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Pain Matters

October 15, 2015
Pain Matters

Vulnerability is challenging habitat for all of us. It’s just the nature of the beast. Even renowned psychologist and celebrated guru of vulnerability Brene Brown has to work at it.

In her groundbreaking book Daring Greatly, Brown candidly writes and speaks about her own vulnerability demons, along with those of the thousands of people she’s interviewed and worked with. At the root of our vulnerability phobia is the fear that’s innate to the human experience, “If they only knew…” If we open up enough to show our scars, unveil our limp, will others see us as tarnished, broken and unworthy of love? And we avoid this question like the plague because it’s sure to trigger the most ruthless demon of them all: shame.

Just like guilt, shame is a feeling that doesn’t do us much good. Sure, there is justified shame just as there is justified guilt. If we do something that isn’t in alignment with our core values, that we know to be morally wrong, we are going to feel shame or guilt. In this way the vicious demon actually serves a purpose by keeping us in check. Not a bad thing.

It’s when unjustified shame is triggered that we are venturing into toxic territory. I write much about vulnerability in my latest book, especially in relation to what I call authentic leadership. In defiance of the voice that screams at me to stop, I strive to stretch myself with this blog, embracing vulnerability by revealing my limp—in this case, literally.

Diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis before my twenty first birthday, I’ve experienced a lot of pain over the course of the last fifteen years. That just is what it is. I’ve lived, trained and played hard, and I’ve been paying the price for the last three years in the form of surgeries and seemingly endless rehab. Though I firmly believe that adversity is the only way we build resiliency (a critical element to success, hence the chapter title “Hardship Is Your Greatest Gift” in Be Audacious), this morning my pain felt like anything but a gift.

Perhaps it’s growing up as an athlete, but I’ve always taken pride in my “Guru of Go” drive and ability to push through pain to reach a summit, reel in another biker, or knock ten seconds off my nightly time trial. But that pain and the unrelenting discomfort causing me the hitch in my gait as I walked my daughter to her classroom this morning are two vastly different things. Activity-related pain is a rush. It floods our body with dopamine and other endorphins that leave us feeling full of vitality and alive.

Chronic pain does just the opposite. It drains us, depresses our emotional immune system and leaves us feeling exhausted physically, psychologically and spiritually. And for me, it triggers shame. Shame of not being strong enough, man enough, tough enough.

My pain has indeed been a gift as it’s made me a gritty, scrappy and extremely resilient dude. But it also wears me down. So what’s the moral of this story?—as the Be Audacious blog is more than a journal, it’s a platform that I strive to use to help inspire and build the BA tribe. It’s this: sometimes we aren’t going to thrive. That’s ok. When pain is present, it’s more than enough to simply endure. This manic drive our society cultivates to go 100mph is not only unsustainable, it’s not realistic.

Pain comes in many shapes, sizes and forms. It can be emotional, physical, spiritual, or, when the storm is really raging, all three converging to create a hurricane. Some of us have a greater tolerance from prolonged exposure, but this isn’t relevant. The key: try not to overthink the struggle—something I tussle with often, as my brain likes to latch onto things, especially things that trigger shame.

Pain is temporary or permanent. It will either pass, or we will learn to live with the pain. Pain hardens us and softens us at the same time. It’s the heat of the oven and the tenderizer of the meat. It shapes and transforms us.

So what has living with daily pain for years taught me? Not to take the days or moments where the pain lets up for granted. If it’s been cloudy for weeks on end and the sun makes an appearance, living audaciously means uncovering the wisdom and courage to soak in the sunshine, no matter how fleeting or short-lived it is.

The scariest thing about pain is how much of it is out of our control. But this is where vulnerability becomes essential. A willingness to be vulnerable and to give shame the middle finger empowers us to focus on the arena we have the most influence: our attitude and where we put our focus.

Pain sucks. It really does. It’s distracting, consuming and depressing. But when we don’t let it trigger shame, and instead focus on how badass it makes us, we weather the storm and harness the gift of hardship.

~Michael W. Leach

PS: If you’ve made it this far, I encourage you to share this post and help us build the BA tribe. Much love and respect…

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