What chronic back pain has taught me about life.
I love being active. Not because I’m good at sports — I was never a star athlete or anything — but because being active makes me feel productive and convinces me that I am not a sluggish, good-for-nothing lazy-ass. Although I (fortunately) do not have an unhealthy obsession with dieting/working out, being an active person had become a feel-good drug that I got myself hooked on: I felt amazing when I went running after only getting a few hours of sleep, and felt horrible when I failed to work out as often as I wanted to.
It began when I hit a very low point in life during my third year in college. I was dealing with episodes of depression, slept at 3–4 AM daily, and barely made time to work out. $1.5 pizza slices and $3.75 subs were part of my regular diet. When it was time to go back to campus after spending the entire summer back in Indo, I had to bring my Mom with me because I was so scared to go.
I decided to turn my life around in the Fall, beginning with my health. I started doing 7 AM hot yoga, which led to hitting the gym, which then led to doing a bunch of ClassPass classes. At that point, I was also having digestion issues which prevented me from eating meat — pushing me to cook healthier food and incorporate a vegetarian diet in my meals. Soon enough I was working out 3 to 4 times a week, cooking plant-based every now and then, and taking my life back both mentally and physically. I began to embody the “active girl” identity which I brought home after graduation. I didn’t realize it back then, but I had placed my security and affirmation on that label.
But Covid happened and gyms had to close due to quarantine restrictions. To kill time, I began cooking a lot — pasta, noodles, bread. I stay up late to binge Netflix shows and stopped working out.
When I moved to Bali last year, work became more lax and I suddenly had too much time in my hands, which I used to work out every morning. I spent my mornings surfing, doing CrossFit classes, playing tennis, or running at the beach (everything was open in Bali). It was then when I started to reactivate that association in my mind. I started latching on to the sense of accomplishment so much to compensate for the slack that I was experiencing at work. I was obsessed with the feeling of productivity, so when the pace at work was not giving me that, I had to find a substitute. That substitute was being active.
Growing up, I’ve had problems with my back and neck but never took medical action to fix them. I used to love getting massages because my neck was always stiff, but that was the extent of the discomfort.
The problems came back last year as I went back to training after over a year of sedentary life. I began to have constant pain in my hip, back, and thighs; but I didn’t want to stop — why would I waste a good, free morning to sleep in? So I kept going despite getting injured every other day.
Once, I forced myself to go running and play tennis after an intense 3-day crunch where I only had 14 hours of sleep in total. It resulted in a hip injury that made me unable to walk normally for the whole week. I decided that it was my breaking point and I didn’t want to end up as a 25-year old with a hip replacement.
I have now started on my journey to get better by doing regular physiotherapy, Pilates classes, and personal training. Apparently, I have what is called a flat back, which is a precursor to kyphosis. My glutes are not strong enough to keep my spine activated, and it causes me to continuously put pressure on my hips, quads, and knees. I have minimal body mobility and have been using all the wrong muscles to move, which has intensified the tension that already exists in the first place.
The journey in acknowledging, accepting, and fixing my back pain has taught me lessons that are parallel to what I’ve experienced in life and work. Let me share the two main takeaways of my journey:
1. Intention trumps intensity
“If others could do all that, I should do all those.”
This was the mindset I had when it came to work. I thought that using others (e.g., colleagues, seniors, peers) as benchmark for my performance was an effective way to self-motivate. After all, these were good comparisons: people with success stories that anyone would want to follow.
From senior year of college until my first year at a my job, I had a mental checklist of what my version of successful people do: activities, skills, accomplishments, etc. I thought that having everything under my belt will provide me the best chance of success. If I just equip myself with the all credentials that these people have, I should be able to replicate their successes. As a result, I spent my last year of college scrambling to fill my checklist: taking the toughest classes, enrolling in multiple online courses (e.g., basic Python, which I have no longer have any recollection of), and volunteering in several different programs (e.g., participating in a random UN organization I’d only heard of once). Everyday was an intense race to put as many things possible in my experience “rucksack”.
While being knee-deep in the intensity and zeal of the moment, I completely missed out on defining my end goal. I was so laser-focused in following the paths of others that I forgot to forge my own. This led to a never-ending cycle of imposter syndrome — since I didn’t have a finish line, I never knew when to stop the chase. Eventually, after 2–3 years of dwelling in imposter syndrome, I learned that the only way to break free was to understand that some limits are not meant to be pushed.
Since beginning my back pain recovery, I’ve only been able to do light exercises. I am relearning squats with 8–10kg dumbbells and 30 second planks with the right posture twice a week. I am learning to accept that while most people can do heavy deadlifts just fine, I probably won’t be able to do the same — at least for now.
Before starting personal training, I did CrossFit classes that have everything on the menu. I put maximum effort in doing an array of so many different things, hardly ever focusing on mastering a movement or achieving a certain milestone. Now, I spend 2 hours in training doing just 2–3 movements, repeating the same action for the hundredth time just to get it right (just last week, my trainer made me repeat picking up the bar 10x). After working out, I don’t feel as exhausted compared to CrossFit or HIIT. My trainer always makes sure that I stop right before I experience muscle fatigue, even if I’m not yet tired.
I didn’t get it at first. I used to think that workouts had to be intense in order to be effective. Stopping before I’m dead felt strange, like I wasn’t putting in enough work. However, after seeing that this new way of training actually made visible progress from just a few sessions — I was sold.
Similarly, there are certain boundaries that I had to accept in terms of personal and professional development. Benchmarking myself against other people’s limits is not realistic.
In yoga, it’s very common for the teacher to ask: “what is your intention for today’s practice?” at the beginning of class. Obviously, 21-year old me doing yoga in college failed to get the point of this habit. Intention for what? I just wanted to sweat and go about my day.
Recently, I’m starting to understand the merit of setting one’s intention. Intensity is almost useless without intention. My hard work could’ve been much more efficient had I been more directive with what I was doing — narrowing my focus to invest only on the most crucial things (like my rounded posture). Less is actually more.
Investing on the few skills, experiences, or projects with the highest ROIs is much more effective than putting my finger in every pie. In contrast, not knowing where to zero-in on will result in wasted opportunity cost. Just like how I made minimal, even negative progress in trying to do all movements at once just because everyone in HIIT / CrossFit class did them, any attempt to maximize my professional portfolio by being a “jack of all trades” (e.g., taking a Python class despite having 0 interest in coding) only costed me time that otherwise could’ve been used for other things (e.g., cooking, chilling, sleeping). Having too much on your plate would inevitably prevent you from capitalizing on the things that matter.
2. Not all pains matter
Hustle culture has created the illusion that being busy, overworked, and tired is the norm and requirement for ambitious young professionals. While no one would actually say that they loved being busy, this norm is undeniably thick within our society — everywhere you see tech bros posting Google Cals full of meetings like a Tetris screen, consultants loudly complaining to everyone about their “80-hour workweek”, and entrepreneurs saying amen to sleep deprivation in the name of #girlboss. The plethora of memes on pages like Ecommurz only acts as a social artifact saying that overworking is in. “Busy-ness” has become a badge of honor signaling that you are an ambitious professional working for a branded company. Being able to relate to these memes is almost an invitation to join the “camaraderie” and “class” of tired (but ambitious), overworked (but smart), underpaid (but nevertheless, part of top Indonesian unicorns) employees.
If we’re being honest, most would agree that a lot of this habit is a form of humble bragging. It is a sadomasochistic culture where we adapt to crave the hustle and take pride in it. Toxic hustle culture is not a culture but a trap, which I fell into as a fresh graduate out of college. Everyday I used to think of all the extra things I could do, or had to do, in order to prove my worth and be as successful as my peers. I ended up doing things just for the sake of doing, because other people seemed to have so much going on in their lives compared to myself. Needless to say, it was a soul-crushing, sleep-depriving, mentally draining lifestyle that I put myself onto.
My recovery journey has given me the ability to assess pain. Every day, I am learning to pay very close attention to sensations in my body, identifying wherever there is discomfort. Even in simple movements, like bridges or stretches, I am learning to stop and acknowledge whenever there is the slightest hint of pain.
I used to think that pain was part of the process, an inevitable outcome of working out, and was the cost I needed to bear in order to get fit. Now, I understand that pain isn’t something I had to “pull through” over. Pain shouldn’t be acceptable, let alone worth it. I had put my body in so much unnecessary pain which didn’t even produce visible results — in a way, similar to how I forced myself into the unsustainable ‘hustle’.
As I train to reset my movements, I started noticing a different pain unlike what I was used to before. My physiotherapist told me that this is the kind of pain he is looking for, that tells him I have been doing the right things to fix my body. This new kind of pain is my body’s reaction as it gains strength at the right places. It is a sign of growth, and my posture is already showing progress in the right direction as of now.
I learned that the antithesis of pain is not a state of no pain. Rather, the journey to eliminating pain requires my muscles to stretch and grow — all resulting in a different, but better, type of pain.
As young professionals, we need to put more mindshare in assessing our feelings, not as a mental health fad like the many “self-care” social media movements out there, but to really take time and reflect: is the pain I’m feeling now worth suffering for? Am I feeling sore on the right places? Is this a signal of growth, or an illusionary badge of honor?
We tend to see hardship as a requisite to success. The truth is, while some pains are necessary for progress, a lot of them are not. Removing myself from all kinds of unnecessary pain was eventually the key to sustaining a happy, content life that is still professionally and personally productive. For me, this means allowing for a wider margin of error at work and accepting slightly less-than-perfect outputs. While this could result in not always being “best-in-class”, I value the extra time and lifestyle that this trade-off provides (this choice depends on your value compass — what may be valuable for me might not be for you).
Growth almost always comes with pain, but pain does not always equal to growth. The truth is, mindlessly forcing through exhaustion in the name of hustling will only disappoint. Without being brutally honest with ourselves, there is risk in finding that the pain we have chosen to endure does not translate into the right progress.