pain – noun & verb
- physical suffering or discomfort caused by illness or injury
- acute mental or emotional distress or suffering
- cause mental or physical pain to
Synonyms: discomfort, irritation, misery, soreness, burn, trouble, torment, cramp, strain, distress, torment, anguish, suffering, trouble
The purpose of this article, like my others, is to provoke thought. Leadership Through Integrity is much more than a singular topic, it requires an understanding of the interaction of a variety of skills. Understanding pain is one of them.
This article examines the complex relationship of personal, physical and emotional pain contrasted with the pains of leadership. Human beings experience pain on a daily basis. Personal pain impacts professional pain and professional pain impacts personal pain.
Pain: The Human Condition
Pain is a common shared human experience. It bonds us together, transcending culture, socioeconomic status, diversity, and all of the other things that unfortunately keep us apart. Pain comes in many forms including physical, emotional, undefined, chronic and more.
You may already be wondering, where is this going? Before I reveal the answer, take a moment and ask yourself the following question, “what is my pain today?”
Just don’t ask yourself quietly, literally ask yourself the question out loud, verbalize it. Speak the words as written. My word choice is specifically designed to evoke a specific response. Write down your answer. I should have warned you earlier, you need a pen and a paper for this exercise, old-school style.
What was it? Did you write down something that described a physical pain? Emotional? Work-related? Family related? Whatever your answer, think about it, experience the pain in this moment. I know it hurts. Now, fold up that piece of paper and keep it aside until you finish reading this article.
Warning: some of you may not agree with this next section. I encourage you… please read on.
Pain is an emotion. Still with me? This is not an original opinion or idea of mine, it is based on research. I encourage you to do your own. Pain, at it’s very basic distilled form, is the brain’s interpretation of a stimulus and the associated reaction. It is designed to grab your attention!
Unfortunately, pain has been vilified. We are taught to avoid it, we are taught to stay away from it (don’t touch, its hot), we are protected from it, we are told something doesn’t hurt when it does, we take pills to make it go away, we try to live a life without it, we self-medicate. Left unchecked, it has the power to destroy!
When I first learned that pain was an emotion, I fought back. How could that be? I feel it, it hurts, it’s REAL. But is it?
I learned and live by the concept that pain (aka stress, pressure, hurting, stabbing, etc.) is a privilege. No really, hang on, think about this for a moment. The privilege is knowing and accepting that I am working toward something, that’s a good thing.
Consider this, have you ever experienced back pain? Most adults have. Typically, pain is not present when a person is laying down, very still, not moving. The pain will start when the person twists and turn to stand up. The pain is the same, how a person views that pain is the key.
The most common, predictable, way most people handle that type of pain is to complain that their back hurts and that they can’t get up. The second, not so common, is for the person to view pain as a privilege and stand up regardless of the pain.
Pain has the power to be uplifting and motivating, it also has the power to keep people down and in despair. The pain itself doesn’t control the outcome. How the pain is viewed determines what happens next.
Look at the picture above top of this article. Can you feel it? Imagine stepping on that barefoot, imagine falling into it, imagine grabbing it…it hurts just thinking about it. The act of imagining being pierced by the plant most likely caused you to have some sort of a visceral response, you felt it.
Really, see for yourself. Look at the picture, I’ll wait.
So what’s going on here? You’re not physically touching this evil plant by looking at a picture, but somehow you feel it anyway. This reaction is, perhaps, caused by the memory of a previous physical encounter with a similar item. You learn to associate a sharp-pointed object with pain. What did you connect it to? A similar plant? An injection? Something else that ‘stuck’ you?
The pain you felt was real. Pain is always real.
I find it fascinating that a thought or memory can cause pain, actually be felt and experienced even without touching the object.
The image is a picture of an actual plant at my home with 1/2″+ needle-like spikes. I’m intimately familiar with this plant, I can guarantee you touching it does indeed hurt, a lot! The spikes on this plant go straight through my gardening gloves like I’m not even wearing them. This plant still hurts just thinking about it. Again, fascinating.
Pain is Information
I’ve learned that pain is an output, not an input. Let’s pick that apart a little bit: Is the pain caused by that very sharp needle-like object going into the skin or is it the output of the central nervous system that calls attention to the fact something’s wrong?
Not here to debate this. I will agree the genesis of the pain is the item piercing your skin. I’ll give you that one, but I’m speaking about something different at a much deeper level. The pain sensation is undeniably intertwined with an associated emotional reaction.
Pain is simply an information output from the central nervous system and spinal cord at the core of physiological functioning. Pain is part of living. It is a normal function of the central nervous system, critical to our existence.
Both physical and emotional pain can be controlled. The first thing I do, listen to what it’s trying to tell me. More often than not, pain is associated with fear, the fear that something’s wrong. After all, as I said earlier, the purpose of pain is to call your attention to something. That ‘something’ doesn’t always equal danger.
Ignoring pain just makes it worse. There is a better way.
Pain doesn’t always have to hurt.
Consider this: you are in a deep sleep when suddenly you are awoken by leg pain, a cramp! The experience can be terrifying. In contrast, you just finished the quad and hamstring machines at the gym and are sore the next day, cramping and having trouble walking. Same pain, different circumstances.
The workout pain is viewed as something positive while random pain is a negative. The difference is your awareness of the source. You know why it hurts. The feeling is the same, the perception is different.
Leadership pain follows the same track. You are experiencing the same pain from two different employees, one you like, the other – not so much. The pain from the one you like is tolerable but not the other. Same pain, different reaction.
Pain: The Great Teacher
Pain is directly related to happiness and pleasure. I often wonder how anyone can experience true happiness without knowing the difficulties of pain. To be clear, in my opinion, a life without pain is one that I would not want to live.
Pain is our teacher, our guardian, our guide. Imagine for a moment living a life completely devoid of pain. How would anyone know what true happiness is? How would anyone know what feels good? Physical, emotional and leadership pain can be a gift.
My wife and I often struggled with this concept. We experienced a number of tragedies and a number of painful experiences while our children were growing up. We often wondered if we did the right thing exposing them to the harsh events and not hiding them from them. Our choice was to always expose them, no matter how harsh the conditions, working with them to process their feelings. Always hopeful that the experiences would teach resiliency and perseverance.
We recently brought up the subject with our kids (now young adults). Much to our surprise, pleasantly, they appreciated the fact that we didn’t hide or protect them from their feelings. Persevering and working through the painful conditions taught them invaluable life lessons. The way they described it exceeded our wildest dreams.
They learned emotional intelligence showing a path, and set of skills, to work through life’s struggles. They describe themselves as being able to survive life’s challenges and that they are thriving. Their words, not mine.
There’s an instinct to protect loved ones from pain. We chose the opposite approach and the outcome could not have been better, not an easy task! Many friends and family disagreed with our decision to expose the children to painful events. After all, isn’t it our job to protect our children?
My wife and I both agreed, no need to protect them from life. Hard times are a reality. People can not change the events but do have the power to change their reactions. We set a course, consciously, to teach our children they are in control, regardless of painful events or circumstances.
Pain Can Lead to Opportunity
Pain can overshadow all other aspects of the human experience, if it’s allowed. When asking someone that is experiencing discomfort how their day is, they’ll typically talk about their pain, because that’s all they are thinking about at that moment.
Pain and pleasure are not mutually exclusive, they can exist in the same moment. They are related, connected by an unbreakable bond. A person can be in an exceptionally great mood and experience pain at the same time. This is not common, it takes practice and a truly elevated state of mind.
Life presents many opportunities for learning, especially during challenging times.
Through the darkest moments of my life both physically and emotionally, I have forged new relationships, discovered new opportunities, learned from the experiences, found inspiration and a greater understanding of me. The life lessons were there, I just needed to look for them.
Pain as a Motivator
Enough about me. Physical and emotional pain have an impact on both personal and professional life. Pain is an interesting motivator. It doesn’t understand boundaries. Pain pushes most people and guides their actions more than they realize.
Pain wants, what it wants, when it wants it!
Pain: The Real Decision Maker
Think about the last time you had to go to the bathroom while driving home. You’re on your way, but not close enough. All of a sudden you have to get home within the next 30 seconds or else… and you’re still 10 minutes away! The urgency is bad, you need to go, you start to sweat, you start to tense up, start worrying, driving faster…are you going to make it?
No matter how much in control we think we are of our own lives, our bowels and our bladders have independent control and their own agenda. Decisions, often bad ones, are influenced by pain and most people ignore the signs. How fast were you driving home? Did you really stop at the stop sign?
Pain influences the decision-making process, every step of the way. This all too real example is proof positive. Leadership requires decision making throughout the day. How many decisions are based on pain? Need more evidence? Revisit the list of synonyms list at the top of this article and ask yourself if any influenced a decision you made. Really think about it.
Leadership and Pain
Leadership can be synonymous with pain. It may not be physical but the damaging effects can still be present: missed deadlines, pressure from the Board, client issues, technical challenges, financial stress, employee issues, etc. Your ability to learn from pain will determine your success as a leader.
It is important to remember, learning from pain a key to leadership effectiveness. As a leader, not only do you deal with your own personal pain, but you’re also aware of the pain around you. It may not be obvious but it’s there, you just have to look.
You find that your star employee is struggling, another one of your extremely reliable associates is now late every day, your colleagues and peers are suddenly argumentative. They may be in some sort of pain.
Boom! Now their pain becomes yours! It will grow out of control, if you let it.
What is that type of pain telling you? What does it trigger in you? If you listen hard enough and look beyond the hurt, maybe you can find a healthy way to handle the situation. Change course, take a different approach, respond instead of reacting.
Pain is not exactly the topic of conversation that promotes corporate advancement and camaraderie. In fact, throughout my career, I’ve never (and that’s a big word for me) heard any talk of pain in the workplace from a leader to members of their workforce. Leadership Through Integrity requires being honest with yourself.
Leaders must recognize and own their personal pain, understanding its impact on their lives. Leaders have an obligation to be aware that their workforce also experiences pain, just like they do. Pain can manifest itself in negative ways that are not always obvious.
While clear boundaries should exist between an employee’s personal life and business life, a leader will engage, ask appropriate questions, show empathy and are role models. A healthy workforce and pain reduction can be achieved by simply taking the time to connect with people.
Back to your personal pain exercise. Find that paper, open it and read the words aloud. Where was the pain while you were reading this article? Did you notice it? Did you think about it? Where did it go?
More often than not, distraction will alleviate pain, albeit temporarily. Long-term success can be achieved by being kind to yourself, honoring the fact that a painful situation can be a learning experience.
To find your answer, look at your paper every day for one week. Force yourself to pay attention:
- Tape it to your bathroom mirror, computer screen, wherever you are most likely to see it both actively and passively.
- Acknowledge the pain by reading it aloud and feel the pain in that moment.
- Ask yourself aloud, “what are you telling me?”
- Take a moment and listen to your thoughts. The answer is never obvious. This exercise takes patience since pain likes to hide itself, concealing its true answers.
- Develop a plan based on your conclusion.
You can take control of the pain. You have more power and control over it than you might think. Label it, acknowledge it, call it out for what it is. Bring the feelings to the surface instead of burying them. Pain demands your attention, give it with intentionality.
Personally and professionally, no matter what form it takes….Listen to what it’s desperately trying to tell you. Figure it out. You might just be surprised.
What is your pain telling you?
I welcome discussion on this topic.