Pain and gain

There’s a familiar saying, “no pain, no gain.” It’s familiar because there’s truth in it, like most familiar sayings. There’s a trap inside it, too. Like a number of familiar sayings, it doesn’t tell quite all of the truth, and the part left out matters.

I think this “no pain, no gain” idea primarily comes up out of the world of sports and physical training, which fortunately provide a great place to examine the unmentioned bit as well. Pain and gain are very literal when talking about building muscles: you work muscles, they get sore, then they get stronger. Repeat.

Here’s the part that’s not mentioned, though: pain doesn’t create strength. Pain makes you weak. Not following me? Go do pushups or crunches, or start running. Go do them until you can’t do them any more, until you literally collapse on the ground, not a single motion left in you. Is that strength? On the contrary, it is a moment of both profound pain and profound weakness.

Why does extreme physical exertion cause pain? Because it damages muscles, literally and truly making them weaker. A damaged muscle loses strength. But then the unmentioned part comes in. The body doesn’t stay damaged, it starts fixing itself. It doesn’t just fix itself to the original specifications, either, it makes the damaged muscles stronger than they started. Exertion causes damage, damage causes pain, the body responds to damage with healing, healing creates greater strength. It’s recovery that causes the gain. Not pain.

Okay, so recovery only happens after damage does, and it doesn’t rhyme with “gain” so it’s not nearly as catchy as using “pain,” and if the whole thing works together then why am I being so fussy about it, again? Why does it matter which bit does what when you need all of them together?

It matters because I’m not really thinking about physical training. In that arena, there’s such a close connection between exertion, pain, recovery, and increased strength that it matters less to pull them apart and deal with them separately. For challenges in other areas, though, the pain-recovery cycle isn’t as automatic.

I think about people I know who are strong, capable, successful, and for many of them I can name the ways in which they have worked hard, the ways in which they have suffered or sacrificed. But I don’t perceive them as suffering now. I don’t see them constantly crippled by pain, even if some degree of hardship is ongoing. I think these folks have learned, consciously or not, to engage a kind of pain-recovery cycle, like our bodies do when our muscles are damaged. They exert themselves, but also take time to recover. They aren’t perpetually strong — their challenges sap energy and strength from them, just like mine do for me. But they give themselves time for energy and strength to come back. They are intentional about taking care of themselves in ways that restore strength, and the effect of the pain-recovery cycle for them is just the same as it is for a bicep. They get stronger and stronger, able to take on larger and more difficult challenges.

One of the reasons I’m starting to discover I get stuck, is because of where I get stuck — in the middle of the cycle. I take the idea of “no pain, no gain” to mean that taking on challenges just plain hurts. Period. All the time and relentlessly. Unless you’re able to endure pain and challenge and hardship constantly, unless you have an infinite capacity to suck it up, buttercup, and keep on going regardless of absolutely everything, always, you may as well give up and go home.

Mostly, in that regard, I just go home. Or rather, I stay home and don’t try. I know for certain I don’t rate that well on the “suck it up, buttercup” scale, so it’s easier to just go straight to feeling bad about myself for sucking. Every now and then I get a burst of energy and inspiration and try to do something bigger — pursued constantly, tirelessly, obsessively, in my best imitation “no pain, no gain” style. Until I run out of energy and collapse. At which point I get to feel bad about myself for sucking and failure.

Understanding that pain doesn’t lead to gain without traveling through recovery shows me a saner way forward. Making progress requires real work and effort — and then real rest and nurturing. More work, more pain and sacrifice — then deliberate healing and encouraging. It’s a pattern that can fit inside a day, an afternoon, an hour, a project, a conversation. It uses the pain-recovery cycle in a practical way to grow strength and move steadily forward.

I’ve got several personal challenges right now, one of the biggest being a need for new work. There’s something terrifying, really and actually scary and hard about the process of looking up a new job and making contacts. I don’t wholly know why, but it is. It’s so hard, and right now it takes a lot of strength.

I’ve been tending to kick myself for not doing more and making better progress. The kicking hasn’t been helping me make better progress, though.

Instead I’m trying to start engaging the idea of the pain-recovery cycle in a conscious way. After doing something hard, I’ll make a point of doing something fun. If I’m tired or mentally frazzled, maybe it’s not the best time to run another search on Dice. It’s time to stop and rest and maybe plan which step to begin with tomorrow. There’s other work I can do, cleaning up my house, getting exercise to build my real muscles, thinking and writing and sharing ideas, playing with yarn, spending time with people I love. All things that nurture me, that give me strength.

If pain is necessary for gain, then I don’t want to get out of it — but I want to take it on practically, sanely, and with a chance of success. Pain costs too much to not add up to anything in the end. Pulling apart “no pain, no gain” and understanding the real guts of it is finally helping me understand how to make that pain count.