The Awful Solution to Our Pain

I’ve got some bad news about your pain.

Actually, it’s really not bad. It just feels that way at first.  I myself recently figured it out during a pesky little bout with stress.

It began a few weeks ago, when I noticed a sense of anxiety creeping up at about the same time every Tuesday morning. It left my shoulders tense, my mind buzzing, my head feeling a little…out of sorts.

I hated it.

I was also perplexed. There wasn’t anything special about Tuesday mornings. Yet, try as I might I couldn’t force my brain to figure out what was behind the pain, which meant I couldn’t fix it.

Instead, I had to face the truth. That – for the moment- there was nothing I could do but sit there and take the pain…to wait it out until I could feel it fully, notice the pattern, identify the problem.

It’s an awful solution, this waiting it out.  But it works.

To explain why I now turn to another pesky, uncomfortable phenomenon.

Puberty.

Specifically, we need to examine the pimple. 

Stay with me.

You remember the pimple, yes? That painful little blemish that would pop out on our skin at the most inconvenient times.

Some were easy to fix…teeny little whiteheads that arrived on our nose one morning. A hot washcloth, a quick squeeze perhaps, and voila…gone!

Others were significantly more resilient. They began deep down. They let us know – through achy throbbing and a touch of redness – that they were on their way.

The problem was we tried to fix the deep ones in the same way as the little ones. We tried to force them out of us before they were ready. We pinched and squeezed them before we could even see them.

This, you might recall, only made them worse. It irritated them, made them bigger, made them last longer. Made them hurt more.

Made them feel like the center of the universe.

Our pain is the same way.

Sometimes our pain is relatively simple:

  • We grow tense as a project deadline approaches, then relax once it’s finished.
  • We miss our friend from college and so we give him a call.
  • We have an awkward moment with a co-worker over the last donut, then laugh it off.

This kind of pain is mild and short-lived. It’s easily solved.  We use our brains to find the best logical step forward, then move on.

Other kinds of pain are more complex:

  • We grow anxious whenever we need to meet with our boss.
  • We feel a new tension when we talk to our sister.
  • We find we are irritated whenever we run across a certain individual at the office.

This kind of pain – related to fear, anger, sadness or anxiety – hurts more deeply. It’s often a symptom of a bigger issue, a pattern that tells us something is awry.

The problem is that we try to fix this kind of pain in the same way we fixed the simpler issues. We look for the quick fix, obsessed with making the pain go away as quickly as possible, desperately forcing solutions that don’t work.

We avoid the truth…that to really address this kind of pain means we actually need to feel it.  We need to allow it the time to fully surface so that we can examine it, recognize its patterns, determine its source and address it.

That’s how we figure out what the pain is really about…that we’re in the wrong job, that we’re threatened by our sister’s new circle of friends, or that we resent our co-worker because of her recent promotion.

(I pause here for a quick note…to say that I do recognize there is also an even deeper kind of pain – the kind related to trauma or life-long stress – that needs much more professional guidance than this blog post could ever offer. I do know my limits on this one, so please read with care. Now back to the post…)

I’ve found that the greatest leaders are masters at handling their pain. They’ve also figured out the greatest trick of all – determining which kind of pain they’re dealing with. The whitehead or the zit.

From what I can tell it comes down to noticing how deeply you feel the pain – the anxiety, the fear, the anger – and how quickly it fades.

Taking a simple step and moving on completely probably means you’ve just popped a simple whitehead.

Taking a simple step, then having the pain return or nag at you when you’re alone with your thoughts might just mean you’ve got a zit on your hands, which will require some extra time and discomfort before it can pass.

The good news?

If you feel it, identify it and deal with it directly, chances are it will pass. Heck, it might not even take that long.

And, just like puberty, you’ll find yourself on the other side of it in no time.

This week…

Can’t find a quick fix for your fear, anger or anxiety? Allow yourself to feel a little discomfort before trying the quick fix or forcing it away.

If you think you’re alone in this, just think of me on Tuesday mornings. Chances are I’ll be doing the same thing.

Now go do good…and do it well.

PS – A quick shout out to the jogger in San Diego who – without missing a stride – waved a friendly hello and informed me that she follows this blog. If you’re reading this know that your random comment made my Sunday. Thanks a million!

20 thoughts on “The Awful Solution to Our Pain

  1. Kenroc says:

    Very good read….John C. Maxwell basically talks about this in his book “The Difference Maker” when he describes the difference between a problem and a predicament. Problems can be solved but often with a predicament you have to weather the storm.

    1. Deirdre Maloney says:

      Thanks so much for your comment – and I LOVE that reference to the problem vs. the predicament (perhaps a bit more sophisticated than the whitehead vs. the zit?) Appreciate your giving it a read!

  2. I recognize that pain too. I saw it as a sign of weakness but I see now it is normal and it is positive to recognize it, experience it and learn how to address it. It’s part of our journey as professionals to overcome these painful moments.

    I’ll be thinking of you every Tuesday as I face my pain.

    Thanks!

    1. Deirdre Maloney says:

      I’m with you Caroline…it really is normal. We just tend to think it’s not because it doesn’t feel good, so we try to fix it ASAP. Look forward to sharing some good mental energy on Tuesday mornings…thanks for your comment!

  3. Good timing. Thank you for sharing this insight. A good reminder that not all my pains can be managed away with an action plan or to do list. The reoccuring ones I will try sitting with a while and see what more I uncover.
    And from my grandmother’s wisdom, despite our gloomy day here on the coast, take pleasure in the beauty of nature around you and draw from it a good dose of awe and inspiriation.
    Cheers, Leanne

    1. Deirdre Maloney says:

      Hi Leanne – thanks for your comments, and for your grandmother’s wonderful quote. As an action-planner myself, just sitting with pain is torture…but so is dealing with the consequences when I try to fix it with the wrong solution. Thanks again!

  4. Scott H. says:

    Deirdre – here’s a guys perspective (didn’t see any guy comments so thought I’d jump in).

    Pain can be good. It shows where something might be “off”, or where you’ve worked out too hard, or maybe it’s the body’s way of saying slow down. Some of the pain moments you identified are “That’s Not Fair!”-grumbles. I have a group of guys who meet every Friday morning to pursue our spiritual side (Christian focus, but all different denominations). The guy we download our lesson from, Patrcik Morley (www.maninthemirror.org), just did a lesson last week on this issue. The big idea was – “Groan, but don’t grumble. You just never know what God is doing.” I really liked this perspective because even us macho guys need to groan about pain now and again. Pat’s perspective was to simply put it in context of what God might be doing… the lay off that led to my consulting practice, the promotion I missed but then found out was a dead end. For those of us with a faith-based world view, it’s God who is orchestrating all human events to bring us into right relationship with Himself, and right relationship with each other. (another Pat Morley ism…). Blessings on your next Tuesday. And remember to moan, just don’t grumble.

    1. Deirdre Maloney says:

      Thanks very much for the “guy’s perspective”, Scott! I think anyone can appreciate the “groan don’t grumble” idea…sage advice on how to manage our frustrations without taking too much pity on ourselves. Appreciate your thoughts!

  5. Patricia Costa says:

    A really great analogy! Thanks Deirdre. I myself tend to be a “zit” person. I have to practice “every Tuesday” when I feel this discomfort. Most of it is a pattern of worry and fear that I have to make a conscious effort to let go. And 99% of the time, it all works out.

    1. Deirdre Maloney says:

      Thanks so much for your comment! I heard a great quote today, that the greatest of our fears lie in anticipation…I think that is so true. If only we didn’t worry about the future so much, we could be much happier in the present!

  6. Natasha says:

    For me this is a tricky thing to do as I wish all problems where the quick-fix type. I’m definitely one who gets frustrated when a problem requires patience and wisdom to figure out. This is a great analogy that I don’t think I’ll ever forget lol!

    1. Deirdre Maloney says:

      You and me both! I have really recognized how much I try to quick-fix everything…which can certainly waste a lot of time and energy if it’s not the right solution. Thanks for giving the post a read!

  7. Great distinctions, Deirdre! It often helps me to remember that there is always some information inside every experience, even unpleasant ones. Your post also makes me think about the concept of polarities as well – that there are problems to solve and polarities (seemingly opposite but interdependent poles) to manage.

    1. Deirdre Maloney says:

      Great points, Hanna – I like your point about problems and polarities. Sometimes it’s not about getting something to go away…but a long-term situation that needs to be managed over time. Thanks for the comment!

  8. Craig Blower says:

    So, what was your every Tuesday zit? I didn’t see that you were able to identify what was stressing you every Tuesday. I realize that was not the point of the whole column but hey, don’t leave us in suspense!

    1. Deirdre Maloney says:

      🙂 I love that you’re in suspense on this on Craig. The truth? I’m actually still figuring it out and working through “the zit”. As I do so I’ve got a hunch it has to do with the isolation of working alone (mentioned in other blogs)…on Monday I’m still coming off of lots of “people time” over the weekend. But by Tuesday things get a bit tricky…I’ll keep you posted as I figure out if I’m right!

  9. Ok… this was AWESOME. I automatically felt more relaxed my the humorous metaphor. It’s absolutely true. I’m trying harder and harder to not let anxiety eat away at me AND not let moments for essential confrontation (as an example) pass me by. The idea of a pimple will never leave my mind.

    1. Deirdre Maloney says:

      Thanks so much, Emily – I too am also a fan of looking at humor when dealing with trickier issues…and pimples are something most of us can (unfortunately) relate to! Terrific comment!

  10. Loved the analogy! Because I escaped the acne scourge as an adolescent only to battle with adult acne much later for several years I learned another helpful bit. Even though there is nothing you can do to erase the zit, you can do things to soothe the pain and support the healing process. Applying the same soothing self-care helps the problems/stress/yukkiness along. Avoid the ‘picking’ – the self recrimination and self-beating to “just power through it” and things come back on track more quickly.

    1. Deirdre Maloney says:

      LOVE this Heidi – way to take the metaphor to a whole new level! Thanks so much for the great comment 🙂

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