Good Pain. Bad Pain. How Do You Know?

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Two years ago, I was trail-running and snapped a bone in my foot. I hobbled home and hauled myself over to the orthopedist. Well, okay, my wife actually hauled me over, I couldn’t stand.

It was a clean break, which means the bone was completely separated and there was a risk that the pieces would heal out of position if I continued to walk on it. So I was put into an air-cast, then spent the next month on crutches, followed by a second month walking on the foot in the air-cast.

When I was finally allowed back in shoes, every step still caused intense pain. I was sure something was wrong, so I called the doctor. Everything’s fine he said, the bone is healed. He then shared how my month on crutches, while necessary, also wreaked a bit of havoc. The muscle becomes seriously atrophied and the connective tissue becomes constricted.

“I know it hurts,” he said, “but you’ve got to keep walking through it.” That was the only way for the muscle to rebuild and the connective tissue to become unstuck and re-pattern itself back into something more functional.

So, I walked, still convinced something was wrong. It shouldn’t hurt this much, I thought. But it did. And I kept walking.

Over time, I started to notice something. Actually, I started to notice what I wasn’t noticing. The pain. It was, in fact, starting to ease. The doc was right. Over a period of months, my foot began to get better. In fact, it was this very lack of continued “forced” movement into pain after a shoulder reconstruction years earlier (don’t ask, I was a gymnast as a kid, ack!) that is very likely why my should never re-patterned or returned to normal function.

But, here’s the bigger issue…

I’m very body-aware. I’ve studied, practiced and taught various forms of movement for my entire life. But I still wasn’t equipped to determine whether the pain that followed my time on crutches was good pain (to be leaned into and worked through) or bad pain (a signal to stop doing what I was doing). I’d never been on crutches before or experienced the level of atrophy, constriction and loss of function that it led to. This was new territory for me and I couldn’t draw upon my normal database for answers.

Sometimes we can figure these things out through introspection, learning and intuition. But other times, we need to turn to others to help us know whether what we’re feeling is good pain or bad pain. Either because we’re too close to the pain, emotionally and physically to be able to make an intelligent decision. Or because we simply don’t have the knowledge needed to intelligently translate the signals.

And that’s not just about our bodies, it’s also about our businesses and lives. Self-awareness, observation and intuition can cover you in most situations. But sometimes, they’re still not enough.

One of the strongest moves we can make in business and in life is to own the need to occasionally surrender and be open to receiving guidance.

So, I’m curious, have you guys ever had a similar experience? With your body, your business or life?

And, if so, how do know whether the pain is good or bad?

And who do you turn to if you’re having trouble figuring it out?


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33 responses

33 responses to “Good Pain. Bad Pain. How Do You Know?”

  1. Shanna Mann says:

    That’s a good question. I don’t believe I’ve ever run across the situation where my confidantes told me I had to push through the pain. Maybe it’s just a hard thing to say,though, because I have been often told that the pain would pass.

    Mostly, I push myself, so I just have to catch when I’m pushing reactively, out of a misguided sense of pride, and not out of necessity. I have friends and loved ones who tell me not to punish myself for having the audacity to be weak. I’m getting better at catching it, but I still need people to tell me.

    Great post.

  2. I think that happens sometimes in relationships. Is there hope for a happy ending if you “walk” through the pain of a bad patch? That’s where looking at the facts can sometimes help. You know you feel like hell, but actually that’s irrelevant in some ways. Looking at the history, what you want, what your partner wants, where the synergy is. That’s where a really good guidance counsellor can help.

  3. Interesting distinction between “good” and “bad” pain. I tend to check out of the pain is rational or irrational – but of course, even rational (“real”) pain can be either good or bad.

    If I can’t judge it for myself, I ask myself the kinds of questions I’d ask my clients, such as:

    “If you could remove this pain instantly, but you’d also be removing the ultimate destination it’s taking you to – would you do it?”

    That usually sorts out whether the pain is useful or not!

    • Troy says:

      Good pain versus bad pain is a great question. I recently started a real estate brokerage and there has been a lot of pain financially.

      I think what Brain Carr posted above is food for thought –
      “If you could remove this pain instantly, but you’d also be removing the ultimate destination it’s taking you to – would you do it?”

      That is the dilemma I find myself in as I think long-term, my goals will pay off. But it does make you question yourself when you’re not having success. As someone said, there’s a fine line between courage and stupidity!

  4. Well, Jonathan, I’m relating to this post on a very literal level right now! I’m currently in an air cast, going on week 5 of a broken metatarsal in my left foot. This post is incredibly right-on in helping me understand what’s going on. Like you say, I have no reference point for this experience and so therefore can’t tell whether the pain that comes when I test my foot out by putting a bit of weight on it is a good or bad thing.

    But I love how you extend that out to life lessons as well. Surrendering to guidance of all kinds… yes. That’s my edge right now.

    Thank you for this post. I so much appreciate your writing.

  5. Paula says:

    Jonathan –

    I have never broken a bone, but you touch on a valuable lesson which can be applied to everyday life happenings. On a professional level, I just left one brokerage for another. It was most difficult for me, because I am fiercely loyal and loved my previous broker. It was a business decision and I had to have other people in my life keep me focused on the end goal or I could have easily been convinced to stay put.

  6. Joely Black says:

    About two weeks ago, I fell and hurt my foot. I do have one of those senses about pain – I know the difference between pain that you work through physically and pain that says “Stop right now” and I went off to A&E. I was lucky – no break but a soft tissue injury.

    Healing now is all about working out what I can and can’t do. Every day I think “Today I’ll go back to the gym!” but then I realise I’m not ready, so I swim instead.

    I’ve been the same with my mental health. Healing from a breakdown, I find it easy to think, “I’m ready! I can do this!” and people often do say “Just forget about the mental pain, push through it!”

    That’s the difficulty I find, because pushing through was what led to the breakdown. Now I’m having to learn to be careful and listen to myself much more. I’ve had a lot of setbacks because I pushed too hard, too soon. I’ve resolved not to do that with my foot, so at least physically, I’m in good shape.

  7. Jonathan, you have touched on two areas that lies close to my heart. First is that pain often signals that very useful things are happening. Unfortunately, we tend to avoid difficult things and never experience the healing.

    The other is your point about the value of community. Individualism is biting itself in the backside, methinks. I think one can never stop building on those connections that will help you bear and interpret pain.

  8. Phil says:

    Jonathan – As a business school professor, I work with a number of early career professionals and end up dealing with some form of this question a lot. Typically it’s a difficult situation at work, either interpersonal or a less than sexy work assignment. The question is “how do I handle this?” which I liken to your good pain/bad pain construct.

    I then share that there are many things in my career I’d consider “good to have done, but glad I’m not doing now…” If there’s no (relative) pain, there’s typically not learning and insight. How do you know what you can do if you don’t push boundaries and struggle? If you’re really trying, some stuff doesn’t work out.

    The trick in my mind is to determine whether you’re moving in a direction you like and is the “pain” part of that journey. And I completely agree that it can take a mentor or outside observer’s perspective to help navigate.

    I particularly see it today, where a lot of millenials aren’t as resilient as past generations. They’ve been conditioned to praise for average achievement. Moving into the formal work force is daunting and causes struggles that are unfamiliar. Coaching, support and advice are critical to determine what pain is “normal”.

    • Phil,
      the wisdom of experience is evident from your answer. I also lecture and have so noticed the same trend you mention: life should be easy and I should get what I want right now. In a way, you need to know “bad” pain to recognise “good” pain.

  9. Heather says:

    Hey Jonathan! Great, great post!! I too have been an athlete my whole life and have experienced many injuries. I have to say, for me, even though many times I’ve heard the voice of my ignorant mind wonder if I should go back to the doctor etc. when I was questioning things. However, there was always another part of me that KNEW things were ok and healing as they were meant to. I’m in to many of the spiritual practices as well and have written to my body on occasion to ask questions about what the message was in my injury or my pain and have received some incredible insights. I think on some level we KNOW our truth but I do believe we need to please all parts of ourselves so one part doesn’t sabotage the whole journey. Reaching out for objective, qualified opinions and sober 2nd thoughts is a fantastic way to support your lack of knowledge and get you back on track if you’re questioning anything in life. Thanks again!

  10. Aadya says:

    ““I know it hurts,” he said, “but you’ve got to keep walking through it.” That was the only way for the muscle to rebuild and the connective tissue to become unstuck and re-pattern itself back into something more functional.”

    I love your recommending we listen to loved ones when we don’t know. If we aren’t sure of our own instinct, the instinct of those who love us can step in to show the way. I’ve seen this happen a million times.

    Thank you for this beautiful article.

  11. brigid says:

    That was not how I expected the story to end. It could have just as easily been a story about how the doctor was wrong and we should trust ourselves, our inner guides, our own knowingness, how we should listen to the signals we get loud and clear, and how willing we are, no matter how much it hurts, to relinquish control to some “authority.”

    We make all stories about whatever we want them to be about.

  12. Sukhi says:

    My hobby is being an ultra-endurance athlete. At one race which was a 100 miler, I started getting serious pain in my calves. i don’t pop any meds and like you I just continued to work through it after I consulted with my emotionally detached educated health practitioner mind…. : )

    It was tough to do that, because it’s 3am, I’ve been running racing for 17 hours straight, blood sugar is pretty low, and I’m in trails, deep in the mountains.

    Moral… We can even consult with another part of ourselves that’s detached to the emotions of the pain.

    I ended up working through the pain by shifting my gait and had a podium finish… Awesome!

  13. Bunny says:

    Great post. Interesting subject that relates to many life issues. I’m one of those people that when I get hurt.. just don’t stop. When the doctor says “don’t use that hand” (that he just operated on) I just can’t stand it and use it anyway until it swells and off to the doctor for a lecture I go. Life has been very similar. Being one the the multi thousands that have lost everything.. business, home etc… I had a brief pity party and then just started moving around again. Not willing to admit I was hurting or damaged. I did have a personal coach but now that I am settled in a new place.. I find I would have done everything with or without the coach. The coaching was just a bit of warm fuzzy to tell me how great I am but I really pushed forward wounded on my own. Maybe I didn’t have the right coach.. but being a strong minded person I just never gave up.. just whined a bit.

  14. Lisa says:

    Having recently left the Law to build a professional and personal development coaching practice, I have seen first hand how much is out there for us if we are open to receiving it. (And, to Bunny’s comment above, yes, only we know what’s right for ourselves…although that discovery can be facilitated through a coach that is less about hand holding and more about asking powerful questions that leave that client knowing more about themselves and, as a result, at choice to move forward.) For me, distinguishing between something that is healthy or not (pain, work, relationships) requires a combination of trusting oneself, listening to what is true and then, where appropriate, seeking counsel from someone with appropriate expertise. I am moved and inspired by the way in which different types of connections with others can deepen our understanding of who we’re being, reveal new information, and forward our actions in business, body or life. Whether we reach out depends on our own curiosity and the desire for something different.

  15. Always turn to the professionals if you are having trouble figuring it out – either M.D., counselor, financial advisor, etc.

    I like to use the good “ole” gut feeling, intuition with a sprinkle of great advice from someone you trust and love!

    In love and light,

  16. Ashley says:

    Almost a year ago, I was the victim of a drunk driving accident. My left ankle was injured so badly that I had to have 3 surgeries and couldn’t walk on it for 3 1/2 months. I read about your month and go, “Ha, that’s nothing.” But I know about that pain- you step on your foot and think you’re going to mess something up. I’ve been walking since October and I am still getting my strength back to “normal.” Even though I was reluctant to start walking, I initially put faith my doctor- don’t walk on it, elevate it, ice it and so forth. Perhaps we feel out of control with our lives when we have to listen to somebody else’s authority, but we are here on this Earth to help each other out. Good pain, bad pain, it’s all the same because what is good or bad? It’s just an interpretation.

  17. Jonathan,

    I’m feeling a little gushy about this post, because it felt like you were scanning part of my brain. I have realized more intensely in the past few years that a big part of what I am helping clients do is learn how to accept and “lean into” pain instead of resisting or avoiding pain.

    As I was considering your question about our own experiences, I had lots of possible answers. But the one that felt the most resonant was that when our son was stillborn, I needed the community wisdom of a perinatal loss support group to have the permission to feel the depth and breadth of my pain in an unstigmatized way.

    We truly need our communities, both personal and professional. Thanks for this one–I have a feeling it’s going to end up in my “Mid-Week Balance” round-up!


  18. Ah, pain. Over the past few years I’ve learned a lot about pain. In early 2009, I was pushing through what I thought was just some minor muscle pain while training for a 10k and I felt a horrible ping in my groin, and hobbled home. It did not improve over a couple of days of rest and ibuprofen, so I called the doctor and that started months of testing and trying out muscle relaxants and pain meds…and finally I found a doctor who knew what was happening: osteoarthritis.

    I was not in the right age category, and usually osteoarthritis has a very slow onset. But when I looked back, I could see the signs: increased stiffness, pain that didn’t quite work itself out with yoga. My sudden onset was the sudden break of the labrum, that wonderful cartilage that separates bone from bone.

    I went through rehab. I went to a pain specialist. I did special exercises, and finally I was put on a waiting list for hip replacement… and walked with a cane for 6 months.

    Within a day of having my hip replaced, the deep pain that had dogged me was gone! Yes, I had other kinds of pain, but not the chronic bone-on-bone arthritis pain.


    I am still working to regain the muscle strength I lost from the surgery, and I still deal with pain and have to figure out whether it is work-through-able or doctor-worthy; so far, it’s all work-through-able. But nothing compares to the deep and chronic pain of grinding major joints.

    And, amazingly enough, my relationship with my husband has improved since the surgery. I didn’t realize how negative and not nice I’d become during my chronic pain, even though I thought I was coping well.

    It’s all connected. And I guess the lesson I get is to listen to my pain and be pro-active. Things don’t go away if you ignore them. Walking through pain (which I’ve done a lot of in my rehab since surgery) is different from not acknowledging it.

  19. Amy Putkonen says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I broke my leg once and I can certainly relate to the frustrations of your body not being what you are used to. At the time I broke it, I had been doing about 2 – 3 hours of tai chi a day so let’s just say I was very conscious of my body! I couldn’t stand the energy drain that healing caused.

    That was years ago. I like your tie-in with life’s little challenges and how sometimes we need a “second opinion” on things. I think its important to surround yourself with friends that will tell you the truth and help you see that where you are is simply a temporary space. Great writing. Keep it coming.


  20. Marie Davis says:

    Of course, I’ve had painful experiences. Some are tougher than others, but I always learn something from them. Do I occasionally repeat the same foolish mistake? Youbetya! That’s where humor comes in handy!

  21. Brooke says:

    Great post, great relating of the metaphor…

    The literal: I’m recovering from my second hip surgery for an until recently, not-well-understood structural issue. First time around, the surgeon and PT rehabbed me quickly and told me to “push through the pain”, and I was reluctant. I was sure it was bad pain! (I do body work and training as well, and am very body-aware.) Well… ended up with chronic tendonitis in every muscle emanating from my hip for 9 months, mainly hamstrings, and chronic ischial bursitis. It’s mainly because my second surgeon is so hands-off in the recovery process, and insurance took 3 months to approve more PT, that I took my recovery into my own hands this time–and minimal soft-tissue injury, this round.

    The not-so-literal: as a small business owner recently going through/attempting expansion, I’ve had to do some things (cold calling, etc) that are painful to me. It feels like it’s “bad” pain when I’m doing the task, but in the end, most of the pain has been “good”. It’s been tough to get my 9-5er friends to relate to this… many of my “bad” pain tasks are things I may not eventually get paid for, but if I do–big payout (besides learning new skills as a business owner). Perceived “bad” pain is truly “good” pain.

  22. karen leafe says:

    Hi Jonathan

    I can relate you your experience. when approaching my 40th birthday I started to experience serious pain down one leg when running. Many friends and family said “well your getting older its telling you something”. Determind not to give up I visited a sports injury clinic for advice. With an assessment, guidance and some simple exercises I was able to and encouraged to continue running. Clearly a lesson for me – about seeking wise counsel and not giving up too easily!

  23. Mary Jane says:

    I can also relate–in my 20’s, I was training for a marathon, and tried to run through pain. In my case, that approach backfired. I have since traded running for other forms of exercise, but for me, if something hurts, I have it checked out before trying to push through.

  24. […] I learned that you may need outside help to distinguish good pain from bad pain. […]

  25. Teresa says:

    As a mult-modality healer I am a person people come to when they want to know whether it’s good pain or bad pain. It’s a great question! I had to really think how I do it for myself. I’ve had excruciating spinal disc pain–not good. Sometimes discomfort from traction is a good pain. The way I tell the difference for myself, with physical pain, is that when I really tune in and ask my body, the bad pain carries a vague sense of nausea or dread, and the good pain has a “clear” feeling to it.

    Also recently sprained an ankle hiking and had to hike out. Not good pain. A few days ago a bone repositioned in the still-sore ankle, with a popping noise and sensation. It felt like good pain, and I knew I would move out of a plateau and improve more quickly. I paused when it happened and my body sense was that this was a-okay–but I had to move a bit to check. Listening to the body is always good.

    As for emotional pain, usually I can intuit it out, but when it’s super intense and my energy is being impacted by unusual influences I ask MY healer in case I’m missing something. It’s good to have assistance learning quickly by expanding perspective!

  26. […] now the conversation shifts to how to sustain this flow. How to keep the high going, and as Jonathan pleaded with us, “do something with all this […]

  27. Farnoosh says:

    Late to this post, Jonathan, but I have had no shortage of various injuries even from yoga. In fact, I have healed my yoga injuries with yoga, funny enough but I am sure you can relate. For me, if my body is in pain from extreme soreness of working out too hard – breaking down those poor muscles to rebuild them over and over again – then I push through and go back to more work out after some rest (maybe 24 hours max) and I find that I become stronger over time. With injuries, I am very careful. If the pain is extreme, and putting weight on it sends excruciating nerves down my back, then I definitely rest. I just listen to my internal scale on pain and I know that our pain tolerance varies. I just know that if you ignore the messages from the body, it comes back to haunt you later but how we interpret those messages are entirely up to us and no one knows our bodies as well as we ourselves know. Gosh, I am not sure if this even helps but I wanted to add. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  28. Ed Rauch says:

    Well like Farnoosh, I’m late to this, but you know this makes so much more sense than when I’ve always been told to ‘stay off’ of it. I’ve severely sprained both ankles in the past, and I was told to stay off. I then wore ankle braces every time I played basketball, and my ankles weren’t being worked like they should, and deteriorated over time. (very noticeably) I finally took it upon my self to see if it wasn’t a ‘good pain’ and took off the braces and its done wonders! I guess in this example I didn’t listen to advice, but same principle I think, just in reverse!

  29. […] there are others who take a different tact. They desire only to see people unleashed to do they are wired to do and to add meaning to the world. This […]

  30. […] post has been floating around in my head for a long time, but it crystallized this week, aided by this post from Jonathan Fields, and the events in Joplin, […]

  31. Vipan Khetarpal says:

    It is good to read an article like this. For a very long time I have tried to figure out as a hobby if pain is good for you. After all pain is felt by brain and brain controls body. There are numerous activities like yoga, exercise which are painful but good for health so the question if some kinds of pains are good for you. I do not know if medical science has considered this aspect but to me should be researched