To the Pain

When I was learning Taekwondo, I had to work extra hard to improve my flexibility. Most of the other students seemed to have an easier time than I did. It took me months to reach the level of flexibility that they had when they started as white belts. Eventually I could do roundhouse kicks to the head no problem. Then I reached the point where I could kick way above my head, but it took a lot of extra stretching time to get there.

As I reached the higher belt ranks after a few years of consistent training, there was a flexibility requirement to test for the next belt level. I think it was doing side splits down to 6″ and front splits down to 2″. At the time I was about 4″ too high on both. I kept working on the stretching, but I plateaued and didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

When I asked the instructor how to progress beyond this point, he suggested that I talk to one of the black belts who struggled with flexibility too and was eventually able to pass the test. So I talked to him right away – we already knew each other – and he readily agreed to help me. He invited me to stay after class for an extra 10-15 minutes and work on stretching together. He told me to bring a couple of plastic grocery bags to the next class, which sounded odd.

I brought the bags, and after class he had me put them on my feet. The studio had a padded canvas floor, so my plastic-covered bare feet could slide across the floor with minimal friction.

Just doing the splits with the bags helped me sink a bit lower, and so I figured that was the method, but actually that was only the first step. After I did a few rounds of breathing into the stretch and worked myself down as low as I could go, he pushed down on my hips to sink even lower, which was really painful. Now and then he’d tell me to take another deep breath, and as I exhaled, he’d increase the force to nudge my hips towards the floor, and my feet would slide farther apart due to the plastic bags – basically while I screamed.

He told me that if it was really too much that I could tap out, but otherwise screaming was fine.

It was painful but effective. Within several weeks I was able to meet the testing qualification on my own.

While some students could already do the splits down to the floor when they first walked into the studio, I always had to work extra hard at flexibility. Other than the black belt who helped me, I never knew of anyone else in our studio needing to put plastic bags on their feet and have someone push down on their hips to keep improving. Many students were already able to satisfy the flexibility requirement well before they needed to qualify, just from the normal course of training at the studio.

In other aspects of Taekwondo, I was doing great. I especially loved sparring. But on the flexibility aspect, I was the slow one who needed remedial help – bottom 5% of the class for sure.

What made it easier was that I didn’t need to wrap the problem into my self-esteem. So my body wasn’t very flexible. That didn’t mean that I had to think less of myself. It was just a problem to be dealt with and solved.

I find this framing helpful in many areas of life, including mental and emotional challenges. Just because I’m struggling in a certain area doesn’t mean that I have to wrap the problem into my self-image. I can still think well of myself while dealing with various challenges since it doesn’t help to do otherwise.

It is good to admit the truth though, such as when help is needed to solve a particular problem. I wouldn’t have figured out the plastic bag solution on my own. The solution seemed a bit extreme. Perhaps there was a better approach, but I didn’t know of one at the time, and the extreme solution worked. It was painful, but it didn’t injure me.

If I had known earlier that the basic solution was to accept more pain, I probably could have gotten there on my own at a more gradual pacing just by using the plastic bags. Having someone push down on my hips was needed to go faster, so I could meet the qualification in time for the next testing. But if I was willing to progress more slowly, I think the bags would have been enough on their own.

Consider what problems in your life you could solve if you’re willing to endure more discomfort or pain to cross the finish line. Perhaps a little extra pain spread out over time would work. Or perhaps a lot of pain over a short period of time would do it. The pain doesn’t have to be physical. It could be emotional or psychological as well.

Maybe you struggle to progress beyond a certain point because further progress requires crossing the pain line. How can you leave the misaligned job, face the inevitable breakup, or fix your habits unless you’re willing to take on more pain, at least temporarily?

Your personal pain line isn’t fixed. It’s flexible. In order to improve my physical flexibility, I had to stretch my mind as well. I had to replace my old mental rules with more flexible ones, so I could finally cross the pain line instead of automatically ruling that out as a potential solution.

Where are the lines you seldom cross when seeking solutions? Consider that your unwillingness to cross those lines may be the very thing that’s causing you to plateau. What if the solution is to cross one of your pain lines?

Receive Steve's new articles by email.

Read To the Pain by Steve Pavlina