Falling in Love With Purposeful Pain

We expect physical ability to come with pain. But why not mental ability?

Posted Oct 11, 2018

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Last week, I signed up for a weight training session at the gym. It was my first time doing weights and while I’ve been increasingly interested in training in the last year (rowing being my current drug of choice), I didn’t really know what to expect.

An hour later, I was absolutely smashed. The next day, I woke up and could barely walk. There were sore muscles in my arms and legs that I didn’t even know existed and they (and I) screamed out in pain.

But you know something?

Not once did the thought even cross my mind that I wouldn’t go back for my next session. Never was there a moment in the day that I was upset that the trainer had pushed me hard. In fact, every time I spoke to my husband about it, I gushed about how much I loved the trainer and how glad I was that I’d finally found someone who would push me the way I liked to be pushed, who could take my upper limits and stretch them beyond what I could even imagine. I had expected the pain, even wanted it. Had I not felt the pain or the push, I would have come home convinced that it didn’t work. The pain was proof that the effort I was putting in was WORKING. It provided evidence that I was GROWING.

The pain of working out or challenging yourself physically is not a pain that is endured for the sake of pain. It is purposeful pain.

Tomorrow, I have my next session. The pain from the last session has just about subsided though there is still an angry purple bruise on my leg from where I smashed a dumbbell into it (stupid, stupid). I’m not expecting that hour in the gym tomorrow to feel comfortable or easy. But I’m going anyway, willingly and with excitement, not because I’ll enjoy how I feel during that one hour, but because I know how incredibly happy and proud I will feel at the end of it. And because I’ve already grown and beaten my personal best in the last session, it’s not going to be half as painful the next time around.

Are you seeing a parallel to writing yet?

When we go to the gym, we all understand that growth will involve pain. When we sit down to write, we forget that all growth—mental and emotional included—involves pain, too.

When we exercise, we understand that taking a break from the routine will make it harder (and more painful) to go back, and yet, we forget that the same applies for that novel, that longform narrative, and that essay, too.

When we run, we know that once we start, it’s literally about putting one foot in front of the other until we’re done. And with writing, it’s no different. You write one word, then another, and keep going until the timer goes off or the chapter is finished.

When we challenge ourselves physically, we expect the initial days and weeks to be difficult. But when we write, we expect it to be easy. We expect it to be comfortable. Isn’t it crazy that when we fly through an hour of writing, we call it a good writing session but when it’s uncomfortable and has led to growth, we feel pained and full of angst and often beat ourselves up for not having done enough?

You know why this is?

Because we’ve been trained to believe that word count is a marker of success. That if you write more words in a session, it is a good writing session and that if you write fewer words, it’s not. Now don’t get me wrong. You can be in a state of flow, pump out 7,000 fantastic words in three hours, and be very proud of yourself, as I routinely do. When this happens, you feel like you’ve won, just as if you’d run a marathon. When you arrive at the finish line, despite the exhaustion, you feel damn good about yourself.

There SHOULD be pleasure in the writing process, otherwise why would you be doing it? Just as there should be pleasure in fitness or you’ll never stick to it. But just as with any kind of athletic activity, there is often pain and growth (of a different kind) involved in writing. When athletes feel pain, they lean into it further, knowing when to rest and when to push harder. But writers often retreat. The pain of not finding the right phrase or having to sit with an uncomfortable emotion or knowing that the last book didn’t sell scares them and makes them think it’s not working.

Athletes understand incredibly well that in order to achieve the result they want, they have to fall in love with the process. But writers often don’t. Writers will frequently—with a straight face!—claim to “hate writing but love having written.” Show me a writer who hates writing, and I’ll show you a writer who is much too focused on the result. The athletes who fall in love with the grind are the ones who succeed eventually. And the writers who show up day after day, enjoying the writing, loving the work, pushing and challenging themselves even when the result is nowhere near in sight are the ones who become the “overnight” successes that everyone dreams of.

Despite the fact that my first novel hasn’t yet sold, I can tell you, without question and with no ego attached, that I will be successful in my efforts and that my novels will be published and read.

Do you know why?

Because I’m in love with the process. And people who’re in love with the process keep showing up day after day until it works. And forever after.

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