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Pacing yourself through suffering: 5 questions to ask when you’re ready to give up

(28 Comments)

I was struggling.Biking uphill

My breath was coming in gasps and I fought to keep my bike upright.

I was working my way up a long, steep hill. My friend, Keila, rode to my left, listening to my panting.

She was not breathing heavily as she maintained a slow, steady pace.

We had ridden this hill before. It was three miles with an average grade of 6% – challenging, but in recent tries I had been successful making it to the top without stopping.

My heart thumped hard and fast. My mind screeched at me to stop.

I stubbornly kept on, feeling more and more irritation with myself that the hill was this hard for me.

I uttered an expletive that I won’t print here but sounds suspiciously like “Smucker.”

After 37 mostly horrible minutes, we reached the top.

I dismounted and stood over my bike, my elbows on the handlebars, head down, trying to get my breath back.

When my wheezing subsided a bit, I straightened up and looked over at Keila. She was also standing over her bike, but she had her phone out and was texting someone.

No sign of struggle there.

I shook my head and rasped, “I don’t know why that was so hard this time.”

Keila looked at me and said in a soft voice,

It’s because when you start to suffer, you speed up. And then you get mad.

 In the moment, I knew what she meant. Keila was an experienced rider and acted as a coach for me when I first started riding. One of the lessons that was hardest for me to master was pacing myself on hills. They were painful and I just wanted to get them over with so I often rode too fast at the beginning and had to stop to rest halfway up.

As the months passed, I started to get the hang of pacing and became much more successful at climbing hills.

That’s why I was so flummoxed about faltering on today’s ride.

Yet Keila was right: I struggled because I forgot my previous lessons and tried to outpace my pain.

 

Speeding up to get the pain over with

Keila is much younger than I am and, in many ways, much wiser. Another of her gems popped into my mind:

“Everything that happens on the road relates to life, Bobbi.”

I began to ponder about her observation of what happened on the road that day and how it might relate to the rest of my life.

“When you start to suffer, you speed up. And then you get mad.”

I couldn’t help but smile.

It was the truth.

Busted.

I thought of times in my life when I suffered:

– being in conflict with others

– feeling indecisive or confused

– experiencing huge losses such as the death of my partner

Each of these situations has seen me speed up to get the pain over with.

When I have a conflict with someone, I try my usually healthy skills to try and work through it with the person.

But if I don’t succeed and the conflict remains, I become very, very uncomfortable.

I don’t like conflict.

Not many people do, but I’m one of those folks who really struggles with it, especially if the other person involved is angry with me.

It’s very painful for me and I suffer.

And then I speed up.

I usually do one of two impulsive things: I take the blame for the situation or I explode and stomp off.

Anything to get to the end of the suffering, right?

 

Indecision or feelings of confusion can also bring on suffering for me, especially when time is a factor or someone is hurrying me.

Not knowing in general is a tough one for me, so I again speed up to end the suffering, making hasty decisions that I often later regret.

 

Losing someone or something causes us all to suffer, of course.

When my partner died, I felt like I slowed down both physically and emotionally.

But, with hindsight, I can see that I again made impulsive decisions in an attempt to speed through my pain.

I moved from one city to another, leaving all of my supportive friends behind.

I briefly latched onto a person for support who, while helpful in many ways, ended up causing me more pain and suffering.

 

And following all of these “speed up” maneuvers came the “get mad” phase.

I was either mad at myself or mad at the other person or just mad in general.

And I don’t do mad well, so I suffered.

And tried to speed things up . . .

You get the idea.

 

Moving forward through suffering

A week or so after Keila and I cycled up that hill, I rode in a 100-mile charity ride on California’s central coast.

The first 50 miles were uneventful and I handled the rolling hills between Cambria and Paso Robles with ease.

After the lunch stop, though, I ran into trouble. The coastal portion of the ride – the part that I had very much looked forward to – was a nightmare.

The route was 25 miles up the coast and then retracing our path back down the coast to finish the ride.

The afternoon brought a strong headwind and I found myself pedaling in my lowest gear and, it felt like, barely moving forward at all.

I had already been on my bike long enough for my body to just want to get off the bike and now my progress had slowed to a snail-like pace.

The wind blew stinging sand in my face.

It was painful.

And I suffered.

But I kept hearing Keila’s voice: “When you start to suffer, you speed up.”

I noticed that I wanted to use all of my “speed up” maneuvers: pedal faster/harder or just quit the ride and admit that I couldn’t handle the suffering.

Instead, I acknowledged that I was suffering – to be specific, I said, “This sucks!” – and then I kept going. At an even pace, not any faster. It was a snail’s pace, but I was still moving forward even though I was suffering.

After a few hours of battling the wind and the road and wanting to cry and wanting to quit and still moving forward ever so slowly, I realized that I was very close to the turnaround point.

I also knew that once I reached the turnaround point, the headwind that had been my enemy would become the most friendly of tailwinds.

The wind died down as the road wound slightly inland but upward. Steeply upward.

Other riders told me that the last hill before the turnaround was the hardest on the entire ride.

Now, after struggling for hours and feeling exhausted emotionally and physically, I was confronted with the last obstacle to relative peace on the ride back.

A hill. A steep, steep hill.

Like a person dying of thirst who sees an oasis in the desert, I wanted to get up that hill as soon as possible.

When my legs felt the increased angle of the road through the pedals, I instinctively pushed harder.

I had to get to the top! As soon as possible! Because I was . . .

“When you start to suffer . . .”

I released the death grip I had on the handlebars.

I took deep breaths and slowed my pace to reduce my heart rate.

This hill wasn’t very long, but it was long enough that speeding up would have depleted me to the extent that I would have had to stop for sure and may not have been able to make it to the top at all. And I still had 25 miles left on the way back to finish.

Even though a slow pace up a hill can be difficult in its own right, it was the pace I needed for that day. As I ground out each revolution of the pedals, I remembered Keila and I discussing the importance of pacing.

“In the moment, pacing yourself can feel like you’re just prolonging your suffering,” she said, “But if you don’t, you end up gassed halfway up the hill and then you’re stuck. You don’t have enough energy for the rest of the ride.”

Slowly, methodically, thoughtfully, I made my way up the hill and reached the turnaround point. As the road leveled out, I felt a surge of pride. I was  proud of myself not only for making it through that hellacious portion of the ride, but for how I did it.

Even though I didn’t like it, I accepted the suffering and worked within it instead of against it.

 

And that, my friends is the moral of this story.

Accepting the suffering and working within it instead of against it.

And nobody said you have to like it.

 

5 questions to ask when you’re ready to give up

The next time you find yourself suffering, ask yourself:

1. Am I speeding up to try to end this suffering?

2. What are my “speed up” maneuvers?

3. How can I pace myself instead? Should I call friends? Slow down? Think about things for a while?
Am I breathing?

4. Am I getting mad? What do I usually do when I get mad that doesn’t really work for me?

5.What can I do differently this time with this suffering to stay even-keeled and moving forward, even though it’s at a snail’s pace?

 

As I’ve asked myself these things off the bike and in my life, I’ve learned to slow down a bit. To notice when I’m suffering and what my default reaction is to get rid of the suffering.

I know from cycling that I can handle a lot more than I ever thought I could. This has helped me to realize that I can take some time to be still and consider any actions I could or should take.

Now, I breathe deeply and say to myself quietly, “Pace yourself. You can do this. You are doing it. You can suffer and still be okay.”

There’s a certain peace to that, isn’t there?

 

And now over to you: What do you do when you suffer? Do you try to speed up to get it over with quickly? How does that work for you? What do you do to pace yourself?

Let’s talk about it in the comments below.

 

 

Photo credit to MollySVH.

 

 

 

 

Comments

28 Comments

  1. Ed Herzog says:

    Great post Bobbi!

    I know that when I struggle/suffer, I have a tendency to shut down and push the feelings away, instead of just letting them be. Or learning whatever lesson they’re trying to teach me. Definitely something to be aware of in the future!
    Ed Herzog recently posted…The Myth Of The Dream JobMy Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      Hey Ed,

      So for you, it sounds like your “speed up” maneuver is to shut down to make the suffering stop. I imagine that when you open up again, though, the pain is still there, isn’t it? It’s a bummer that life works that way! Thanks for sharing your story, Ed!

  2. Sanjay Tripathi says:

    Hi Bobbi, great post. Sometimes you think that suffering is required for one to appreciate good things in life, but when confronted your first reaction is why me and anger. Then you come to terms with it. Liked it. Thanks Sanjay tripathi Allahabad india.

  3. I love metaphors for life. In the past I would definitely try to speed things up like you when I suffered or I would make it worse by engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms. I also expected to heal right away rather than understanding that healing from pain doesn’t just happen in a moment it happens gradually over time and over many moments. Once I learned to slow down and feel the pain and not freak out about it then I actually healed from it more quickly. Acknowledging that you are feeling pain and accepting it is a great way to move forward.

    Speeding up just ends up making it more difficult in the long run.

    • Bobbi says:

      Hey Sebastian,

      Thanks for your very wise input! You are sharing a good lesson for all of us about how speeding up can actually create a “stuckness” in the pain – kind of like me getting stuck on a hill! – but pacing ourselves in our suffering actually moves us forward.

  4. Marilyn Smith says:

    This resonates with me, big time. I’m going through divorce process where I’ve been on the merry-go-round of “hurry, hurry, hurry” to get through the pain as quickly as possible. For me it’s a default response, so immediate it’s nearly a twitch response. But process is timely, tax agencies move very slowly, documents take a long time to be found and through this I’m learning now; the process follows its own time and course. If I push and rush I’m very angry , frustrated and stalled. Then I take a mental big step sideways, look objectively and say yeah – this sucks but it will end and I will get through fine and gain wisdom along the way. What’s the saying? “It takes time for time to pass.” So true and so grounding to say. Thanks for sharing this lovely post Bobbi.

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Marilyn,

      So sorry to hear you’re in a divorce process 🙁 Even if it is a good thing, it still sucks.

      Sounds like your “big step sideways” helps you to get some perspective, though, and even to pick up some life lessons along the way.

      It’s hard to stay grounded in these long moments that suck but, somehow, there can be peace within them, too. My best to you, Marilyn!

  5. I love your bike riding example. I too tend to want to speed up to get past the pain quickly. It just can’t be done and when it is, I’m an even bigger wreck than I was before. I didn’t really realize this until I read your article…thanks for making me see this!
    Sheila Bergquist recently posted…A Love Letter to Fellow Anxiety SufferersMy Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Sheila,

      I’m glad this was helpful for you. I didn’t really realize I had “speed up” maneuvers, either, until this riding example took place. Sometimes suffering brings a lot of lessons!

  6. Irene Myronova says:

    Thank you, Bobby, for this post! I’ve been subscribed for the blog for a while and it helped me to find some important answers to life issues. With the pacing it’s very timely for me too. Sometimes all I want is to “crush and burn”, but then life shows that there WERE other ways that revealed themselves later on. The only thing that I still don’t really get is where I SHOULD speed up and make some hard decision to stop the suffering instead of waiting and over-thinking the alternatives.

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Irene,

      I don’t think it’s so much about speeding up to make a decision, but just to know when to take action when you’re pacing yourself. Just like learning to pace yourself, knowing when to take action is a practice and something you learn with time. It helps to look back on past experiences and notice at what point you could have made a decision and see if you can apply it to the current situation. Thanks for your comment and your honesty!

  7. Judy Kukuruza says:

    For me the anger comes first, then what I call running. But like you said, it doesn’t work–either way. So in struts “options” and then thinking and then methodical pacing. But it is definitely learned the hard way!! We always want whatever NOW! Really liked your blog and will try to put it to work!

    • Bobbi says:

      Most of us have very little ability to pace ourselves naturally, Judy! Glad you figured things out even though sometimes the lessons are hard!

  8. This post hits the nail on the head for me, Bobbi. I’m not particularly good at dealing with painful or negative emotions, so I like to just scoot through the ugly bits as fast as possible. 😉

    The trick, as you point out, is to live in the pain for a bit – and understand it – before you can learn to move past it.

    Great post – sharing! 🙂
    Kimberley Grabas recently posted…Email List Building Series (Part 4): Finally! Ideas and Tips on What to Send to Your SubscribersMy Profile

  9. Paul says:

    I just don’t seem to be able to move beyond my pain and guilt over actions that happened more than 6 years ago. I’m still broken. I THINK I’ve come to terms with it all…. Then it rears it’s ugly head again and I’m back to square one. I so want help, but wouldn’t know where to look for it.

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your honesty. It sounds like you’re really suffering with your struggle with pain and guilt. I think the best place for you to get some help is from a professional therapist. S/he may be able to help you get to a place where, even if your pain raises its ugly head, you are still okay with it and moving forward in your life in a meaningful way. Notice how I didn’t say the therapist would “get rid of” or “cure” your pain, but rather help you find a way to pace yourself through it when it comes up for you. Sometimes resistance can be our worst enemy. And, like grief, painful feelings can re-emerge from a variety of triggers throughout your life. So it’s better to be able to not try a bunch of “speed up maneuvers” to get through it, but to learn to accept and pace yourself during those times.

  10. Paul says:

    Thank you for that advice. I just want to move on with life so I will look for a therapist.

  11. Holly says:

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. I related immediately to the “get mad” part. And after that I often shut down, retreat, and perhaps find some nice chocolate which soothes the emotions (for about a nanosecond). I’m trying to focus more on just letting be. Breathe. I’m a therapist and work with my clients on this and gee, I need it too.
    Holly recently posted…National Friendship Day: Celebrate Fabulous FriendsMy Profile

  12. lynne says:

    Hi, thank you very much for a very insightful article. Everybody goes through struggles in life, it is true when you said “Pace yourself. You can do this. You are doing it. You can suffer and still be okay.” It is really very helpful and can definitely change one’s perspective in life. Thanks for sharing. Great article.

  13. Rob says:

    Inspiring words! Thank you!

  14. Ana says:

    I love your blog. I lost my house during the recession. While going through foreclosure, I found out I was pregnant at 41. The baby was 2 months when we moved and my husband had just had hernia surgery. My best friend moved 2 states away. I wanted to shut down and sleep only to wake up years down the road. I wanted to get “off the bike” and wake up “at the finished line”. With 5 children and a baby I had to function. No other way. It was painful and still feel some pain from loss from time to time, but less frequent.

  15. Tammy says:

    I pritty much learned not to suffer even when I am.
    I learned to enjoy the small things again.
    I need to relax at the right times as well as slow down.
    I enjoyed reading this,

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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.