The Pain Gap

AUGUST 8, 2013

Photo by Emily

Pain Gap.  My made up phrase to describe the space between how you think your life is supposed to be, and how it’s actually going.

And when I was experiencing it—man, did it hurt!

If you feel like you’re not living up to your potential and something has got to change, but you have no clue what or where to begin, then keep reading—what I learned on my journey will help you turn it around.

I like to think of pain gaps like snowflakes. No two are completely alike. We all have different vulnerabilities and perceptions of our own reality where pain gaps can sneak in and set up shop.

Can you identify where your pain gap is showing up in your life?

My pain gap expressed itself in the form of my career. For years, I believed that someone with a master’s degree in communication should have a shmancy corporate job. I imagined a cherry red drop top Z3 BMW, a corner office, charcoal gray tailored pantsuits from Nieman Marcus, and uncomfortable patent leather heels.

Boy, did I judge myself for not having any of those things. The kind of brutal self-judgment that keeps you stuck. My inkling that there was more for me—to do and be—was correct, but I was seeing it all wrong.

After years of searching, one day, I got a sign from the universe. I really mean an actual sign. A discount home fashions store is a place for passed over lampshades and outdated table linens. It’s not where one would expect to find the catalyst for an entire life change. But tucked away in a dusty back corner of the store was a clever message that resonated with me.

With its descending letters strategically placed line by line, from oversized to miniscule, the framed poster was designed to look like an eye chart. The clever message, which required a discerning eye to decode, read: one can rarely see what is right in front of them. After deciding $40 was too much to spend for the artwork, I left it in the store.

The message, thankfully, continued marinating in my psyche.

I had a gut feeling that the sign I had been searching for so desperately was literally right in front of me when I saw it on that fateful day. In the months leading up to this pivotal moment, I was beginning to understand that subscribing to a meticulous list of “shoulds” to define my reality was limiting and preventing me from living my best life.

Although I hadn’t fully realized yet, it was time to let go. My message became an invitation to allow myself to shift my reality.

The next day, I found myself repeating my new mantra while riding the metro, curious to exactly how this applied to me. I was nervous and excited for the first day of my marketing mentor program. When I signed up four weeks earlier, I knew deep down that I had no interest in writing press releases or promoting products, but it was hard to shake the feeling that someone with a master’s degree in communication “should” be a marketer, not a learning specialist.

When I arrived, most protégés found their mentors before the program started and had already begun the process of connecting. Perhaps mine had been running late, I hoped. Once the program began, and each time an executive professional introduced herself, I found myself wondering if that was my mentor.

Once the introductions were over, my fear had been realized—my mentor was a no-show. Previous attempts to break into the world of marketing never seemed to flow for me, so I can’t say that I was surprised. My initial impulse was to really feel the disappointment, and choose to be done with the program altogether. You know, head straight home for an impromptu date with Ben & Jerry.

But the evening wasn’t a total loss. I had been looking forward to the presentation on creating effective mentoring relationships. In fact, during the week leading up to the program, I found myself researching that night’s presenter.

Despite the fact that she was a corporate coach, not a marketing professional, my intuition drew me to her website several times that week. I even found myself on the careers page, daydreaming about how great it would be to facilitate change for others. For a living! Each time, fear and “shoulds” took over, preventing me from taking this inclination any further.

Before leaving that night, something told me to talk with the mentor program coordinator about my situation, with the secret agenda that the corporate coach might talk with me that night instead. To my amazement, that is exactly what happened. In that moment everything made sense, and my head began to flood with realizations.

It was the first time that I said aloud that I wanted to become a coach. Perhaps most importantly, I made the connection that facilitating change and coaching people is what I was already doing, and what I enjoyed doing most.

This realization was in front of me all along. I was just too busy looking in the wrong direction to see and appreciate the possibilities.

It makes sense now that trying to understand my life’s purpose without taking into account the special talents and abilities that make me unique, and perhaps most importantly, bring me joy, was a recipe for discontent. Once I started to focus on what was right in front of me, it was amazing how quickly my world changed. Where frustration and dead ends had been the norm, I soon found myself immersed in happy accidents and an overall feeling of being in the flow.

Two weeks later, while I was out shopping to celebrate completing my application to Georgetown’s Leadership Coaching program (I have since graduated from the program), I found myself in yet another home fashions store. While I don’t typically win contests, I was thrilled to have won a $25 gift card to a slightly upscale store. Happily browsing, nothing really stood out to me as something I wanted or needed.

As I was about to leave the store, I wandered into a section I hadn’t seen previously. There it was, proudly on display, almost as if it had been waiting for me—the same eye chart message I had seen a few weeks earlier. This time it was a tray instead of a poster.

I quickly scooped it up and used my gift card to fully cover the cost. This certainly was a nudge from the universe, a way to confirm that I was, in fact, on the right track because I had finally been true to myself.

What’s the special message in your life that you may not see yet, or that you know is there but you’re not sure what to do next?

Start by paying attention to the little things you that bring you joy. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your attention can shift. Identifying any beliefs and thought patterns that may not be serving you well could also allow the message to emerge.

Because I stubbornly focused on what I thought I “should” be doing, I was missing my true passion right under my nose. What beliefs are you ready to reevaluate, and maybe even begin to let go of, today?

What might feel like disappointment or completely off kilter with what you thought was “part of the plan,” could actually be just what you need—once you give yourself the chance to see the situation from a different perspective.


  • Knicole 4 years ago

    Fantastically written and such a good read!

  • Alex 4 years ago

    The “shoulds” in life are so hard to ignore! I really enjoyed how you showed how you went from thinking about the expectations of yourself to realizing what you want to do. This is something I can personally relate to, as I too am feeling the angst of a pain gap. It’s the little things in life that matter and being more open to seeing them may lead us to our eye-chart one day. Thanks for the inspiration!