Pain is a part of life. It is an ever present part of work as well. Not, necessarily, physical pain (if so, perhaps you should contact HR) but definitely emotional pain. Being rejected, not being heard, feeling less than, incompetent, or losing the security you relied upon are all parts of our daily experience.
Given the nature of pain is, well, painful. Our natural inclination is to avoid pain at all costs. Find ways to reduce stress, avoiding negative people, reducing the chances for failure, or simply not rocking the boat. If I don’t stick my head out the window, I won’t get slapped by the branches.
Yet, however much we try to avoid pain, it never really goes away. If I am quiet in a meeting, avoiding being reprimanded, I get to go home with the pain of annoyance that no one spoke up about the ridiculous decisions being made. I can avoid looking stupid with a new idea only to be extremely angry with myself when someone else brings the idea forward. I can avoid being told no again, but I will have to accept that nothing is going to change. Painful all.
In athletics, people learn to embrace pain. When things are getting tough, you hear the words “Embrace the suck.” Runners and bike riders talk about moving through the “pain cave.” And weight-lifters in the 80’s talked about “feeling the burn” (use your best Arnold voice for this). They learn that pain has a lot of potential upside for them, they seek it out, they look forward to it in daily practice. They put the pain in their control.
For most of us, our challenge is overcoming our natural tendency to avoid pain. There are a few that might step into pain a little too often, which is not good either. But, for the rest of us, the question is when is the pain worth it?
When athletes train, they constantly connect the pain of a workout with the potential to be more prepared for a future race. In work, finding what is worth the pain requires the same conscious decision. Where could I make myself uncomfortable, anxious or even a little stressed that will actually help me in the future?
When we avoid pain, we still get the discomfort, anxiety and stress. We just take it home or sit with it alone. If we pro-actively seek out this discomfort, in a manner that has the potential to benefit us in the future, we take control over those same emotions. I might not be able to change the behavior of the abrasive person I work with, but I feel much better about stepping into the discomfort of approaching him about it than I do ignoring it and sitting with my anger.
To find situations when it is worth the pain to confront someone, try a new idea, or attempt to change something, we simply need to look for places where we are already experiencing the pain in a different form. If you are already stressed, you can take ownership of the stress by moving into the pain required to address the situation. You might not know how, you might not be successful, but you will take ownership of the stress that is out of your control otherwise.
Pain does not go away, but in many cases we can decide when it comes. When the pain of doing something uncomfortable is worth it is in those places where we are already experiencing the pain. The question is whether or not we want to be in control of our stress, anxiety, and discomfort? We don’t get to avoid it, and it does not magically go away, but we can be in more control of it if we decide it is worth the pain and step into the discomfort.