The Line Between Discomfort and Pain

29th September 2023
Read time: 5 mins 57 secs

If you’ve been following me on Instagram recently, you may have seen me posting on my story about some of my most recent experiences with physical pain.

But more specifically, the cost it’s had is not only on my body but also psychologically, emotionally, and in my connections to others.

In the Netflix documentary series “Painkiller,” Richard Sackler is quoted saying, “Human behaviour is to run from pain and move towards pleasure.”

The reason this documentary touched a nerve was not because of the insidious nature of the Sackler family and what they did, but because at one stage in my career, I relied on huge doses of painkillers to get me through matches.

WWE legend Kurt Angle was recently on the Joe Rogan Experience, talking about the unbelievable amounts of painkillers he was taking to get by and the addiction he suffered from them.

But maybe there’s a form of sadistic pleasure in the pain for some of us? Especially when striving for excellence.

The Honour of Pain

As a young athlete, I used to watch motivational videos after motivational videos.

“Pain is temporary, but glory is forever” is a quote I would hear a lot.

And I took inspiration from it. Who wouldn’t?

I have no doubt that the quotes I had placed on my wall, ones that I read every day, motivated me to get up and work towards my goal of becoming a professional athlete. These messages played a role in that eventually becoming true.

However, now I realise it instilled in me a train of thought that I’ve carried with me for a long time. And perhaps I misinterpreted (I’ll get to that).

I would wear pain as a badge of honour. And I’ve seen others do it too.

The recognition you get, especially as a man, for taking that punishment but still moving forward is always nice to hear.

With my condition, daily pains are a regular occurrence and have me checking in with my body regularly. It’s built awareness from an early age, but I now also think it’s suppressed the emotional awareness of these constant pains.

My hardened approach to pain had me blocking it out and seeing it as a part of the process.

Put this alongside the barrage of adverts you would see of an athlete striving towards a goal; grimacing, sweating, and aching to just get one step closer. YouTube videos with messaging around ‘blocking out the pain,’ ‘working through the pain,’ ‘dealing with the pain,’ ‘growing through pain.’

Pain Affects More Than Your Body

Recently, I’ve had something going on with my back. I’ve had issues since my first-ever injury, and it’ll be something I will always have to protect. But this year, something was up. I’d changed my training slightly, and I thought the tightness that developed into pain was a response to that. Eventually, my back felt incredibly compressed, and I couldn’t sit or lie without some form of pain.

But I would convince myself that it’s just a bad spell, “It’ll get better.” I ‘battled’ on.

Yet what I wasn’t aware of was the impact it was having on my behaviour and, in turn, the impact I was having on those around me.

I started to get agitated; I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t think properly, and I would get distracted from work easily. By the end of the day, I found myself with low energy, exhausted from the daily battle. When I know I’m a high-energy person.

Simple tasks or conversations felt like a huge effort.

But a workout, that could have been painful, didn’t.

I had almost become addicted to pain.

Discomfort for Growth vs Pain with Suffering

One thing I know for certain is that pain is inevitable in life, but suffering is a choice.

And while we sometimes can see pain as a route to growth, I think we’re using the wrong language.

What we need is discomfort.

Discomfort can be a challenging moment that forces us to grow.

Pain, especially left too long, can be damaging.

What I came to realise was that I was living in pain. Whereas I didn’t need to be. I was stopping myself from doing what was good for me. To allow me to then access discomfort again, later.

I heard 2-time Olympic champion triathlete Alistair Brownlee talk about finding the boundary of where your line is between discomfort and ‘breaking.’ The moment you do yourself harm or potential injury.

And it is so true.

I’ve had countless injuries as an athlete. But each time I’ve learned where my boundaries to that injury lies and when to pull back from crossing that line.

It has also taught me what discomfort is—something that is manageable for a moment.

And what is pain—something that can be damaging.

Because discomfort is what we need, moments of discomfort allow us to grow. But pain is a warning sign—something to warn of danger. And chronic pain is debilitating.

Let’s say you had a child, and you mapped out what you wanted for them in their lifetime. You would not only want them to be safe and well, but you’d also want them to face some challenges and discomfort to learn and grow.

But not endless pain, because that’s no good at all to anyone.

It’s about being able to take moments of discomfort, learn from them, and also know when to pull back.

I count myself lucky through my condition and especially my yoga practice that it has built-in an awareness of where that discomfort and pain line lies.

It’s enabled me to stop myself before I’ve gotten seriously injured or when I’ve done an injury and stopped to not make it worse, rather than working through the pain for macho points.

And all of this is learnable. It takes experience, yes, but unless you learn from experience or recognise that you might be living in pain and suffering unnecessarily and haven’t listened enough to do something about it or been courageous enough to change and take action, you’ll suffer.

Can you seek out moments of discomfort, embrace them, and then learn to take care of yourself after so that you can approach the next discomfort with a fresh body, a fresh mind, and a fresh perspective?

Without it having to be another unbearable burden that you carry into an impending catastrophe.

Finding the Line

The breaking point for me wasn’t my body; it was a disconnection with others.

That woke me up. It made me take stock.

Through journaling, talking, and being by myself, I was able to see what this pain was doing to me and, ultimately, my impact on others.

All things I wasn’t doing because I was choosing to fight through the pain, thinking, “This is normal,” “I can take it.”

I chose to stop and assess.

I realised I hadn’t been doing things I had been doing before.

I had been choosing to be in this pain and neglecting the voice in my head that was telling me to stop and do things differently, thinking I’d soldier on.

So I got back into my yoga every morning for 30 minutes.

I went to get physical therapy and a massage for the first time in around 4 years.

And I suddenly felt a release, not of the muscles or tissues (well, I did get that), but more in my mind.

It was like a fog had been lifted.

I could see again.

My energy was back.

I was back.

Maybe you’re stuck thinking where I was—that pain is what we need to go through and that this approach might be weaker. I assure you, it’s not.

Taking so much pain that it’s damaging yourself is stupidity.

It takes courage and bravery to do what is necessary for you to be in the best possible shape to go after your goals and show up in the best way possible for them.

Not only for yourself but for those around you.

So if you think, like I did, that you can take the pain. That you can bear it. Maybe you can for a little while. And that’s uncomfortable. But be careful not to hold onto it for too long because it turns into a damaging cycle.

Seek out uncomfortable moments to grow and get better, but pull back if the warning sirens are going off.

Finding the line between pain and discomfort is a discipline; it takes awareness and practice, but sometimes the highest form of self-discipline is self-love.

Whenever you're ready, there is a couple of ways I can help you:

MindStrong Sport App – Mental Skills Training for Athletes

Personal Mindset Coaching - Contact for more

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