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There are no pain-free options in life. So choose the most empowering one

There’s really only one mistake you can make: continue doing the same thing you already know is hurting you and expect a different result.
Bruce Lee executing a pain-free kick in a bedroom.
Bruce Lee on the set of Enter the Dragon. / Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • When people experience the same problems over and over, they may be seeking a perfect, pain-free solution.
  • But in life, pain-free solutions are rarely an option.
  • At such life junctures, be honest with yourself and choose the painful option that empowers you the most.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading with Emotional Power by Julia DiGangi. Copyright 2023 Julia DiGangi. All rights reserved.

If you find yourself chronically feeling bad, experiencing the same problems over and over, chances are high that you’re stuck because you’ve been seeking the perfect solution. But you don’t need a perfect solution; you need a powerful one.

Perfect solutions don’t exist, because they’re predicated on the total absence of pain’s energy, which is scientifically impossible. Instead of trying to eradicate your pain, what you want to do is first clearly understand the pain you feel and then pick a more powerful pain — a pain that will ultimately make you stronger because you’re able to hold more emotional energy.

Let’s use an analogy that will make this clear. If you’re trying to get physically stronger, you go to the gym and lift more weight. At first, 20 pounds may be the edge of what you can comfortably tolerate. But you decided your goal is to get stronger, and you know you must pick a more powerful weight. Let’s say you work long enough that you’re now able to lift 40 pounds. Clearly, you’ve gotten stronger.

But here’s the thing: When you’re able to lift 40 pounds, it’s not that 20 pounds no longer exists. In fact, you will forever have to lift 20 pounds in order to lift 40 — 20 is inherently part of the 40. Twenty pounds didn’t get easier; you got stronger.

To see how this relates to your emotional life, let’s apply this logic of picking a more powerful pain with your partner.

Let’s imagine your partner is upsetting you because you feel that you have to excessively take care of them — you do their laundry, cook their food, do all the grocery shopping, take care of the kids, pay all the bills, and even remind them about their own appointments. You feel more like a parent than a partner. You continue to do this work for them, all the while hoping they’ll change. Maybe you’ve had multiple conversations with them about how their behavior bothers you; maybe you’ve displayed your sadness to show them how their behavior is hurting you; maybe you’ve even made snide remarks — all in the hope that they will change their behavior to deliver you from your painful feelings. If you could get them to change, this would be your perfect solution. But as one of my academic colleagues used to say, “Crap in one hand and wish in the other and see which one fills up first.”

You may now decide it’s time to choose a more powerful pain: You are no longer willing to do this much work on behalf of your partner because you feel like your own self-respect is waning. You know, though, that when you do this, you will have to face their threatening emotions. Chances are high that they will be mad at you. They also may be hurt, asking you why you don’t care about them anymore. They might start to respond to you in passive-aggressive ways. Maybe your worst fear materializes and your new boundary leads to the end of the relationship.

I realize this can sound devastating. But don’t panic. It’s clarifying — steadying, really — to realize that there is absolutely no scenario in which you magically avoid all pain. Now, ask yourself [this] question: Which pain do I choose? Do I choose the pain that comes from feeling disrespected, unappreciated, and parental? Or do I choose the pain that will likely come when I attempt to expand into a relationship with more self-respect, partnership, and intimacy?

These are not empty, moralistic questions — faux reflections where the choice is already self-evident. These questions are so powerful precisely because they orient you to the truth of your life, which is this: In a life where there is no pain-free option, which pain do I genuinely choose? This level of honesty is a total power move.

Your emotional power expands at the edge of your old behaviors.

Julia DiGangi

In the former caretaking scenario, you already know the precise pain your current situation offers simply because you’ve been living it for a while. It’s totally okay to stay in this version of a relationship if this pain is genuinely acceptable to you. But if you desire to expand your edge — to meet the natural and stressful resistance that comes with change — you have the chance to build the relationship you’ve been dreaming about. Maybe with your current partner, maybe with a new one but, above all, with yourself. This change, like any change, comes with the pain of the unknown.

Note that in the weightlifting example, you don’t lift 20 pounds one day and then lift 40 pounds the very next. You make these changes incrementally. To apply this logic to the example with a partner, you don’t have to summarily leave your relationship. Perhaps you start by simply refusing to remind your partner of their personal appointments, and you hold this position until you can tell your edge has expanded. You’ll know your edge has expanded to hold more energy when you no longer feel feelings of anxiety, fear, and worry when you don’t remind them of their appointments. Your brain — just like your muscles — will acclimate to hold this new “energetic load.” Next, you take on the bills and repeat the same process. Next, the kids and the cooking and so on.

At each phase, you are empowered to evaluate how the situation is working for you. Do you feel sufficiently respected? Do you still desire further change? If yes, in what way? It is true that sometimes the people around us refuse to change. Even so, you are now empowered with new data about the old patterns that were already harming you. Maybe you realize you, in fact, are comfortable continuing to caretake your partner in the ways you have been doing — and now, armed with this new perspective, you caretake your partner willingly instead of with resentment. Great.

Or maybe you realize that you can’t have a meaningful, intimate relationship with another person so long as you feel you’re not respecting yourself, and you ultimately decide to begin couples therapy or even leave the relationship. Regardless of what you decide, it’s soothing to realize that if you want to engineer your life in emotionally powerful ways, there’s really only one mistake you can make: continue doing the same thing you already know is hurting you and expect a different result. Your emotional power expands at the edge of your old behaviors.


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