Growing up in the small town of Bangor, Maine I gravitated to sports throughout my school career. It was something that brought me a feeling of belonging. It was youth football that first introduced me to the popular adage of “no pain, no gain,” a saying that I would consistently hear repeated throughout my teenage years.
Being primarily raised by a single mother—paired with my complicated relationship with my father—I longed for a feeling of brotherhood and male mentorship. My mother worked multiple jobs and always made sure that I didn’t want for anything, but I still always had a feeling of being unwanted or un-liked as a child. It’s a feeling that’s most certainly rooted in my childhood experiences and something that I still struggle with today.
Playing sports brought me closer to coaches who I could look up to for a positive male influence and give me a place to feel loved by my peers. Football was my favorite team sport and the one where the saying “no pain, no gain” was most used and relevant for me. Without physical pain and sacrifice in practice, you won’t experience the highs of success at game time.
Central Maine is an area filled with hardworking men and women who were taught this same lesson by their parents and coaches. Our parking lots are filled with pickup trucks and blue-collar people who get up every morning and face the day without excuses, understanding that to be successful you need to endure things that you wouldn’t want to experience otherwise.
Pain being a primary ingredient to success was an idea that I learned at an early age, but I never fully understood what it meant until fifteen years after first hearing it. I always interpreted this idea as saying that physical pain and sacrifice is necessary for success. The more important lesson—that I wish I had understood much earlier—is that emotional pain in the most important factor for personal growth.
The consequences of avoiding pain
My relationship with emotional pain has always been tricky. It’s a feeling that I tried to avoid for most of my life because I never understood the importance of it. I thought it was something to be avoided or suffocated with drugs. I’ve written more about my talent for avoiding pain in a previous column.
It’s normal as a human being to not want to experience pain and to also not want those you care about to experience pain. A lesser understood consequence of trying to avoid pain is that it prevents growth. Pain is also ultimately inevitable. We may be able to fend it off for weeks are even years but eventually, we have to face it.
There is a story that has been repeated many times and whose original author I’m unsure. It bears repeating once again.
A man spent hours watching a butterfly struggle to emerge from its cocoon. The butterfly managed through great effort to create a small hole, but its body was too large to get through it. After struggling for hours to squeeze through this tiny opening, the insect had exhausted itself and stopped moving.
The man decided to help the exhausted creature and he carefully cut open the cocoon, releasing the butterfly. He immediately discovered that the butterfly’s body was stunted and its wings were crumpled.
The man expected the butterfly would open its wings and fly away, but it couldn’t. The butterfly spent the rest of its short life dragging around its underdeveloped body and was never able to take flight.
What the man had failed to understand was that the tight cocoon and the efforts that the butterfly had to make to squeeze out of that tiny hole was mother nature’s way of strengthening the butterfly for life outside of the cocoon.
I’m not a biologist and I don’t know if this story holds any truth when it comes to the development of a butterfly, but we can still draw an important lesson from the story. The man wanted to help the butterfly avoid pain, but by doing so he robbed the creature of the opportunity for growth. Without experiencing the pain, the butterfly remained in its current weak state and never realized it’s full potential. No pain, no gain. No emotional pain, no personal growth.
My personal story of drug addiction is one that is rooted in avoiding pain caused by adverse childhood experiences. The consequence of avoiding this emotional pain is that I robbed myself of personal development. I was successful at prolonging unpleasant feelings but at the cost of never learning how to appropriately deal with them as an adult.
During the many years I spent avoiding painful feelings, I neglected the personal development that would have sprouted from those experiences. I once again find myself in a painful period, and I’m writing this as a reminder to myself why I need to endure it.
It’s common and normal for your loved ones to wish that you never have to experience emotional pain—no heartbreak—no loss—no failure. However, I do wish those things on you. I wish for you to experience emotional pain and heartbreak. More importantly, I wish for you to embrace the pain and understand the good that will come from it if you lean into it and allow yourself to feel it.