The intersection of pain and progress

At the intersection of pain and progress lies prosperity. Think about that for a moment. When you do, you may realize that there is no prosperity without progress, but there is also no progress without pain. 

Progress can cause a great deal of pain on many levels, but more often, it is pain that causes progress. 

In sales, we talk about the importance of uncovering pain. Unless and until you fully understand someone else’s pain, you cannot fix it, and you are unable to provide a solution. Engagement and revenue growth come from the alignment that happens when your business offerings alleviate pain for prospective and existing customers.

Healthy people and organizations do not intentionally inflict pain on others. There are times when pain is unavoidable, but most of us do not wish to cause pain in those we care about, be it friends, family and loved ones, or employees, bosses or customers.

When we ourselves are wounded and in pain, we are at the greatest risk of inflicting pain on others, whether intentionally or otherwise. 

Three Attributes of Pain

Three attributes of pain that hold true for physical, emotional and organizational pain, are that pain activates, pain teaches, and pain heals. In order to find lasting solutions to both personal and business pain, you have to first of all acknowledge your own pain, activate resources for healing, allow it to teach you the lessons you need to learn, and then, heal yourself and others.

Uncover pain, then alleviate it. Doing this will require a great deal of trust, empathy and compassion – first and foremost, with yourself. All of these elements require some level of vulnerability. When we self-protect and shut down, we are unable to experience true connection with one another, and are unable to heal pain. We may try fixing it with bandaids, we may work hard and do and give a lot, but we won’t truly heal what is at the root, what is causing the pain and discomfort. 

Once you recognize how your own pain affects your interactions with others, focus on healing yourself first. Then, focus on the other person’s pain, sit with it, feel it — and then, if you are in a position to help, find solutions. 

Pain Activates

Anyone who has ever experienced heartbreak knows that pain can be the greatest activator for change. Pain is a signal that something isn’t working right, that something needs attention, and when the pain becomes great enough, it becomes impossible to ignore. 

Just like acupuncture is a gentle way of bringing attention to a part of the body that needs healing or better energy flowing to it — by poking a needle into the affected area — both physical and emotional pain does the same thing. It is trying to get our attention. 

If we ignore it, the affected part of us can go numb, and that’s when worse damage can happen. The wound or dysfunction can metastasize into more systemic damage. 

In the case of heartbreak, the pain feels more like a gigantic stake has been driven through your heart rather than a gentle acupuncture needle, but the effect is still that your body, mind, and entire being has now become highly alert and aware that it needs to mobilize all its resources to heal. 

When experiencing acute pain, we are jolted out of our current reality and catapulted into survival mode. For some, that means shutting down, withdrawing, numbing to protect the wounded area. For others, it means reaching out and reaching in, mobilizing any and all available resources to get better. 

Times of great pain can be the best time to connect with others. It is also in times of great pain that we have the greatest opportunity for progress. 

Pain Teaches

Pain can be one of our greatest teachers, but only if we allow ourselves to feel it. 

To learn from pain, we must start by feeling our own pain first, to become aware of where and why we are hurting, to consciously experience the pain. Allow it to wash over us. Allow it to hurt. And then, allow ourselves to let go of it. 

Lashing out against others when we are in pain is a common form of numbing by way of turning our own pain back onto someone else. When we are numb to our own pain, we are unable to feel the pain of others. When we react out of our own pain, we cannot see the other person’s pain. We cannot clearly see the solutions, either.

“The key to being able to manage emotions is letting go of needing to control them. Let them in. Hear them. See them. Listen to them. Sit with them. Breathe through them. They will pass and are impermanent. But we extend the lifespan of our difficult emotions when we avoid and numb them. So, be kind to yourself and the process. It takes time.” 

Joanna Townsend, Psychotherapist

When you are able to sit with your own pain, to feel it with without numbing it away, without lashing out or walling off – when you allow it to teach you how to heal, you begin to make real progress. This is when you may be able to see and touch someone else’s pain with gentleness and compassion.

When you clearly see, hear and understand the pain of another person, you become better positioned to help heal that pain. 

Pain Heals

The old adage that time heals all wounds has some truth to it. We need to remind ourselves that healing does take time, and often, it takes much more time than we would like it to do. If we begin walking on an injured leg before it is properly healed, the risk of re-injuly and possibly greater damage is significant. The same is true for other sorts of pain, such as psychological pain, and organizational pain.

Time isn’t the only thing that heals, however. There are usually things we can do to speed up healing. These things are called medicine. 

Medicine comes in many forms. The most obvious in today’s age are pharmaceuticals, but there are of course natural remedies and body work that those with deep knowledge of the natural world have used to heal people with pain for ages.  And then, there is the most potent kind of medicine of them all: our mindset.

We get what we focus on.

Do not confuse medicine with numbing agents. Many people self-medicate with all kinds of substances and activities designed to experience less pain. Substances that simply numb the pain do not fix anything, they only prolong the time we are able to live with pain, and potentially do more damage if the causes of pain are allowed to continue to go untreated. 

Psychological pain is real pain, and registers in the brain in the same way as physical pain does. It should therefore be treated as seriously and intentionally as physical pain.

The broader implication of pain in our context, is that it extends from individuals into the systems those individuals are part of. These systems include personal relationships, families or whole organizations.

Organizational Pain and Progress

In a system such as a relationship or an organization, pain can be localized or systemic, it can be a slow, dull ache, or sudden and acute, just like in us humans. When the components of the system, in this case individual human beings, are not functioning at their best, the entire system is affected. When the pain is acute, whether it happens gradually or suddenly, the effect is the same: it activates some sort of change.

“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Change is uncomfortable. The change we don’t choose is painful. And once again, pain can be a catalyst for real progress, when we allow ourselves to feel the pain and learn from it, rather than run away and hide from it or numb it with bandaids.

To uncover organizational pain, begin by asking questions such as these:

  • What causes pain in your organization?
  • How is that pain affecting your business outcomes?
  • What are you learning about the reasons why this has become so painful?

When an organization is activated for change and is ready, willing and able to learn from its pain, healing can begin to take place.

Within an organization, medicine can come in the form of technology solutions, systems, tools, and other services to help run a more effective business — but if the underlying, human causes of pain are not addressed and treated, so-called “solutions” can also become numbing agents that hide symptoms and cover up the damaged tissue below the surface.

Building healthy company cultures and ecosystems begins with building healthy individuals — both employees and leaders. 

The Road to Prosperity

The road to prosperity begins with a shift in mindset. Shift your focus, and what you see changes. Look inside to find and uncover your pain, allow it to teach you what you need to learn, and allow yourself to heal. Then, focus externally. Focus on the impact you can have on others by connecting with, and uncovering their pain. Your ability to heal yourself and others will grow. The people around you will be happier. You will become a better person. 

Heal your own pain first, then focus on healing others’ pain. As they say in the airlines, “put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.” Doing this is the only way forward, the only way to experience true progress, and the way to lay the foundation for true prosperity.

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