Welcoming the Wisdom of Pain

By Michaela O’Donnell

May 3, 2024

Article, De Pree Journal

Let’s talk personality tests. Do you love them? Hate them? Couldn’t feel more ‘meh’ about them?

I am squarely in the love category. Hear me out—humans are complicated. You are complicated. I am complicated. So, I value any tool that gives me the language to understand myself or others even just a little bit more. One such personality framework that has been especially helpful is the Enneagram.

In Enneagram speak, I am the enthusiastic seven. Though in professional settings people usually suspect I’m the high-achieving three and my boss thinks I’m the challenger eight—lots of introspection for me to do there! Ha! But, being a seven means I’m naturally energetic, optimistic, and fun. I can find the bright spot in any patch of clouds. I love to host parties and rally people toward a good cause, cheer as hard at sports games as I do in life, and have a good time doing all of it.

But the flip side to always looking on the bright side is that it can be hard for me to face pain. Like, very hard. Giving difficult feedback? I’d rather not. Face the shame that comes with yelling at one of my kids? No, thank you. Fail at work and let my team down? Not an option. The soundtrack playing deep down inside of me goes something like, “Do whatever you can to avoid heartbreak—yours or anyone else’s.” We all have our versions of these internal soundtracks, don’t we?

My theology of suffering says that rather than being distant from sorrow, I can press in to find the joy interwoven with it: that God redeems pain and that love will always have the final word. I know pain has its place, but I can also look back and describe how the toughest of moments have helped me grow. For example, early on in my business, I got fired by a client-turned-friend. Unfortunately, the friendship never recovered. And because it was a big project, our company’s bottom line took a big hit.

While it was awful relationally and financially, it forced my husband (who was my business partner) and me to more deeply evaluate our offerings and know where we could—and couldn’t—deliver quality. We ended up offering fewer services but became excellent at the ones we did. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the joy we got from delivering quality work that meant so much to our clients was birthed out of the sorrow of getting it wrong with my friend.

But even if we know that tough stuff is instructive and that God is present in sorrow, it doesn’t necessarily make it easier to welcome the wisdom of pain. To be hospitable to our toughest feelings and get curious about what they have to teach us. To listen to both the parts of ourselves that are scared and also for how God is guiding us.

The Costs and Benefits of Attending to Our Pain

If it’s so tough, why do it? Because if we don’t we will hurt people. Our behavior affects others. I wince when I think about the times when unregulated, too-quick-acting me has said something too sharp. Or when I let my fear leak out in unproductive ways because I wasn’t dealing with that which was making me anxious. Celebrated spiritual teacher Richard Rohr writes, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and invariably, the most vulnerable, our children.” If we don’t deal with the hard stuff, we will inevitably wreak havoc on the people we care about, and the systems entrusted to our care.

Now, chances are that even if you aren’t an overly enthusiastic enneagram seven like me, pain is hard for you. Psychologists and counselors have written extensively about this. On this, renowned psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan speaks to the collective when she writes, “Most of us don’t know how to listen very well to emotional pain for the simple reason that we have never been taught that doing so is a good thing or how to do it.” Her point is that Western society was formed in certain ways, and we’re not very good at taming any emotions we deem negative. Escaping? Yes. Coping? Yes. But taming? Not so much.

If we don’t deal with the hard stuff, we will inevitably wreak havoc on the people we care about, and the systems entrusted to our care.

Add to this—emotions live in our bodies. Greenspan describes, “[Emotions] affect the rate at which our hearts beat and the level and balance of various hormones, including the way we breathe, think, work…” What this means is that in any domain—let’s take work for example—welcoming the wisdom of pain is not purely (or perhaps even hardly) a thought exercise, but instead an embodied one.

So, to lead, work, and live in a way that welcomes the wisdom of pain, we have to listen to our bodies. Because that might feel different, it means we need to go slow. There is a theologically rich word that has to do with slowness that I think can help us—patience.

Understanding patience is key here. Baylor University Researcher Sarah Schnikter has pioneered research on the science of patience. In a recent podcast episode with Pam King, Schnikter explains, “Patience is not an eradication of emotions. But the ability to feel those emotions, stay level-headed, and regulate through them…. Patience becomes a virtue when you do all that for something beyond the self, for moving forward and pursuing the good.”

Patience is about being awake to what’s happening around us and in us while at the same time regulating distress when we’re experiencing something we’d rather not. Or as Lisa Pratt Slayton and I write in our upcoming book, the goal is to respond to rather than react to our pain. This requires us to pause, get curious, and treat our dark emotions with hospitality.

The goal is to respond to rather than react to our pain. This requires us to pause, get curious, and treat our dark emotions with hospitality.

A Rule of Life for Noticing Our Pain

For busy leaders—scratch that, for humans alive in today’s frenetic world—there’s no natural space in the day to notice, much less welcome the wisdom of, our toughest emotions. But even a little bit of noticing goes a long way. Because welcoming what pain has to teach me doesn’t come naturally, I’ve had to structure it into my life. For those of you who are familiar with a Rule of Life, this cadence will look familiar.

1.     Every Day: Do Body Scans
Borrowing a practice from our Road Ahead cohorts (and soon our Road Ahead class!), I do a sixty-second body scan before I jump into a work meeting. I literally close my eyes, start at the top of my head, and work my way down to my toes, listening for parts of my body that ache, are holding stress, or are tired. Acknowledging this stress going into a meeting helps me know where my stress and pain points are daily. I am also learning to do this when something tough happens at work. When someone says something that pushes my buttons or I get disappointing news, I stop to take deep breaths and do a body scan. Before I respond, I acknowledge the part of my body that feels the pain, be compassionate with myself, and get curious about what my pain has to teach me.

2.     Every Month: Talk with a Coach, Mentor, Spiritual Director, or Therapist
I am grateful to have a leadership coach. We often talk about regulating stress and making wise decisions when things feel tough or unclear. This takes the kind of patience Sarah Schnikter is talking about—one that has not come to me naturally. My coach has helped me welcome what my toughest moments at work have to teach me so that my pain is not transmitted but rather transformed. I know not everyone has access to a coach or a counselor, or a mentor. De Pree Center has excellent resources for both mentors and mentees.

3.     Once a Quarter: Reflect on Acute and Chronic Pain Points in Work
There is an exercise I created for our Road Ahead groups and that appears in both Make Work Matter and Life in Flux. It helps surface pain points and what those pain points reveal about what you’re longing for. While you can include pain points from any domain of life, the exercise was built for work and/or your sense of vocation. This tool is powerful in that it brings up feelings that are lying just beneath the surface, giving us a chance to welcome them up to the surface.

4.     Situational: Seek Specific Wisdom for a Challenging Situation
When I have a situation where I don’t know what to do but feels heavy or painful, it’s helpful for me to reflect in a more structured way. For this, I use a process developed by Tracy Matthews, who has been helping leaders slow down, cultivate awareness, and listen to God’s guidance for a long time. She and her team have put together a worksheet that helps you take a specific situation you’re facing before God so that you can respond well. I find that the structured space slows me down enough to listen to the parts of myself that are scared and sense how God is guiding me. I then take what I’ve discovered to a teammate, friend, or mentor to get their feedback on what I’m sensing.

In all of this, we must remember that this isn’t work we can do alone. The work of growing more hospitable to our pain so that it might shape us and inform the way we lead can feel different or strange. To listen to our fears and put our trust in God is vulnerable. Plus, wisdom is inherently communal, which means that patiently discerning what our pain has to teach us is best done with others.

Michaela O’Donnell

Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director

Michaela is the Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director Chair at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership. She is also an assistant professor of marketplace leadership and the lead professor for Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Global Leadership, Redemptive Imagination in the Marketplace progr...

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