Let’s face it, if you’re an athlete, or anyone that needs to succeed in a high-performance environment, at some point you’ve faced pain. Whether it is during competition, or in training, you’ve reached that point when the pain became too much and you backed off, or even stopped altogether. Trying to continue when truly injured is not good, but the common pain and discomfort associated with pushing our physical or mental limits is essential to great performance, or to truly improve during intense workouts.
‘No pain no gain’ is based in truth. And, I hate to say it but it isn’t only physical pain, but mental discomfort as well. And, this pain/discomfort isn’t just in sport, but also in the real-life world of business performance.
Before we can address strategies on how you can mentally get beyond pain and discomfort we first need to understand the science behind the discomfort. There are neurobiological reasons why you finally give in when your brain tells you to back off.
Understanding pain for what it really is
First, let’s look at why we experience pain and why it seems almost impossible to ignore. The brain, at its very most essential core, is designed to keep you alive. Pain is your brain’s signal to back off because you must conserve energy, fuel, or prevent muscle breakdown.
In our prehistoric past we did not have food, hydration, or relaxation and recovery simply waiting for us, so the brain became wired to tell us to “back off” and save some of this energy and strength for later – “you don’t know what predator is lurking behind the next tree!” So, the first thing to understand is that not only can’t you stop experiencing pain, but you also don’t want to, as it is part of the mechanism of survival.
Ignoring the back-off signs
The problem is that the brain begins sending the signal long before you actually need to back off. Think of a fuel gauge on the car. The light comes on to tell you that you need fuel, but it comes on when you still have 20+ miles left. It’s a warning that you better get more fuel soon, but the reality is you still have a lot left in the tank.
The ‘ego’ serves the same purpose, but for the things that make us feel discomfort (leaving our comfort zone) that we feel may make us look bad. In the world of sport this may mean playing a new position, having a new role on the team, or being asked to perform a skill set that was previously not what you were comfortable doing.
In the world of business this can mean pitching a new idea, investing in an unproven startup, starting a new position in the company, speaking in front of a large group, or being the lead voice in a meeting to try and land a big new client.
Our brains are designed to want to ‘thrive’ – remember survival mode is what the brain is about – so, looking bad (physically or mentally) sends a signal that we are NOT thriving. The result is a feeling that we want to escape looking bad, or the mental discomfort or pain.
But, remember – every moment of growth or improvement had to first start with this ‘pain’. Whatever you want to accomplish is just on the other side of that discomfort.
So, how do we blast through it?
1. Understand your ‘challenge point’
Remember that you are not ‘weak’ for experiencing pain/discomfort. In fact, you can’t prevent it – it’s the natural progression. So don’t place judgment on it and accept that it just is.
However, over time, you can get in better shape, mental or physical, and so you can push the moment of discomfort further and further out. However, there will always be the new ‘challenge point’ as there are always going to be new boundaries to push!
What I teach my clients is to train to become really aware – laser focused – of that point – to see it and feel it – but not need to try and escape it. We can even embrace it! That ‘challenge point’ is actually the very experience that we want!
2. Understand impermanence
Nothing is permanent. Things come up – pain or discomfort, sadness or happiness, joy or sorrow – but they always change, they always end, and something else will take its place.
The idea is to not give in to the initial impulse to escape the pain. Often the internal dialogue of telling yourself to get out of it actually intensifies the pain. Instead, see it and be aware of it, breathe deep, and recognize it as a moment of growth (muscle or mind) that is on the other side of it.