The pain of developing new skills

Image by Aberro Creative from Pixabay

As much as I love this work that I do, there’s no denying that it’s incredibly sedentary work. After almost a year of doing this full-time, I’ve already been noticing myself stiffening up after sitting in front of either the work bench or the computer for so many hours each day.

I recently gave myself the gift of a membership to an inexpensive gym near my house to help get me moving more and fight the stiffness and lethargy that so much sitting brings.

I’ve been working into this gradually, and yesterday was my first weight training day for my legs (in probably close to 15 years!). I think I overdid it.

By the time I’d finished the sets of torture routines exercises my trainer had set up for me, my legs felt like wet noodles. My muscles were so exhausted that walking took a great deal of concentration to keep myself from collapsing into a heap of quivering flesh on the floor.

It didn’t get any better on the drive home. Who knew that pressing a clutch pedal required so much muscle strength?! By that time, the few miles I had to drive felt like a whole new workout!

I spent the rest of the day yesterday moving verrrrrrrrrry slowly because my muscles didn’t quite seem to work right. I was also so exhausted that I went to bed incredibly early last night and slept like the dead.

Even with pain relievers in me, I hurt (badly!!) from my rib cage down this morning. OUCH! I’m still moving slowly (when I have to move at all) and with great care in a way that probably makes me look several decades older than I actually am.

My previous complaints of stiffness feel like nothing compared to this aching weakness!

I’ve asked myself dozens of times (both during the work out and after) whether this is actually worth. Why on earth would I put myself through something that feels infinitely worse than my original complaint?

While I clearly overdid things yesterday and need to back off until my body becomes more acclimated, I know from previous experience with weight lifting that this pain and weakness in my muscles is temporary and that the strengthening exercises will be worth it in the end.

I knew to expect this, so while I might need to adjust my learning curve, I’m not thrown off course by this discomfort.

I don’t do this nearly as well when it comes to learning new skills or developing new muscles in the mental, emotional, and relational realms.

When I’m in the middle of life’s most broken places, I often identify new skills of thinking or relating that I need to work on in order to move toward healing or to grow in ways that prevent future recurrences of similar brokenness.

For example, I might discover a new boundary that I need to set in my relationships to make them healthier.

I usually start practicing this new boundary setting and immediately run into trouble. I’m still not comfortable with this new skill myself, so when I encounter push back (which is natural), it flattens me.

I’m quickly exhausted by the emotional toll of learning to say “no” in some new way. I’m sore and aching from having to deal with even the slightest hint of conflict (something I do NOT handle well).

In no time at all, I’m second guessing myself and my new boundary. I’m flooded with (false) guilt and anxiety and self-doubt and generally wind up feeling like a quivering heap on the floor as I question my worth to even exist (much less draw any kind of boundary at all).

Just as I did with the gym yesterday, I question whether this new boundary (or other skill) can possibly be worth the exhaustion and pain and emotional upset that learning it is creating.

All too often, I’ve defaulted to choosing to abandon the new skill and have retreated back into my old familiar misery instead. It’s at least more comfortable in its familiarity than the discomfort of learning something new.

I’ve ultimately regretted it every time I’ve done that. I just set myself for more future suffering when I choose not to deal with the short-term challenge of learning the new skill in front of me.

I’ve (slowly) learned over the years to expect the discomfort just like I expected the discomfort that came from yesterday’s work out.

When I find my emotional muscles reeling with exhaustion and soreness after practicing a new skill, I give myself the same kind of space to move slowly and gently nurse myself through the discomfort that I gave my body yesterday (and will continue to do today).

I take all that self-doubt and anxiety and false guilt with a very big grain of salt because I know that’s just what sore emotional muscles feel like to me. I might allow them to help me adjust the speed at which I take on a new skill, but I no longer allow them to stop me.

Just like with my workouts, each time I bring myself back to practice the new skill again, it gets a little bit easier. The painful, exhausting aftereffects diminish by degrees with each repetition until I’ve set a new normal that is stronger and healthier than where I started.

I’d really like to just curl up in a little ball and not move at all today to do anything, but I know enough to know that I’ll feel better faster if I keep my muscles moving as much as I can with stretching and regular activity. I’ll also make sure I get extra rest and lots of water to help with my recovery.

And I’ll be back at the gym tomorrow for my upper body work out and on Friday for my next leg work out. It’s the only way to grow the muscle strength and suppleness I need to counteract this sedentary work I do.

I’ll be doing the same thing (figuratively) in those areas where I’m trying to develop new emotional and relational skills.

Will you join me?

What new emotional or relational skills are you working on?

What do sore emotional muscles feel like to you? How can you better recognize those symptoms for what they are?

What self-kindness will best help you work through the discomfort of those sore emotional muscles and keep you on track practicing the new skills you are working on?

How can you best motivate yourself to continue practicing that new skill in the face of the short-term exhaustion and soreness that a new practice brings?

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