Saturday, September 22, 2012

Personal Growth and the Threshold of Pain

Personal growth is when we restructure ourselves to better adapt to the world. It is a matter of getting rid of old stuff that is holding us back, finding better ways of doing things and getting closer to what truly makes us happy. To grow, we have to try new things. Maybe they will work and maybe they won't, but we have to try. We also have to push ourselves a little to get over a certain threshold of pain we are bound to encounter when we try new things. It is this pain that prevents people from changing.

A simple example: You know you should lose weight, but this requires eating less and exercising more, both of which are painful at first. In the modern world, we are surrounded by rich food, and resisting it can be uncomfortable, like enduring heat or cold. Likewise, when you first exercise, you may be huffing and puffing and not feeling so good.

Most people, upon encountering this discomfort, will do the patriotic thing: They quit! "I can't do this," they say, and they retreat right back to their old ways. These people will never grow because they are not willing to face the pain that seems to block their path.

Correction: These people may grow if change is forced upon them. You may be stuck in a job you're not happy with, vaguely knowing that it is not getting you anywhere, but you just can't muster the courage to look for another. Discretion is taken out of your hands, however, if you lose the job anyway. The situation is painful, but now you have no choice: You have to deal with it. There is a good chance now that you will finally find a better job and be happier in the long run.

People can grow by responding to disaster, but that's not the most efficient way to go about it. Ideally, you want to stimulate your own growth by deliberately initiating mini-disasters that you have more control over. If you have a heart attack because of poor health habits, you may be forced to change them, but it is much better to change your behavior before you have the heart attack. This involves enduring a little bit of pain now to avoid at lot more pain in the future.

When you try new things, you are bound to encounter a wall of pain—physical pain, emotional pain or just personal anxiety. Actually, anxiety is the main problem: the vague fear of losing your identity. In fact, there are many people who revel in physical pain, who actively encourage it just to show their strength in overcoming it, but that doesn't mean they are growing personally. The more frightening pain is the anxiety that wells up inside you as you approach something unknown and potentially threatening to your self-esteem. People will often prefer physical pain to facing that internal dread.

The main problem as we approach new things is that we interpret the anxiety barrier as a brick wall when it more likely to be a paper one we can smash through quite easily. People who grow without the need for disaster are those who are willing to test their pain threshold to see how flexible it is. Is this barrier insurmountable or something they can adapt to? They are motivated to push themselves into areas that don't seem comfortable at first for the potential reward of discovering a more efficient and productive way of living.

Most people love to say, "I can't." They try somethignnew, encounter a little discomfort, then retreat and add it to their Can't Do list. Soon they are so constrained by their self-imposed restrictions that they can hardly move. They dig themselves into a hole where they are not really happy but where everything seems known and predictable. The funny thing is, most of these "Can'ts" are imaginary, and disaster often teaches you this by necessity. You think you can't survive without X, Y or Z, but when these things are forcefully taken away from you, you may find yourself doing quite nicely, free of their burden. The challenge is, can you relinquish X, Y or Z voluntarily, without outside disaster forcing it upon you?

All of us know there are unproductive things we need to get rid of, but when it comes down to throwing the damn thing out, we encounter a little anxiety and back off. Things would be out of our hands, however, if a fire burned down everything we own. We would grieve at first but would probably be happier and healthier in the long run. Voluntary personal growth involves lighting your own smaller fires, getting rid of the things you don't need in more controlled burns with less collateral damage.

It is tough facing the pain of getting rid of something or testing something new, but if you want to grow, you have to be constantly pushing those limits. In most cases, the pain you perceive in front of you is just a thin veneer, not a brick wall, but you can't really know until you test it, until you push yourself to see how much pain you can take. If you can just get beyond the initial threshold of discomfort, then you may find a whole new set of tools you never knew existed.

Reality is bound to surprise you. You may think, in theory, that something can't be done, but when you actually try it and push beyond the anxiety, you may discover a whole new angle that the theory didn't predict. Maybe that Thing That Can't Be Done in theory is really quite easy in practice.

You find this all the time when you travel to new place. You study your destination on the internet and based on the information you find there, you get worried about one aspect of your visit (safety, finding lodging, etc.). When you actually arrive, however, you find that the thing you were worried about isn't really an issue at all. The key is, you have to actually visit the country to know.

This is where most people fail. They aren't willing to travel out of their comfort zone because that have a little theoretical anxiety about the journey. They say, "I can't visit France because I don't speak French," so they never go.

Growth lies in finding a way to power over the initial anxiety so you can test your limits. You don't want to do foolish things that get you killed, but it is okay to risk some humiliation and discomfort. Most of those "can't dos" will evaporate upon testing, but you actually have to push them to find out.


  1. Pretty good post all in all. A bit of a reality check is always in good order in the area of diet. You are very accurate about exercise - fairly useless for weight loss.

    I do think you give short shrift to the last 10 years of research on the "paleo" diet. High protein, low carb diets have worked wonders for many chronically overweight folks. And to some extent, you are wrong about the "all calories are the same" concept. A calorie is simply a measure of energy and all the research I have read indicates that the energy from a calorie of carbohydrate is much more likely to get stored away as fat than a calorie of steak. I know many people view low-carb diets as just another fad but the science behind them is getting pretty overwhelming. A good review of the subject is: