About a month ago, I decided to start working on a fresh set of life goals. I wanted to be intentional and thoughtful about the life I live and to actually aim for something. I wanted to do the hard work of identifying my values and acting them out as best I can. I put a variety of tasks large and small onto my schedule for the month, thinking that they would help me to feel more authentically myself and allow me to be a better person.
Today, I feel icky. I spent the better part of 20 hours sleeping yesterday. I feel stretched thin and uncomfortable and overwhelmed. I feel demanding and conflicted and too loud. I feel like I’m asking too much and not providing what I should in return.
Surprisingly, I think that these feelings are good evidence that I should keep doing exactly what I’m doing. I think that they’re good evidence of growth, of work, of change. This is both metaphorical and literal. When you’re working out and it starts to hurt, that usually means you’re hitting the point where you’re getting stronger. Emotionally, when you start to dig into things that are uncomfortable or try things that scare you, you’re growing and dealing with the challenging things. I sometimes joke with myself that if my therapist suggests something and my first response is “no!!!!” then I should definitely probably do it because the strong negative response indicates that I’m afraid of something about that experience. In general, our emotions protect our coping mechanisms, even if those coping mechanisms are bad (think telling someone with an eating disorder to eat more: it’ll upset them a lot, but the discomfort is part of being healthier).
On the other hand, a week or so ago I scraped my knee quite badly. I thought it was fine, so I mostly ignored it. I ignored it when it ached all day long. I ignored it when it started to goop some gross substances out of it. I ignored it when the skin around it turned red. And guess what? Now it’s much worse than it was to start, and most likely infected. Ignoring it when something hurts and feels bad is an incredibly stupid idea because pain is a signal to STOP what you’re doing and make a change.
So what the actual heck? Pain both means “good job keep going” and also “stop immediately you stupid poop nugget why are you doing this?”
Now most of you probably understand that nuance is a thing and are looking at me like “yup, sometimes the same stimulus means different things ya ding dong” and I get that. But I want to recognize the fact that determining when pain is healthy and when it’s a sign to stop can be incredibly challenging (especially if you’re interoception challenged or alexythemic). And if possible, I’d like to offer some suggestions for how to tell the difference.
You know how we’re going to do it? We’re going to talk about stretching.
I’m currently working on getting my splits. I take stretch classes 2-3 times a week, and I have been for quite a while now. In the first few months of working on splits I strained my leg approximately once a month. As I was pushing into the movements, I was pushing to the point of pain: a sharp kind of pain. Almost pinchy. I couldn’t breathe easily. I couldn’t hold the position for an extended period of time. And those were all signals that I was pushing my body too far too quickly, which is why I would goof up my leg, then have to take time to recover. It set me back even further.
I’m still having a hard time always knowing which discomfort is good discomfort and which discomfort is productive. But here’s a big hint for myself: you don’t need to push to the very edge of your abilities every time. Some of your stretches will feel comfortable for extended stretches of time. The point isn’t to hit one major moment of an impressive pose. It’s to build up a skill that you can keep using.
Ok time to get metaphorical:
Sometimes a new experience or skill will take you to the very edge of your flexibility. It’s the absolute most you can do. For me that would be something like cold calling a business for a sponsorship. Doing it will feel painful, breathless, terrifying. It will activate all of the fears and anxieties I have. That’s how I hurt myself.
I like to think about breath and skills as the measure here. Can I do the thing and still breathe? Can I do the thing and use the skills I have that keep me functional? That’s the equivalent of productive stretching. It’s the edge of your discomfort. It’s the place where all of your resources aren’t simply focused on making it through this pain or this moment, but instead on doing it correctly, with care, and with intention. When discomfort is something that I can do and still engage skills, that’s the growth time.
It’s funny how often I find that physical metaphors allow me to distinguish emotional nuances. Very literal questions like “can I easily take a breath” are much easier to answer than “is this distress helpful or overwhelming”. So often emotions get expressed in physical ways, and it’s much easier to notice what’s happening in your body than it is to pull apart the strands of what you’re feeling and why.
So if you’re wondering whether your discomfort means you should stop or keep going, think of stretching: can you be productive where you are? Do you need to back off a bit? What will help? You’ve got this!