We all intuitively know that the discomfort that comes from a workout is healthier and more valuable than the pain of stubbing our toe. The workout breaks down our muscles so that they can re-build with more strength. The stubbed toe just alerts us to the presence of an object we’ve run into, but provides no lasting benefit. Similarly, there are efforts we can make in our lives and careers that provide us with productive pain, things that help us grow as individuals. And there is psychological pain that our thoughts can create that is like a stubbed toe, painful with no added value.
There are many different examples of productive pain, but they all boil down to at least one of these three things: making an effort, being open to rejection, and being willing to make mistakes.
To achieve something beyond what we’ve already done in life takes work that’s not always pleasant. A character in a book I recently read made a point of seeking out productive psychological discomfort that would help him reach goals that he cared about. He would say things like, “I don’t want to do it, so I will.” There’s something incredibly powerful about a habit of putting forth effort in the direction of our aspirations, even when we don’t totally feel like it.
Being open to rejection boils down to asking for more of what you want. Whether that’s a raise, a date, a re-distribution of work, a job, or professional development, you’ve got to ask for what you want a whole bunch (and endure the possibility of hearing ‘no’ a bunch too) in order to give yourself the opportunity to get actually get what you want (it only takes one ‘yes’). Being turned down for something is not the most fun thing in the world, but each attempt you make to ask for what you want gets you one step closer to actually getting it.
Lastly, being willing to make mistakes means being willing to learn. Whether you’re learning a physical skill, like how to throw a frisbee, or an intellectual skill, like how to write a brief, odds are you aren’t going to get it right on the first try. But if you’re willing to show up and make mistakes, over time you’ll get better at what you’re attempting. The discomfort of learning will pay off once you do figure things out.
Each of these types of discomfort- effort, rejection, and mistakes- can feel painful and frustrating. But these experiences are worth their weight in gold because, over time, they transform from pain into reward. They make you stronger. They give your life forward momentum. They are the path to creating a life you enjoy.
In contrast, unproductive pain will stall you out and weaken you. It can come in a variety of forms, but it always stems from the way we think about events in our lives. It’s the stuff that we add on top of the productive pain. For example, productive pain would be applying for a job and getting rejected. Unproductive pain would be making that circumstance mean that you’ll never get a job or that you’re just not cut out for the type of work you’re applying for. It’s the self bashing, catastrophic thinking that makes us feel hopeless and small. This type of pain doesn’t do us much good.
Our human minds are wired with a negativity bias, so it’s natural that thoughts like these are going to come up. I have them. You have them. Everyone has them. There are a number of techniques available to lessen our attachment to these thoughts (meditation, acceptance and commitment therapy, coaching tools), but they all come down to increased awareness and a shift in perspective.
If you notice that the discomfort that is in your life is primarily stemming from this type of unproductive pain, take some time to write down the thoughts that have been swirling around in your head. Ask a friend or counselor for help seeing a different perspective. And, you may have seen this coming, switch your attention to taking action on the next task that will create productive discomfort in your life.
Life is a contact sport. It’s supposed to hurt a bit. Just aim for the type of hurt that makes you stronger.
Which type of discomfort is more present in your life? Could you see the presence of both types of pain in your life? Leave a comment below- I love hearing your thoughts!