What living with chronic pain has taught me about leadership

 

I am in some level of pain every day. Some days it is a full-blown migraine where every thought hurts and my day is spent in bed wishing for relief. While other days it is just a tickle of discomfort in various areas of my body most often my neck and jaw.  I am grateful for the tickle days as it frees up some energy so I can invest in things that I love. Although rare, I do have pain free moments and those are a great gift.

I view pain much like I view my ego. It is there chattering away and doing its best to bring me down. Over the years, I thought fighting, being angry and resisting the pain would someone scare it away, which as you can imagine never happened. I have since decided to accept that pain is part of my experience in this life and although some days it overcomes me I do my best not to succumb to its darkness.

I am writing this today because I am just coming out of two weeks of intense daily pain which included a 5 day migraine.  As I look back a moment vividly returns. I was in excruciating, blinding pain attempting to make my daughters lunch for school. I would lay my head on the counter take a few deep breaths and attempt to put together her sandwich.  I pushed through long enough to get my kids on their way and then retreated back to bed. This moment reminded me that our struggles can provide such profound learning and discovery. This is my perspective of how pain has offered me the following leadership lessons.

1) Determination

For anyone who has been in a twelve round boxing match with pain it can feel like an eternity of blows up against the ropes. What I have learned in my own pain journey is there is always an opening to strike back. Sometimes it doesn’t show up until the 12th round, but the opening always appears. It takes determination and perseverance to stay in the game and wait for the break, despite the risk of blows. Pain has given me a fighting spirit and I will never give up on life.

2) Stop and slow down

Pain forces me to stop and prioritize. I cannot complete everything that I desire when I am struggling with pain and therefore I have to pick and choose the most important things in order to survive the day. Pain has given me the gift of taking a step back and investing in what matters rather than just checking off the to do list boxes mindlessly. Pain forces me to slow things down, allows me opportunities to be mindful and gives me access to presence.

3) Awareness

I am very aware of what is happening in my body at all times. Living with chronic pain has opened me up to an acute sense of awareness and it has also given me a curious spirit when in the presence of others. I understand that there may be much going on behind the surface because most of us who live with chronic pain look 'normal' and healthy when in reality the suffering is great. With awareness comes a new perspective, compassion and empathy for others and for myself.

4) Gratitude

Living with chronic pain is hard and at times it has worn me down. I admit I have struggled with bouts of depression and often succumb to negativity during the really rough times. What I have noticed over the years is that I am grateful for the pain because it gives me the opportunity to really notice and appreciate the less painful days. I drink in the moments I can play with my kids or engage in physical activities without pain. I am grateful I am able to live fully in the days of less pain. Taking a moment to reflect on what I am grateful for connects me to what matters and this is when I am my most present.

I have spent much time speaking with leaders who have a desire to inspire and motivate. Whether you are leading in your role at work or accessing leadership at home with your family imagine if you accessed determination, slowing down, awareness and gratitude - and that this guided your day.

I invite you to reflect on your own boxing match. What are you in the ring with and what has it taught you about leadership?

Pain is not my enemy. It is my teacher.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Emily Jenzen. I never met you but your story touched my heart and I think of you often. You were a neighbor in my home town and I didn't even know it. Your story has inspired me to keep moving forward despite the debilitating pain of migraines.