We Just Cheat

By Greg Baer M.D.

July 17, 2018

We Want to Avoid Pain. 

We want to be healthy. We want to do the right things. But in any given moment there is rarely a motivation as strong as the avoidance of pain. Regrettably, the very things that reduce our pain often cause pain in the long term.

Not long ago I had my arthritic and painful right hip replaced by a titanium ball and a socket of plastic. Within a couple of days of the surgery, I began a program of physical rehabilitation (PT) designed to build up the muscles used around the hip joint.

Of necessity, PT is repetitive, so it tends to become monotonous. At one point the therapist pointed out that I was moving my leg in a direction somewhat different from the one he had originally prescribed. I smiled and said, “I was cheating to avoid the pain.” He wasn’t accustomed to hearing a word like “cheating” without a negative connotation, and he’s a naturally kind man, so he said, “You don’t need to be that harsh with yourself. It was just a mistake.”

“The way you prescribed the exercise,” I said, “was designed to strengthen the muscle that was cut during the surgery, and although I didn’t do it consciously, I was still cheating. ‘My way’ made my leg movement a little more comfortable, and although it wasn’t a big thing, it didn’t exercise the muscle in the way that was best for it. We’ll do almost anything to make our pain less. That’s what I mean by cheating, and it hurts us—sometimes a little, as in this case, sometimes a lot.”

Then he understood. “Most people, in fact, don’t do their exercises at all,” he said, “because they want to avoid the pain. But their muscles don’t get stronger. At two weeks post-op, I can tell you every time the people who have done their physical therapy properly, compared to those who haven’t.”

A few days later he was the one smiling when he said, “I see what you were saying now. You were cheating, but since you saw it and started doing the exercise correctly, your muscle is already stronger.”

We want to be healthy. We want to do the right things. But in any given moment there is rarely a motivation as strong as the avoidance of pain. Regrettably, the very things that reduce our pain often cause pain in the long term.

We all want to feel loved—and to be loving and responsible—but pain gets our attention like nothing else, and in order to reduce it, we’ll often make choices that will not lead to our ultimate goals of love and happiness.

How to Make Good Choices In Spite of the Pain

So, how can we stay on the “straight and narrow,” remembering to do what is “right?” We need simply to be reminded—whether by ourselves or others—when we’re making mistakes, which include all the choices that lead us away from the goals we know to be good and true.

My physical therapist wasn’t telling me that I was a terrible person, only that I was making unproductive choices. We all need those reminders—that increased awareness—that will keep us focused on the goals we want, rather than settling for the cheap reward of decreased pain.

Real Life example

Eileen has an adult son, Morris, who has worked harder than anybody I know to avoid work: excuses, excuses, lying, more lying, staying in homeless shelters, standing in line at soup kitchens, begging on the streets, and so on. His favorite trick is to wait until his mother is gone, then go home, where his father, Tom, will give him almost anything he asks for: food, money, a place to stay that night, and more.

One day she described to me how she got home after a long day—anticipating some rest and relaxation—and found Morris there, eating and clearly in no hurry to leave. I’m just sick of this,” she said. “I’m tired of constantly being the one who has to teach him, and then I have my own husband undermining me by letting this adult child behave like he was four years old.”

“Oh, he’s just cheating,” I said. Eileen looked surprised that I would make light of Tom’s behavior, considering how serious I’d been in the past about it being unproductive and unloving. She even said, “But you told me that what Tom was doing was wrong.”

“It is,” I agreed. “So we’ll keep teaching him. He just cheats when he’s in pain. So does Morris. So do you. So do I,” and I described my recent experience with the physical therapist. “So, we just need to stay aware of what is good—what is right—and slowly we’ll begin to do what’s right instead of doing what feels good. When doing the right thing feels good enough consistently, we’ll stop cheating in order to diminish our pain.”

“I do get tired of doing this alone,” Eileen said. "I get tired of doing the hard stuff—holding the line, for example, only to have Tom pull the rug out from under me by letting Morris do whatever he wants, especially stuff that Tom and I AGREED he COULDN’T do.”

“I really understand,” I said. “I’m not telling you this to justify Tom—not at all—but he’s really just cheating. In any given moment he’s just doing whatever it takes to minimize his pain. And yes, I know him. As long as people let him have a reason to minimize his pain, he’ll use it.”

I explained how I unconsciously cheated during physical therapy, just like Tom did emotionally, and she began to understand me. “When I cheat,” I said, it’s unconscious on my part. I don’t MEAN to cheat, and neither does Tom. But I can learn to STOP cheating, once I see that I do it and I can see other options. So can Tom.”

“What if he doesn’t change?” she asked.

“He might not. I just said he COULD. But you can find out what he’s capable of only if YOU change, if you become more loving. It won’t be easy, but the more you do the responsible and committed thing, the more peaceful and powerful you’ll become. Doing the right thing does not mean that other people will always like it, but YOU will like it. Keep going, kid. It’s worth it.”

More on how we hurt our children by temporarily making them “happy” here.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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