Are we talking PAIN? Or just discomfort?

Are we talking PAIN? Or just discomfort?


A few weeks ago I had the chance to go on a weekend bicycle trip with a group that included a new friend. He rode a recumbent bike because of a neck injury that would have otherwise ended his cycling fun. He taught me something that I’m realizing relates to far more than cycling. I asked him if it hurt when he rode. He said, “I’ve reached the point where it’s important to distinguish between ‘pain’ and ‘discomfort’.”  That’s a good thing for all of us to know.

Pain is when something hurts so bad you can’t keep doing what you are doing.

Discomfort is when something about the situation creates less than a perfect experience.

If we are doing it right, we’re paying attention to the pain and ignoring the discomfort.  We don’t get much encouragement for going about it that way.

In one camp are the “no pain no gain” folks, who claim you have to work through the pain.  They’ve been falling out of favor recently, and that’s good.  If you are truly in pain, it’s time to alter course, be it backing off on an exercise routine or letting go of a certain version of a life.

But the messages that suggest we need to “fix” every little discomfort do just us just as much of a disservice.  The idea that nothing should ever hurt makes great business for pharmaceutical companies and therapists, but is it realistic?  No.  And it means you miss a good opportunity to prove your mettle.

On the bike trip where I first got to thinking about this, I had the chance to feel assorted discomforts.  The second day we had rain.  We rode anyway.  It got a colder than what I was dressed for.  It was still a good ride.  We addressed the discomforts when they got to be excessive—like finding shelter in a bike-friendly convenience store along the trail during the worst of the deluge.

But none of us gave in to the bad weather entirely—and that engendered a greater sense of accomplishment.  (The next day we were going to ride a dirt trail over high trestles and through long tunnels.  Lots of them.  When we got to the trailhead, it was 42 degrees and foggy.  That one, we aborted.  There is discomfort, and there is lunacy….)

But back to the idea of living with discomfort.  Take the common cold.  I’ve had friends tell me they give it three days and then go to the doctor.  For what?  It’s a cold.  Bed rest.  Lots of fluids.  And a big dose of patience is pretty much all that’s going to work.  Instead, the expectation is that there is some medicine that will make it all go away.  Nope.  But now in addition to the cold, you’ve wasted money and time on a doctor’s visit.  Did you really need it or were you just impatient with the discomfort?

The distinction is every bit as useful in assessing a job situation.  Perhaps you have to work with someone you don’t like.  Is that pain?  Not unless you make it so.  Discomfort, yes.  But pain from such a situation is usually more a case of what your ego is telling you about how awful it is.  Learn to live with the jerk and you win twice—by mastering that skill as well as avoiding the frustrations of a job search.

Both pain and discomfort serve useful purposes if we choose to let them.

Pain tells you it’s time to stop doing what you are doing.  Pain makes you stop doing what you are doing.  Quite often, pain requires you to seek help, whether it’s for a broken leg or an impossible business situation.  Pain precipitates change.

Discomfort, on the other hand, is a challenge to keep going.  It provides the opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to whatever you are doing.  Working through it confirms that what you’re working on is important enough that you are willing to put up with less than perfect circumstances to get it done.  And often, when you work through the discomfort, there’s a sense of achievement from it that gives you even more motivation to complete what you’re trying to do.

Given the contrast in what each offers, being able to differentiate between pain and discomfort is important.  Can you?  Knowing when to quit is good.  So is knowing when keep going.


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