““If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”

”We must be aware of the gap that stands between us and our potential, and let the tension of that gap motivate us to keep striving to become better.””


I love this quote from the influential Psychologist, Abraham Maslow, as it highlights the important role that tension, discomfort, and pain can play in motivating us to grow. Several months ago – I created a video that identified how negative emotions can have a positive impact on us – if we interpret these emotions as indicators of potential growth. Well, in this week’s message I want to talk about a concept that I refer to as “the pain gap” – and why our quality of life is influenced by how we choose to deal with it.

Our “Pain Gap”

The pain gap describes the discomfort, tension, disease, and/or pain that we experience when our thoughts, actions, and/or relationships are out of alignment with our Authentic Self (with your Authentic Self being comprised of your core values, virtues, principles, priorities, and your intrinsic motivators). The degree to which we feel or experience this pain gap – is generally determined by these two factors:

  1. How incongruent our behavior might be from our best/most authentic versions of our selves that we have internalized – and how long have we been out of alignment. If our behavior is significantly inconsistent with this authentic self – then it is likely to create significant discomfort (which can manifest in emotional/psychological, relational, physical, and even spiritual distress). Likewise, if we have ignored this pain for a long period of time – the distress accumulates and can really compound into a very negative condition.

  2. Do we have an overly rigid idea of who we are supposed to be – which can really intensify the experience of this pain gap. I tend to see this factor manifest through perfectionism – or – when clients have a foundation of toxic shame – and they feel like they are inherently flawed, unworthy, or unlovable.

I actually felt the sting of both of these pain gap factors as I was attempting to write this – as I procrastinated for about an hour before I finally started writing (I knew this wasn’t a great use of my time – and I could feel a mild sense of tension building in my chest and jaw the longer I procrastinated). And then when I actually started writing – my perfectionistic tendencies kicked in – and the only way to overcome this tension is to just keep writing and complete my work.

How We Respond To Our Pain Gap Greatly Impacts Our Quality Of Life

Facing our pain gap is uncomfortable – and it may seem easier (or more enjoyable) to avoid dealing with it. While this does provide the immediate gratification of not dealing with something – it is a disastrous long term strategy. As the pain gap widens – it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the discomfort and tension – and it becomes very alluring to engage in activities that numb or even self-medicate the pain (this may manifest in wanting to always be busy/distracted, procrastination, denial, addictive behaviors, angry outbursts, etc.). The pain gap is supposed to serve a healthy purpose for us – but when we choose to consistently ignore it – it will increase its effect – essentially imploring us to acknowledge it, take corrective action, and practice self/other compassion.

On the other hand, when we choose to lean into the pain gap and use the discomfort and tension to develop our character, learn from our mistakes, and grow with purpose and intention – we will experience greater success, significance, confidence, motivation, purpose, meaning, relational fulfillment, happiness, health, and clarity.

I’m sure we can all think of experiences when we knew that we were doing exactly what we were supposed to be doing, were in the right place, in an optimal mindset, with the right people around us, and engaged in something that was meaningful, challenging, and connected to our highest values and purpose. To me – this summarizes my ideal of a Psychology of Thriving. To have more of these experiences – and to do so with greater consistency and intentionality – is a chief objective that I include for all of the clients I work with – as well as for myself and my family.

In conclusion, I believe that how you choose to respond to your pain gap greatly impacts and determines the quality of life that you will experience. Furthermore, your decision to lean into or avoid the discomfort of your pain gap will have implications and repercussions that significantly impact and influence the people you are closest to. Therefore, I think how this phenomena may show up in your life and how you intend to respond to it – deserves thoughtful consideration.

Next Step Resources

  1. There is a great book from Phillip Yancey, Where is God When it Hurts, that describes the catastrophic consequences of not being able to process or feel physical pain – and elucidates the unique purpose pain has in helping us to survive. Learn More

  2. Positivity in Sadness (AG Thrive Video)

  3. Valued Living Questionnaire (PDF Worksheet)

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