No Pain, No Gain. You’ve heard the expression before. But is it true? Is it true that achieving important personal or career goals has to be a painful experience?
I’m going to say no, and here’s why. First of all, pain is nature’s signal that something is amiss and requires attention. This holds true in both the physical and emotional realms of being. To ignore pain, or even worse, to court it, would be an ill-considered choice.
Secondly, human beings have a natural aversion to painful situations. Many times in life painful circumstances cannot be avoided and so it behooves us to learn how to cope with them. But, to the extent we imagine that achieving an important goal is going, by definition, to be a painful experience, we’re likely to encounter some inner resistance to taking the task on. The ensuing ambivalence only serves to dissipate our energies and disrupt our focus. It is far more constructive to be sharply focused on one goal.
Now I don’t mean to imply we ought to shrink from taking on important challenges in our lives. In working to attain any goal in life we are going to encounter difficulties that are going to have to be faced and resolved. Some may well be painful. But dealing with painful situations when they arise is a far cry from making it the norm to encounter them.
On a more subtle, but no less powerful level, there is something inherently unhealthy in adopting No Pain, No Gain as a life motto. Much of the problematic origins of mental illness have to do with the concept of splits. By splits I mean the sense of one part of the psyche perceived as being in opposition to another, as if there were two parts of us and they were at war. While some types of schizophrenia represent an extreme form of this split, all of us have probably encountered a vastly milder version of this experience in our daily lives.
Just as we can say, in general, that splits experienced within the personality are associated with mental illness, we can say, in general, that the absence of splits, or wholeness, is emblematic of mental health.
The problem with No Pain, No Gain is that it employs and encourages the sense of splitting. Typically, one side of the split is experienced as this weak, ineffectual, hopeless character while the other is experienced as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor. The hopeless character is perceived as being either unwilling or unable to achieve something beyond his normal reach; the Drill Instructor screams, belittles and goads him into action, despite all outer appearances, for his own good. That this goading, which usually relies upon self-inflicted humiliation, insult, intimidation and bullying supposedly masks benign intent, it isn’t be the type of relationship you’d ideally want to have with yourself.
While encouraging this split may prove useful in attaining a short-term goal, such a losing weight, training for an athletic event or completing a project at school or work, it is far less adaptive as a life style. In maintaining healthy relationships with others, healthy balance in our lives and in achieving a sense of inner peace, happiness and contentment, we are much better off with a unitive approach.
This means learning to adopt the desired goal as something of our own volition rather than creating a split-off driving force to provide motivation. While recognizing that overcoming the challenges we are likely to encounter along the way to achieving our desired goals may prove difficult at times, we need to learn to rely upon encouragement and understanding to provide the needed boost, not intimidation. You certainly wouldn’t want to treat your children or other loved-ones with the brutal methods in which you are prepared to treat yourself.
So, in effect, we need to frame the internal dialogue as complimentary rather than antagonistic. The message of persuading yourself to persist in the face of adversity promotes the healing of potentially harmful splits; it doesn’t engender them.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Therefore, I invite you to Google the expression No Pain, No Gain and click on images. There you will find countess pictures of men built like Arnold Schwarzenegger and tall, lean women without one ounce of fat on their bodies. In short, perfect representations of what our wild and often crazy culture holds out as models to emulate. Thought society holds out these images and the values they represent as desirable, in the long run, self-acceptance is a much better approach to successful living than self-contempt.
What do you think? I’m interested in hearing if you agree or disagree, so please comment.