Your Greatest Barrier Is Your Pain Tolerance

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“…Sometimes I suspect that what had really happened was that we became more resigned, more cynical, raised our pain thresholds as we lowered our expectations. All in all, we settled for less.”

Emma Donoghue, Playwright

It’s no accident we often hear, “no pain, no gain,” or “it’s better to tough it out,” or “I just have to live with it.” Many even believe it’s a sign of maturity, strength, and accomplishment when they “man up,” or “get over it” in response to challenges. Yet, when people recognize a person stuck at their worst, they often say, “that person hasn’t hit bottom yet.” Why should anyone ever need to ‘hit bottom’? We only need to hit bottom when we have raised our pain threshold, blunted our feelings, lowered our expectations, and tolerated mediocrity and worse.

One of the ways I frequently see such a pain tolerance barrier is when I work with businesspeople who bring me into their workplace because of dysfunctional relationships that are so hostile they cause a negative ripple effect for many others and often take a toll on the bottom-line. Frequently, the pain tolerance of an entire organizations is harmfully high and also a barrier. This is so common, there’s a mass exodus from organizations dubbed the great resignation. When I am hired to mediate with such people, the first thing I ask them to do is examine the quality of their relationship. I ask them for a trustworthiness score. Generally, this is NOT something they want to do. I ask them if their relationship is a “10”, explaining that is one with no unresolved problems? Of course, it isn’t. I ask next, “Then, what number is it?” This first step brings them instantly to self and relationship awareness.

Recently, I met with a pair of high-paid consultants who were working in a national company and their hostility was so noticeable that the client had complained to their consulting firm. I was called in. When they finally, reluctantly gave me a score for their relationship, one gave it a “1”, and the other a “2” which clearly screamed crisis zone to all of us. I said to them, “What made you think that your massively devolving relationship was something you should skip over?” This was a classic example of pain tolerance run amok and an obvious barrier to progress. Both were feeling significant pain but kept pushing through, ignoring it, trying instead to continue discussions about business activities. People do this A LOT, not only in relationships, but with their health, energy, and other choices. They avoid rather than address painful challenges, sooner than later. Hitting bottom is a costly practice!

What would our world be like if we quickly noticed when something first veers off center and causes the simplest pain within ourselves or others? With the slightest awareness of our own bodies and minds, we can conclude whether something is bringing us closer to joy and wellness or depleting our energy, potential, and joy. The same is true when we pay even a little attention to cues from others. Does this person have a look of open receptivity to me or are they defensive, tense, and closed? Am I causing pain in this person and is this person causing pain in me?

When most people notice such pain, they avoid taking steps in that moment, the one in which they could most easily course-correct and seek relief instead. If we all determined to lower our pain tolerance, we’d tear down costly barriers and become proactively healthy. Instead, too often we resign from opportunities, adopt cynicism, lower our expectations, and settle for less as Emma Donaghue so aptly puts it. What’s the solution?

If our high pain tolerance is our greatest barrier, then the solution is to choose to wake up; notice and address situations while the pain is minuscule, before it causes harm or loss. Knowing this is a true, noble path and the one that leads to joy and excellence is a concept to adopt and remember. I ask people to regularly revisit what they are committed to cause – their purpose, and their core values; how they choose to be and behave at their best. They then reference these to consider whether they are on track, heading towards their valued target or not.

When it comes to relationships, I ask them to make trustworthiness and 8 behaviors that build it, to be foundational and highest priority. Are you ready to eliminate barriers you have by tolerating unnecessary, harmful, pain? I’m happy to help you do that, as this is aligned with my own mission to create a world (conditions and conversations) in which all people love their lives! Stop tolerating pain and choose excellence and joy instead!

This article will be published in St. Louis Small Business Monthly, in the column The Extraordinary Workplace February 2022.

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