The Myth of Pushing Through Pain

Push through at all costs. Persevere.  Never say die. Suck it up. No pain/no gain. Winners never quit and quitters never win. Work harder/work longer.

These are just a few of the mantras of our world that inform us and often keep us stuck in self-defeating patterns. I know just brainstorming these and typing them up made voices from my past reverberate in my head and gave me the chills.  While these mantras can make for some high drama in movies and peak moments in sports, I wonder if the people who utter them realize the messages they send are far more damaging than motivating.

I was raised in a small town where sports were the town’s religion.  Coaches were revered as Gods (if they were winning) or hated like lepers (if losing) and the power grid rotated around the outer success of its kids.  The same passion for success was evident in the classroom and other areas, but none as obvious and dramatic as the playing field.

I’m as passionate as the next person about the things I love. I’ve hollered at sports till I couldn’t speak and followed my teams far and wide. I’ve marveled at the magic of artists and had my own mini experiences and moments of glory. Focus, determination, grit, perseverance, and heart are all great qualities to have if and only if they can come with a strong sense of self worth that is derived intrinsically and not as a byproduct of the results you’re seeing “out there” in the world.

Want an example of mantras and programming gone bad?

Why Pushing Through Pain Doesn't Work

Paula G, 2001 MS-150

I had always wanted success in sports. I missed my shot at basketball because I was wrapped up in a competitive skating career which when summed up was ultimately more painful and full of regrets than successful.  Sure I got a lot of gifts from the experience and had some happy times don’t get me wrong, but the striving for and falling short over and over again is what is most engrained in my memory.

Because of this I spent a lot of time pushing and beating myself up to prove something to myself (and others).  I did it probably because of regret and general feelings of unworthiness.  I enjoyed a lot of what I did – it wasn’t all nose to the grindstone, but the underlying motivation was one of “not enough”.

As I got older and discovered more of myself this relentless pushing lessened, but in many ways was still there and can still be there and pop up when I’m feeling a whole lot “less than” from inside myself.

That brings me to the story of what happens when you fuel up entirely on expectations, pushing, and never, ever quitting.  Back in 2001 I was totally gung ho with my cycling. (I’m still passionate, but no longer to the point of the insanity I am about to illustrate.) I was riding more miles than ever and pushing myself to the limit because I wanted to be “good enough”. You know, one of the “real” cyclists. (Both fundamentally unattainable measurements which were totally made up in my head.) I was jazzed about doing the MS 150 (a 150 mile bike ride over 2 days to raise money for National Multiple Sclerosis charity).  The trip down was great – I rode the longest ride I’d ever done (almost 80 miles) and averaged the fastest speed I ever managed (over 16 mph). And, I had a great time, it was totally euphoric.   I was tired, but attempted to ignore nagging soreness in my feet which had already seen their fair share of injuries.

The next day was very cold (40’s, low 50’s F) and extremely rainy.  Had I not been out to prove something to myself I would’ve honored myself, packed it in, rode home in the car warm and dry, recuperated for a few days and then been good to go.  However, I was stuck in the mantras – the “never quit”, “always honor your commitments”, “the people you’re riding for only wish they could ride in the cold rain”, and any other “do till you die” type programming.  So, I rode. All 75 miles in the pouring rain. Numb, hypothermic, and delirious, a friend and I crossed the finish line.  I was glad to be done, sore, and mostly entirely numb.  The surprise came when I thawed out on the way home. I got home & couldn’t get out of the car; couldn’t walk.  After much ado and a Dr. Appointment the next morning I realized I had torn BOTH Achilles tendons and re-injured my knees.  All I can say is it was a damn long, painful, and frustrating year of rehabilitation.  Because the body always remembers and stays susceptible to re-injury it remains an ongoing see-saw of care and feeding of these weak links in my body so I can do the things I love ongoing.

I have since found a lot of gifts in this miserable experience not the least of which is that it is OK to quit. It is fabulous to take time away from pursuing goals to simply play and have fun.  No lives will be lost if I don’t get something on my to-do list done or keep relentlessly busy. There are no rewards for martyrdom. The lessons of common sense and honor your body for the long-term are missing chapters in those motivational books from sports coaches and teachers old and new.  Even in the corporate hallways we live in a “tape ‘em up and throw ‘em in the game” mentality.   The “do more with less” nonsense.  Sometimes “sucking it up” is a short-term tactic, but can never be a long-term strategy for either success or happiness.

What the mantras really need to say are:

Don’t quit just because something gets hard. If you really desire something – go for it and play full out.  But at the end of the day and the end of your life how you cared for, honored, and used the body and life you were gifted will matter far more than whether you sucked it up for a fleeting moment of the illusion of glory.  Know when to push on, when to rest, and when to quit entirely and choose knowing that being a winner is an inside job.

Are you stuck in a relentless cycle of overwork or being held hostage by your schedule?  If so, contact me today so we can explore how I can help you break free of the pain and suffering of pushing through it.

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Comments

  1. As the friend who rode with you that long cold, rainy day, I'm proud of how you transformed that painful experience into a spiritual "ah-ha" that informes everything else in your life–and now the lives of those you counsel. Kudos on your wisdom, Paula.

    You should know that every time I saw you on crutches after that event I felt a terrible twang of guilt for not having the wisdom to say, "More is the enemy of good enough." and have us hitch a ride on the bail-out bus.

    • Thank you Bev!! It was a memorable day, right? Oh we all make our choices in the moment (some good, some not so great!) but indeed… the bail out bus doesn't feel like a failure any more. As my one kayak instructor said "discretion is the better part of valor". Well said.

      So grateful for the awesome ride down we had for sure & look forward to riding together again soon!

  2. Paula, I like your comment, "there are no rewards for martyrdom." I think that women in particular forget that.

  3. I especially love this quote: "But at the end of the day and the end of your life how you cared for, honored, and used the body and life you were gifted will matter far more than whether you sucked it up for a fleeting moment of the illusion of glory. Know when to push on, when to rest, and when to quit entirely and choose knowing that being a winner is an inside job."

    Your message reminds me of the serenity prayer: "Spirit, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." For me, the most challenging part is having the wisdom to know the difference. In the meantime, I keep praying for it. :)
    My recent post Reading My Own Label

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