The Gift of Pain

Have you ever suffered from Mental Leprosy? Have you ever pushed down pain to the point that you could no longer feel? Or pushed fear down to the point where you could no longer conceive of doing what you fear? Or allowed potential discomfort to paralyze you? I have.

The Gift of Pain and Discomfort - Child Getting Shot

Pain is not the problem. The problem is the problem. Pain is a gift. It shows you that something important is broken. (Click to Tweet)

Here are three examples:

Example 1:

I’ve allowed my frustration (pain) with a team member who was constantly late to reach the point where I felt like I could do nothing, that I was stuck with him on the team. It reached the point where I forgot how frustrated I was. I no longer saw his faults. I no longer felt the pain. And my team suffered as a result.

Example 2:

I’ve allowed fear to keep me in a job I hated. “It’s not that bad,” I said repeatedly. Eventually, I was numb to the pain. My wife finally told me I had to get out.

Example 3:

I’ve allowed the discomfort I would probably experience during a much needed conversation with a team member about a bad behavior to paralyze me. The “awkwardness” and potential conflict caused me to do nothing. Over time, I was immune to the complaints from other team members.

In all of those cases, I suffered from Mental Leprosy.

The Loss of Pain

Dr. Paul Brand is world-renowned for his study of leprosy. I recently read a story from him that shocked me and caused me to realize that pain is a gift for leaders. Pain is an acknowledgment of something that is out of place, in need of repair. (Ironically, as I was looking up Dr. Brand for a link to his Wikipedia page, I discovered he wrote a book entitled The Gift of Pain, after I had titled this post. I will definitely be purchasing it.)

Until recently, I thought the disease caused disfigurement, loss of limbs, and blindness. In actuality, it causes none of those. What it does cause, however, is the inability to feel pain. As a result, lepers unknowingly sabotage their bodies.

Dr. Brand tells of one leper in India who once decided to race the other patients. This patient started running…without the crutches upon which he previously placed all of his weight.

As he watched the patient run, Dr. Brand knew something was seriously wrong. The patient was running in a very odd way. By the time he reached Dr. Brand, the patient’s bandages were soaked in blood. His left foot hung by a thread from his leg.

As his foot dangled and blood poured from this ankle, the man still felt no pain. He had begun the day with a dislocated ankle and, with no pain at all, ran nearly one hundred yards only to end it running on his tibia bone. Small stones and twigs were lodged in the marrow cavity. Ultimately, the leg had to be amputated.

Lepers often die from self-inflicted wounds…all because they can’t feel pain.

Mental Leprosy

Pain is not the problem. The problem is the problem.

The perpetually late team member, the bad job, or a team member’s bad behavior…those are the problems, not the pain that might result from addressing them.

Pain is a gift. It shows you that something important is broken. Things would not be that bad if you did not feel some pain. Don’t wish pain wasn’t there. If it wasn’t, you might never know what to fix.

Use the pain. Fight through the pain. Every time you do, you get stronger. Every time you have the uncomfortable conversation, the next one gets easier. Every time you defeat fear, it gets weaker. Every time you overcome pain, it hurts less the next time.

How have you avoided painful situations? What were the results?

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  • Wow. Powerful stuff. Needed this today. Thank you for the motivation to have a difficult conversation I’ve been delaying.

  • This post is way too descriptive, but I can only imagine what it would be like if we could gauge the symptoms and effects of mental leprosy. Pain is a sign that your body needs help. Avoiding pain unnecessarily perpetuates it source. Thanks, Matt!

    • It is…and in the graphic nature lies the power I think.

      But I will admit, it’s kind of gross and perhaps not the best way to start the day. :-)

      • I’m glad you can see that. I work developing technical content for medical products and I get to see some very gross things, so I’ve learned how to schedule certain activities when I’m not eating. HA!

  • I talk with a lot of people who stay in jobs they hate – and until the pain of staying is more than the pain of leaving nothing happens. I am fortunate to love my day job and my side business – but when pain comes around you are absolutely right, that is the signal to take action.

  • Steve Pate

    well recently, and I believe I’v touched on this before, but last year was my “Awaking” in my roll year. I got kicked in the “yahoos” by my director and board.(like that mental picture?lol) Simply, I thought my position was more important in my mind than it really was in their minds. Over all I needed that pain to show me to focus what was put on my plate and don’t worry about whats on my team mates plate.

    Through that, I’ve been digging hard in blog(s), reading more books on from going Good to GREAT,pod cast and books on how to be effective in my communication. Going to more conferences to grow my self.

    So, feeling those pains made me to Grow. Thanks tribe for being a great source of encouragement to go to!

  • There’s a terrific trilogy called The Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson (amazon link here to book 1: http://www.amazon.com/Fouls-Chronicles-Thomas-Covenant-Unbeliever/dp/0345348656/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1364417972&sr=8-1&keywords=stephen+r+donaldson+thomas+covenant) Turns out he’s written quite a few more books after that, but here’s the deal: the Covenant character has leprosy and lives in fear of damaging himself because he can’t feel anything. He is transported to a world where he begins to feel, and, well, read the books, just not on a dark night when you’re feeling lonely. They’re quite dark.
    The thing I’ve discovered about masking pain is that there is spiritual damage done when we do so. I’ve hated my job for so long it took some recent events for me to realize I’d done damage to myself by staying. I fear being cold so much that I now fear even the possibility of being cold.
    Both fears are crap, and are an affront to God.
    Thanks for the great post and great reminder that we’ve got to live in a world as it really is, not one where we become ostriches or clams and dig down and hide till we think the danger’s gone away.

    • Steve Pate

      do I get the feeling you don’t like your job?

    • Thanks for sharing Kathy. Pray hard and take the step soon. That step might be to quit or might be to find something else first or might be to confront your boss and demand a change. Whatever it is…the pain is telling you to do something.

  • I experienced a lot of pain in the wake of an illness, hospitalization, and recovery that my wife went through a few years ago. I literally was paralyzed from doing many things for more than a year following this. Time has helped to heal the wounds, and I’ve been more open to stretching and moving forward.

    • Wow Jon. Have you written about that? If so, can you share a link here? I (and others probably) would love to read it.

      • I’ve written about it in bits and pieces. Some of it is pretty painful. I did blog through much of the experience if you look back on my blog from Sept. 2010 – Dec. 2010. One post I wrote about the experience was titled Less Like Scars. Here’s the link: http://www.jonstolpe.com/2011/08/30/less-like-scars/

  • I think certain types of pain can allow us to learn, grow, and become better. It requires moving from our comfort zone and toward areas we know we need to move toward. Great thought!

  • Funny, I’m in the process of writing a blog on how we seek to avoid being uncomfortable. But as you pointed out, that is where the growth points lie. One of things that I’m still working on figuring out is what is the best process to learn from uncomfortable situations.

    • I look forward to reading it. I don’t think we avoid it…we just fight through it.

      I don’t enjoy a lot of difficult things but the reward is awesome.