The Dark Side of Mind Over Matter

The phrase “mind over matter” has always been a positive mantra for me. It speaks of the mind’s ability to confer strength and endurance when all physical reserves are exhausted. Whenever I think of people facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, who succeed in overcoming them (apparently unscathed and not even a little bitter!), I’m astonished at the resilience of the human mind.

picture of man bending a spoon with his mindPhoto by Guy Bavli, Wikimedia Commons

The will to soldier on regardless of circumstance and suffering, however, has its dark side. And sometimes the mind only seems to overcome matter.

For example, as a teenager, I went to meet my best friend on the way to take our final exam for the sophomore year. I rang the doorbell and her mother answered with a shocking and horrifying announcement. My friend was in the hospital, the victim of an (apparently) intentional overdose. Her mother refused to give me any more information beyond that stark statement. In a daze, I continued on to school and wrote the English exam. I remember being surprised at my ability to think clearly and still ace the exam (I thought) in spite of my swirling emotions. In fact, my mind fooled me into thinking it was firing on all cylinders in spite of my despair—I pushed through on sheer will and determination, but didn’t take care of myself, or my friend and, not surprisingly, bombed the English exam.

This past weekend, I was reminded once again that sometimes willpower is just willfulness; and that independence, when taken to the extreme, looks a lot like recklessness. I had a fall and went over on my ankle badly. It swelled up like a multi-colored party balloon. I wrapped it in ice and figured I’d tough it out. Most of my energy went into finding ways to manage without help, since I really couldn’t put my foot down. I dragged my sorry carcass to the family dinner on Sunday and tried to minimize the situation, all the while telling myself to focus and mentally master the pain.

Two days later, after being badgered by friends and family, I finally had it x-rayed. Turns out both my ankle and my foot are broken. No amount of mind was going to fix that matter.

In business, we strive to reframe problems as opportunities. In the workplace, we sometimes expect people, including ourselves, to overcome emotional and physical anguish by the strength of will alone—much like the physical trainer who says “push through it, no pain, no gain!” But experienced trainers know there is good pain and bad pain.

Good pain comes from pushing our boundaries consistently and intelligently to foster growth and development. Bad pain comes from pushing too hard, ignoring underlying damage or injury, and not taking the time to rest and recover. Bad pain comes from being too stubborn to admit we need help or, most recently, an x-ray!

There is no question that “the brain has a distinct power to manipulate the body’s physiology.”[1] But even the most resilient mind has its limitations and sometimes we need a more practical course of action to bolster a positive frame of mind. Positive thinking combined with positive action will lead to far better results. And sometimes the most positive action we can take, when something damaging happens, is to accept our vulnerability and ask for help.


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[1] S. Grant 10 Amazing Examples of Mind Over Matter

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