and to ignore health warnings is foolish. Suffering pain for the sake of pain isn’t heroic! But crossing over the bridge of discomfort is about the only road I know that leads to victory.
Months after implementing this approach, pain and discomfort have become a whole lot easier to handle when I know something wonderful awaits me at the end. After a long workout, comes a yummy breakfast, after the tirade of an angry child comes a comedy video and after a rejection letter comes a cappuccino. And sometimes, in rare and wonderful moments, comes success.