Are You Engaging in Elective Pain?

We all get to struggle with unplanned and unwanted painful events. Yesterday our AC circuit board died. $300 of unanticipated financial pain. And of course this is a very minor example of the loss we know exists and hope won’t visit our homes anytime soon.

But what about elective pain?

Elective surgery is defined as a planned, non-emergent surgical procedure that could be either medically indicated or completely optional.  The purposeful, self-induced pain in our lives is very similar.

We’ve all exercised at some point, hopefully recently enough that you can remember the pain. It’s why it’s difficult to stick to a workout routine, because it’s painful during the exercise itself and then, just to be even more demotivating, it’s painful for a couple days after. But our planned, painful exercise is medically indicated. It improves our health which can lengthen our lives, improve day-to-day functioning, and trigger a whole host of other benefits.

Financial diligence, especially if you start out with debt or poor spending habits, is a great example of optional elective pain. I have struggled many times in trying to make tomorrow more important than today. There is a very easy (and satisfying) justification that undermines the entire concept: I might be dead tomorrow! However, the chances of this are quite unlikely in my situation and buying cheap bread that tastes a bit like cardboard, reusing Crisco 100x, and perusing garage sales to purchase high-end items is a painful part of becoming financially independent.

Voluntary pain can be applied to any situation to cause growth and improve life tomorrow. Some elective “procedures” can create instant change, like a nose job. Consider the no-brainer of taking a much better job offer from a new firm. The change is pretty immediate, but there will still be pain in developing new relationships, learning new skills, and establishing yourself in a new environment. Others are more like long-term chemo, killing off your bad habits a little bit at a time, such as forcing yourself to attend networking events even though you would rather eat bugs than talk to strangers (used to be me).

The problem comes when we reach a level of comfort in our lives and elective pain is no longer necessary in our estimation. We are already dealing with (or fearing) the non-elective pain that enters our lives with the worst possible timing. Why would we inject additional pain into the mix? Once we stop engaging in elective pain, for some reason that makes zero sense, we forget all the benefits and only remember the pain, in vivid detail.

Before I finished school and got married, I ran frequently. I generally ran 3 miles every other day and I completed a few 5Ks with strong times. I live in a beautiful canyon now, as opposed to the defunct mall and idling city buses I used to run next to, but do I run? Hell no. I hate running.

If I think back, I can just barely remember how much I loved to run, but mostly I remember the burning sensation in my lungs and the crazy level of positive thinking required to push through to my second wind, when the running actually felt good. It feels much better to sit on my deck and observe the wildness around me than run, so I stay comfortable.

It can happen to us physically, financially, within our relationships, at work, at home, and in any aspect of our lives. We get comfortable and grow stagnant, then it gets worse.

We gain 20 pounds, or 100.

We load up a credit card with 20% interest, or go bankrupt.

We start to fight with our spouse, or get divorced.

We lose out on a promotion to a colleague, or get fired.

It’s difficult to design and enforce an elective pain plan, especially across multiple areas of your life. You may be killing your debt off, but gaining a secretary ass in the process (that giant innertube looking body party growing around your butt).

If this is you, it’s as good as time as any to purposefully create some pain in your life. The most important step to success, at least for me, is recognizing that your initial plans will probably fail, which is okay as long as you keep adjusting and retrying.

I have gotten into the best shape of my life recently because a friend invited me to a yoga class at our local rec center. Turns out group classes are what work for me. I attend 4-5 classes a week now.

Groceries are usually the leading suspect when our budget doesn’t go as planned. If I’m not diligent, I can go to the grocery store 3 times a week for impulse items that are easily justified because we can make Thai food at home instead of going out. The trick was to stick the budgeted amount for the month in an envelope and when the money ran out, that’s it.

The beautiful part is that planned pain eventually stops being painful. It becomes a regular part of your life; one you look forward to because you are firmly in control and headed toward your goals. Action leads to traction and your new habits stick like glue. The added bonus is that you are more prepared to deal with unplanned pain.

Being in great health allows you to deal with stress more productively and improves your immune function.

Financial savings allows you to experience a $300 expense without much more than a blink.

Strong relationships create a secure home base for tackling any challenge, from a serious medical diagnosis to a lost job.

You’re strong. You can do anything for 30 days, which is the inexplicable universal point of tangible progress. What new, fun elective pain will you try out this month to improve your existence?

There are no shortcuts to anyplace worth going.”

– Beverly Sills

2 Comments
  1. Cool idea. My elective pain, recently, is to get rid of 30 things every 30 days. It’s tough for a frugal family like ours to give away things that might, maybe, one-day down the road, will have a use. But by making it a habit I think the pain will subside, as you note, as we gradually just get used to the idea of removing things from our lives.

    1. I love your idea. I was just going through our closet and noticed how much stuff we have that we use very rarely or only keep ‘just in case’. Tomorrow’s pledge: 30 things are going away. Thanks!

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