Would you want a life without painful experiences? Would you want a career where nothing went wrong and you faced no unpleasant challenges whatsoever? For most people, the natural inclination would be to answer with a resounding “Yes!” I mean, who wouldn’t want to be able to avoid pain? Silly question, right?
Well, no, actually. While the pain of unpleasant experiences is never likely to feel good, it can ultimately have a significant positive impact. And avoiding that pain altogether would cheat you of its benefits.
Here are several reasons that pain can be positive:
Pain is a catalyst. The majority of my clients come to me because they reach a point where the discomfort of being in the wrong career outweighs the discomfort of making a change. Their pain reaches critical mass and forces them into action, to move towards a career they love. In an ideal world, we would always have a friction-free path to taking the steps that are in our best interest, but the reality is that uncertainty and fear often keep us stuck. When the pain of what’s wrong gets intense enough, it can blast us out of that rut and into action.
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Pain is a warning bell. When an experience hurts, it’s often an alarm going off trying to get our attention that something needs to change. It serves the same function as physical pain. If you touch a hot stove and it burns your finger, you know to pull away your hand, a.s.a.p.
The trouble is, we often refuse to listen to it and instead play the victim. “Ouch! This hurts! But I can’t do anything about it. That’s just the way things are. I’d rather stay where I am than face the uncertainty of change.” Etc., etc. etc. So rather than feeling the pain and asking, “OK, what do I need to do about this?” we learn to live with alarm bells going off 24/7.
When you listen to that warning bell and take action as a result, it doesn’t just stop the pain. It also leads you in a positive direction. And the cumulative effect of those positive steps over time can be huge.
Pain can challenge you to grow. A challenging situation might require something new to make the pain stop. You might need to overcome the fear that is keeping you stuck and change careers. Or maybe you need to learn new interpersonal skills so you can resolve issues with a coworker. Overcoming a challenging situation might even require you to do a complete overhaul of the lens you view the world through.
As Albert Einstein once said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The pain of unpleasant situations can push us to learn and grow in ways that we never would have otherwise.
Now, I’m realistic. I don’t think that any of these positive aspects of pain is going to make you step back and go, “Hey, I’m really lucky this sucks so much!” And I have no illusion that keeping them in mind is going to magically transform all of your pain into gold (let’s face it – some pain is just a toothache kind of pain). But if you are at least aware of them, you increase your potential to make the most out of the experience.
Next time something feels painfully unpleasant in your career, stop and ask these three questions:
- What positive change could this be catalyzing?
- What is this pain telling me? What can I do about it?
- What do I need to learn to help me move past this pain?
The more aware you are, the less time you’ll spend in an endlessly repeating unpleasant loop.
After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As a speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About Work, and his E-book, The Occupational Adventure Guide, offer people tools for turning dreams into reality. Rosengren's blog, The M.A.P. Maker, explores how to craft a life of meaning, abundance, and passion.