#4 Pain is inevitable
4. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional
One of my favorite sayings from when I did personal training, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” The simple idea was that pain was something that was going to happen. It didn’t have to be tremendous amounts of pain, but instead just enough to let you know you were working. Suffering, however, was completely optional. Suffering meant that it was something of our choosing and that the pain lasted for longer than was necessary.
Just for the sake of this chapter, I’m going to define these terms as they apply for our discussion. Pain as a term can have a very broad range of meanings, but for us, it simply means, “an unpleasant sensation that can range from mild and localized to systemic agony.” When working out, you’re going to feel a bit of pain. We might call it the “burn” or just a sense of pushing our bodies beyond comfort. Pain can border into strains and injuries but we’ll stay away from that for the time being. We want to concentrate on the general feeling of pain and discomfort. As it pertains to not just physical activity but we can also feel emotional and mental pain as well.
Suffering on the hand, is something more. My use of suffering in this example is choosing to do something that will cause more pain than necessary. Be that either as intensity or duration. Think of the example of going to the bathroom in the middle of the night and stubbing your toe on the corner of the bed. That’s pain. It was an accident. Suffering on the other hand, is after you’ve stubbed your toe, you choose to kick the bed again and cause further pain. You didn’t have to kick it again, but you chose to do it and it increased the pain you felt for no real good reason.
Pain is something we have to go through. There is no growth without some kind of pain. Comfort doesn’t lend itself to making us better humans. I am unaware of anybody that has improved their position by watching 4 hours of Netflix everyday. Social media and other outlets similar to Netflix would love to have your attention for the full 16 hours you’re awake. I’ll admit I’ve binged watched some TV. You have to have some down time, but there also has to be moments where we’re in some level of pain. Be it discomfort, mental strain, or emotional turmoil; there will be times that things do not go our way.
We can choose some of our own painful experiences, like going to the gym or going back to school. There are other times when we don’t get to choose, like cancer or a death in the family. Either way, we can choose to use these painful times to make something better. Going to the gym will increase our physical capacity and with increased health markers comes longevity. Going back to school can increase our odds of landing a better job or getting that pay raise. Even something like cancer can be used as an opportunity for growth when your perception of reality is shifted. There’s a great sense of appreciation for what we have when there’s the distinct possibility we can lose it at any minute.
The term growing pains applies here. Pain has the very real ability at making us something better than we are. Small amounts of pain will help us realize that, “oh wow, I didn’t die from that. I can withstand more than I know.” In my personal training experience I’d often see examples of people that didn’t give themselves enough credit. They’d start training and have no idea just how strong they really were. I’ll use the example of Jane (not her real name). She had never really worked out much in her life. She’d never played a sport or spent any time in the gym. As she had gotten older she was less and less happy with her body. When her father died, it really hammered home for her the importance of physical health. When she came to me she was ready to make a change.
Jane knew that it wasn’t going to be a pleasant experience. I never sugar coat it to clients. I will make it the best possible experience by laughing, making jokes, telling stories or anything I can think of to help people keep their minds off of the fact that I’m asking them to do horrible things like push a prowler or lift weights exceeding their body weight. After a few initial sessions to make sure there were no outlying issues that needed to be addressed, we start learning what I consider to be fundamental movements. The deadlift is one of those movements. It’s tough but it’s rewarding. It’s also one of those exercises where people vastly underestimate just what they’re capable of. Jane was one of those people. When we first started doing it, I started people with something light so that we can guarantee form is where it needs to be before going heavier. Once I feel comfortable with their form, then we start adding weight. Over the course of several weeks we add more and more weight. By four or five weeks into her training, I was asking Jane to lift more than her body weight for several reps.
Prior to this particular training session, she had never really paid attention to the weight on the bar. Today she asked. I told her, “I’ll tell you when you finish.” She got set up and pulled the deadlifts easily enough with the last few reps getting difficult but without compromising form. When she finished, I told her how much was on the bar. She looked at me for just a second before asking, “can we do it again?” The subtle amounts of pain she had dealt with over the last few weeks had helped to teach her that she was stronger than she knew. I will often tell clients, “I will have more confidence in you than you will. I know what you’re capable of.” Clients would often question me at first but slowly gave way to my confidence that would in turn give way to confidence of their own. Those milestones are not possible without pain.
Suffering on the hand is an unfortunate byproduct of pain. If a little is good then a little more is better, right? Suffering will manifest in many ways. For myself, I’d put myself through suffering when trying to perform through an injury. I’d often see clients think that if they missed a workout that something would destructively happen to all their progress, so clients would show up even though they were obviously sick. That type of suffering would have no beneficial effect. In the example of myself, training through an injury would only make it worse. Pretending it didn’t exist and trying to continue only put me in greater pain and negatively impacted my performance as an athlete. Clients or training partners that showed up sick, would have underwhelming performances, often prolonging their sickness when that time would have been better spent resting and taking care of themselves. This suffering had no beneficial residual effect. Trying to push through times when no good would come of it is the epitome of suffering.
It’s not often easy to be able to distinguish between the two. Pain is beneficial, but suffering is not? When does it cross the line? The answer to that question is not always immediately apparent. Sometimes it just comes with practice and knowing just how much pain is necessary. Not only are the answers difficult to see but can be different for different scenarios. In the event of a college student getting ready for a test; getting sick (depending of course upon the severity of the sickness) might not excuse them from studying but would be an adequate excuse for skipping the gym. Getting the test out of the way is only a little bit of pain but suffering through a workout while sick could only exacerbate the conditions.
It takes time to weigh the options to see if pain falls over the line into the realm of suffering. It also takes experience. In the event of having to decide, ask those around you first. Someone might have been there or done that. There’s a great saying, “a smart man will learn from his mistakes but a wise man will learn from the mistakes of others.” When in doubt, ask around. Someone might have the answer to whether or not it’s worth it. Clients would often call or text and ask what they should do. I was honest with them. There would be many times that they needed to go home and rest. I love training. I love training people but I also don’t want to see people get hurt. If it were just a simple matter of having had a hard day, come in and train. We can scale the workout to better fit the performance. However as odd as it seems, there would be times that I would tell clients not to come workout. For someone that only gets paid when clients train, I had to still keep the best interest of the client in mind. I might lose that time slot for the day but I could sleep better at night knowing that I wasn’t doing any harm.
Suffering will happen. We make mistakes. We can’t always know when something will or will not have a beneficial effect in the long run. What we do know is that we need to be able to deal with a little bit of discomfort (pain if you will), in order to grow. Steel yourself and make the mind ready. Pain doesn’t have to be agony (or suffering) but it’s going to have to be there if we want to become more than we are.