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Pain Versus Suffering + Great Teams and Vulnerability

April 4, 2018

 

Interesting Thought: Difference Between Pain and Suffering

 

This week, for my column with Outside, I wrote about the difference between pain and suffering. I put forth a framework that sees pain as uncomfortable physical and/or psychologial sensations and suffering as the misery that comes from fighting against them. The best athletes (and high performers in many other fields, too) tend to be really good at separating pain from suffering. Pain can be held in awareness and worked with; suffering is just suffering. 

A few important things to note:

1) Accepting pain does NOT mean that you don't do anything about it. If anything, it means the opposite. Only when you acknowledge pain and see it for what it is can you take productive action to manage it. Sometimes this means just sitting with it (e.g., at the end of a hard race or during an uncomfortable conversation at work) while other times it means seeking support (e.g., a bad injury, illness, or ongoing relationship problems). But fighting against pain, trying to resist it and force it out of your consciousness, never works. Not in sport. Not in life.

2) Not all pain is the same and not all suffering is the same. There is the pain that comes toward the end of a triathlon and the suffering of trying to resist it; there is the pain that is involved in depression and the suffering of trying to make it go away; there is the pain that comes with cancer and the suffering of wishing it were otherwise. While we can use the same vocabulary and framework for all these instances (i.e., pain and suffering) the texture of these sensations is quite different. 

3) There is voluntary pain (racing) and involuntary pain (accident or illness). As someone who has experienced both, it is a lot easier to avoid suffering with the former. If you can't embrace the pain and work with it, why put yourself through it? The latter is a much bigger challenge and test of the soul. But even so, I believe the same framework applies. 

 

At first this kind of radical acceptance sounds nuts (it did to me) but when you think about it, what actual good does resisting a situation that is already there do? It may create the illusion of things being different for a bit, but eventually, reality catches up to you. I think it's best to be in reality more of the time than not. Accepting pain (which again: does not mean doing nothing, but rather being honest about what is happening within you) is always more productive than fighting it and suffering. I want to acknowledge that writing or saying this is about 1000 times easier than actually doing it. If you read the column (below) you'll read about a "calm conversation." It's a lot easier to have one of these on the track than it is in the hospital. 

Hopefully that's enough context for the story, which you can read here. Per the usual, I welcome all comments and questions. I view my columns and this newsletter as an ongoing conversation. 

And, on the topic of ongoing conversation, I'll be doing a live tweet chat about my recent columns with Outside Magazine later today (Thursday, April 5) at 5PM est, 2PM pst. Please tweet your questions at me and Outside using the hashtag #DoItBetter. I love engaging like this and hope we can have some good public discussion! 

 

 

Coaching Corner: Great Teams and Vulnerability 

I've always felt a deep bond with those whom I ran cross-country and track with. There's a connection that goes deep and remains for years after the fact. The funny thing about it is that bond has nothing to do with "liking." I've witnessed teammates who despised each other become individuals who would run themselves until the brink of death for each other during a relay race.

This kind of bond transcends friendship.

When I think back and ask why this connection develops, the answer is simple. We get to see each other at our best, and more importantly, at our worst. It's all real.

Day after day of showing up and grinding through difficult workouts and races. Seeing who breaks on mile 15 of the long run, or on the 10th 400-meter repeat of the day. Understanding who puts their head down and keeps fighting or who gives themselves an out and slogs it in. We get to see the "toughest" individuals break down and cry after races, or be overcome by anxiety and stress before the championship meet. You quickly learn who people are when they are vulnerable.

When stress and fatigue are at their highest, there is no faking your way through it. No putting on a facade. You don't have enough energy or willpower to maintain a mask of how you'd like to be perceived. It's all raw and it's all real.

Far too often, in the real world, we never get to see such vulnerability. We aren't out on a track running until we are on the brink of puking. It's easy to maintain a cover going through your 9 to 5 job, but if you do so, you'll never create the bond that leads to great performances. That only comes when we allow people to see who we are. In other words, when we are vulnerable. Only then can we gain their trust and understanding.

Great teams don't arise from falling into each other's arms at ropes courses or weekend teamwork retreats. They don't come from doing an hour-long boot camp. Great teams only arise when walls are broken down when you see each other go through highs and lows; when a degree of humanity which seldom breaches our exterior portrayal is expressed. It's in true vulnerability in which great teams are created.

For more on the power of vulnerability, Brene Brown's book Daring Greatly is well worth a read.

 

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