How To Overcome The Obstacles Life Throws At You (Or What I Learned From Pulling My Back)

A drawing of the spine, skull, hand, and feet bone structure

I had to jinx it, didn’t I? I had to brag about my unbroken exercise streak. Now I’m sitting at an odd angle trying not to aggravate my pulled back.

It’s nothing serious, but it’s put me out of action for a week so far.

I was livid at first. I hated everything about being injured, and I pity the people who had to deal with me during my denial phase. I needed endorphins, damn it, and it sucked having to deal with life’s problems without that sweet, sweet drug.

Exercise turns down the volume knob in my life, and once I lost that control, even the tiniest things seemed like a mood. I’m not exaggerating when I say that working out is like donning a piece of armour, and I’ve been naked for the past week (not literally, fortunately).

But you know what I always say: A bad life experience makes for a good blog post.

Besides, not having to exercise, mop the floor, bathe, and rinse my clothes has effectively cleared up two hours in my daily schedule.

So other than having more time to pout over my disappearing gains, I’ve also started reflecting on the lessons I’ve gained from this experience, and I have to say, it’s not all bad. I think.

Life doesn’t always go as planned

I know that life likes throwing curveballs at people—just because it can—but that doesn’t stop me from being surprised every time I’m socked in the side of my head with one.

Maybe that’s why I enjoy pushing myself. Because I know that life has so much worse to offer, and being in the pain zone is the only way to weather myself against said future events, like a loved one dying, me getting sick, or another pandemic destroying humanity as we know it.

That’s the first lesson I took from this injury. The reminder that I don’t have full control, and that setbacks can very well appear just when you’re feeling your best.

In my case, struggling to get up from bed when I could swing a kettlebell for hundreds of reps just a few days ago. The sooner I accept the inevitability of change, though, the better.

A weekly spread in a journal, with Micron pen and a pencil

Always be ready for a change of plans. Photo: Elena Mozhvilo

Sometimes you need to focus on what you can do

It’s not all doom and gloom. One good thing about this injury was that it’s stopped me from complaining about all the things I can’t do. So I pulled my back. What now? What could I do today?

Well, I’ve always had bad shoulder mobility (tore both of them during sparring) so now’s a great time to catch up on them stretches. I’ve extended my meditation sessions too. Plus, I’ve been experimenting with different positions, something I’d never have done had life went on as usual. My diet’s tighter now as well, since this is the only other factor that directly affects my performance.

At this rate, it’s hard to say whether or not the injury was a bad or good thing. I’d like to think that either way, I’d be right.

Realise that you’ll never be alone

We as a species have existed for hundreds of thousands of years, and as unique as we’d like to think our troubles are, there are definitely people who’ve been through the exact same thing (or worse).

And that’s a comfortable thought when I’m bored and yearning to go out for a run. I’m not alone, and even elite athletes go through the same thing, like David Goggins did after his leg surgery.

If he’d managed to find the positives in his situation, then there was no way I couldn’t. Plus, he had a beast of a caption to go along with it too.

Everything in life comes down to how you look at it. When the doctor told me I wouldn’t be able to run for a few months, I just said “So?” He was surprised to see that I wasn’t bothered by it knowing how much I ran. 

The reason I said “so” was because I knew this would be a great opportunity for me to take myself to a whole new level both mentally and physically. You can’t ever do that unless you are forced to change the very things you are used to doing. —David Goggins

Every day is a new opportunity

I’m still feeling the pain today, but at least I can walk. All I could do yesterday was waddle. Just one week ago I was probably the fittest I’d ever been.

But all the befores and afters don’t matter anymore. Tomorrow isn’t promised, and yesterday has already passed. What I have is today or, more specifically, this moment.

Right now is when I hold the most power to change my life. Not ‘after work when I don’t need to deal with paperwork’, or ‘on the weekends when I have more time’. It’s the constant ‘now’ that offers all of life’s possibilities.

So I’ve stopped dwelling on the better days, and wishing to return to a hundred percent.

I can walk today. So I will.

Times of physical rest is a good time to look within

Wanna know a secret? I’m actually a mental pansy. I always stop a few reps short from the real pain zone, and I have a pretty low constitution when it comes to discomfort.

Which is why being injured has been a blessing in disguise, because it’s allowed me to realise just how much I have to work on mentally.

Like, why do I always procrastinate? Why is it so hard to stick to a clean diet? And why is writing so much harder than exercising?

Just like how our other senses heighten when we’re blindfolded, so too did my mental shortcomings come to the fore once I’d lost the crutch of physical exercise. Sure, it’s not going to be fun, but it’s much better than sweeping everything under the mental rug.

So thank you, bad back!

A man wearing a headlamp looking at the stars in the night sky

The mind’s as vast as the universe once we take the time to explore it. Photo: Josh Gordon

Beware, it’s very easy to spiral out of control

I forgot where I heard this, but someone once said that we are all one mistake away from being homeless, and I can agree, because I was certainly tempted to slide down that spiral of negativity myself.

I’d dropped my other good habits the moment I got injured. No cold showers, no waking up early, no clean diets, all because I needed my comforts to heal. Someone needs to tell past-me that eating a pint of ice-cream isn’t exactly the best path to recovery. I figured that since I’d already dropped my other good habits, I might as well make my injury time count.

But then it got worse. I actually thought of drinking.

I had stopped drinking the same time I started exercising every day, which was close to the half-year mark when I hurt my back. But I was already eating ice-cream, right? What’s one more vice?

The only thing that saved me was that I hadn’t meditated for the day, and I didn’t want to do that with alcohol in my system. Had I not cultivated that habit, I’d probably have drank all the way till this moment.

Like a chain of dominos, habits can either make or break us. I was fortunate to have maintained a long line of good habits—each acting as a bulwark against my vices.

Because of that, I’ve since taken my habits more seriously, because all it takes is one slip to fully cave in to my lesser self.

Life happens for you

If there’s anything you take away from this post, I hope it’s that you can always interpret the same event from different perspectives.

Sure, I can complain about how I still can’t pick up the kettlebell, but if you look at it from this article’s perspective, it’s also been a time of improvement in my many other aspects of life.

Last week, I saw my injury as the end to my endorphin sessions. Today, it’s a catalyst for this article.

And you know what? Judging from how hard I find writing to be, I’d have to say that that’s a pretty good deal.


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43 thoughts on “How To Overcome The Obstacles Life Throws At You (Or What I Learned From Pulling My Back)

  1. It’s so easy to figure “what the heck” and let everything else slip, too. But to be aware that that is what you are doing is the first key to not doing it. Best wishes for a healthy recovery!

  2. I really like your attitude Stuart. I applaud it. I hurt my knee recently and had a small test of what you are talking about. It’s mostly healed and I can still hike but I was very scared it might be permanent. Exercise is like armour, excellent metaphor. I was not happy to be naked. Thank you as usual for both your insight and your attitude. I hope you heal soon!

    • That permanent thing sucks, doesn’t it? I tore my abdominal wall right before the pandemic (sparring again), and I’ve never really felt the same.

      I haven’t had the chance to see if I could hold my own on the grappling mats, since social distancing has rendered contact sports taboo, but yeah, I totally relate to wondering if you can ever be your old self.

      But no matter what happens, we still need to move forward with all the changes, yeah? Thanks so much for your kind words!

  3. Sounds like all your good habits will get you through this. I’m glad you see it as a way to consolidate the lessons you’ve learned. I’ll have to remember this next time I’m sidelined by something. Hope you feel better soon.

  4. Gosh we could swop sob stories bro! I have had an on-off back pain for several years now (don’t ask). Plus a new problem — a painful nerve from master hand to elbow thanks to constant typing and pinching action over my laptop keyboard and touchpad respectively. Daily “ouch-ing” is a norm for me now sob sob. Your piece here’s a good reminder to take better self-care. So I’ll start by stopping my typing here LOL! But keep these excellent write-ups coming Stu!! Alw uplifting to read *two (ouch) thumbs up”!

    • Ha ha, I see your writing wit has lent itself well to your comments too, because this was a great one to read.

      But yeah, when it comes to wear and tear, I actually don’t mind the ones caused by exertion.

      I get pretty frustrated when they come out of nowhere though, like when I bend to pick something up, or if I use the mouse too much.

      But no matter which one it is, the best is still to go with acceptance. Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by, Kelvin!

  5. wonderful post reflecting on how you benefited from your injury. You can’t more of a positive attitude than that…

    and how nice it was to have habits you could fall back on…

    best of luck with your recovery…

  6. Sorry to hear about the back injury. These are FANTASTIC tips though. My partner and I are sadly going through a really difficult life obstacle right now – one of the most significant ones he’s ever been through for sure so these tips will come in particularly handy x

    • Am doing much better since the date of posting.

      The words ‘significant’ and ‘obstacle’ make for a scary combination, and I wish both of you well. I really appreciate you stopping by, Jenny!

  7. Noticed a couple of things…your impressive writing and your knack for putting words on a blog in a way that makes the inexpressible express-able.
    Hope you’re feeling better Stuart. You need to get a hang of your 2 left feet tho and be careful. Being accident prone is not safe and these are already hard times mate. Stay safe and take care

  8. Hello! Take care and speedy recovery! Your good humour and positivity will surely make this more bearable to go through! Thankfully it is just a pulled back and not permanent 🙂

  9. Sorry to hear about your injury and wishing you a speedy recovery! I love how much you’ve taken this in your stride and tried to see the positives in the situation – it can really make a huge difference!

    I get what you mean – I sprained my wrist last year while on a fitness kick and I was gutted that I couldn’t keep up with my streak of smashing through my workout calendar. However, I didn’t realise that I was probably pushing myself a little harder than I should have done, so having to put that side of things on pause for a few weeks meant I could take a proper amount of time off to rest.

    Hope you’re feeling better soon!

    • Oh yeah, I sometimes think about it that way too—that my injury was just my body’s way of asking me to take a break so that I can come back stronger. And that can’t be a bad thing at all.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. It was a joy reading this. Am definitely feeling better since the date of publication, but no heavy stuff yet, for sure.

  10. I dislike the alliterative ‘slippery slope’ and probably use it way too often, but that is what I first thought of, and happily discovered tools to turn ‘oh no!’ Into ‘So?’ Thank you! Chris

  11. Stuart! Thank you for stopping by my blog! I hope you will give your body the time it needs to heal and that you will be feeling a little better every day. :-)

  12. Such great advice here, and wonderful words of wisdom. Next time I’m suffering a setback, I’ll think about appreciating the good things, instead of dwelling on the negative. Thanks for sharing this!

    • What a lovely comment to wake up to. And thank you so much for stopping by! I remember your name and hope you’re enjoying your decade of blogging! Here’s to always looking on the positive side.

  13. Hope you are on the mend now…gosh back injuries are the absolute worst. Please ease back in slowly even once you feel recovered!!
    And thank you for sharing this positive reflection. What especially stuck with me is when you said how good habits reinforce each other, like how your meditation practice helped you keep your sobriety. the chain of dominoes is a meaningful analogy.

    • Thanks so much for the specific and thoughtful comment. I love knowing which bits of the article worked for you.

      Am definitely easing back into, meaning no kettlebells for the time being, even though I’m feeling pretty all right now.

      And yes, I’d rank back injuries on par with toothaches (maybe slightly better because it’s not chronic), and they’re definitely one of the worst injuries when it comes to staying active. Anyway, thanks again!

    • Am definitely feeling much better since the time of posting. Not going to return to kettlebells just yet, but I’m able to exercise now and am grateful for it. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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