It probably comes as no surprise that these were not easy nor comfortable activities to engage in. In fact, they were inconceivable to me, too, at one time. Like most people, I’m not a fan of being uncomfortable and generally don’t intentionally put myself in positions that don’t feel good nor have obvious benefits to them. But in one case, I was yearning for improvement, and in the other, I was just curious. So rather than resisting advice and suggestions of people I trusted, I chose to explore the idea that what seemed unfathomable to me might actually have merit. It turned out that exposing myself to discomfort – embracing the suck – brought benefits, gifts even, that I couldn’t predict.
Finally Embracing It
I’d been a runner for decades – not fast, but consistent – and somehow had long avoided injury. At one point, we lived for 5-years on the West coast, and enjoyed terrain not available in the SE Virginia tidal basin, where we’d been for 15 years. After embracing the suck of running up hills, my body adapted and I came to love trail running. When we moved back to flatland, VA, I developed injuries related to the repetition of pounding on cement with no altitude variation. For the first time, I was physically unable to run for months. In desperation to heal, I softened to the encouragement of a friend who was a hot yoga practitioner. It sounded miserable to me – I hated being hot! What could be worse than sweating inside a breezeless room with a bunch of strangers? I finally conceded when she said, “I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s the same cleansing feel you get after a run on a really hot, muggy day, without any of the pain and fatigue – it’s actually invigorating.” That analogy opened the door for me, as it actually made sense to me; it shifted my rigid perspective of misery in a sweat box. So I tried it, survived it (surprise!), just once a week, then twice, and after several classes started to realize benefits I couldn’t have predicted. My pain and stiffness receded. I was able to move more flexibly in everyday activities (picking things up off the floor, getting in and out of the car). And it felt like a workout in ways regular yoga never did for me. But the thing that kept me coming back was a sense of accomplishment. I’d done an uncomfortable, hard thing. And now I’m running again – slow and steady, but forward.
Immersing my entire body in cold water was a different story. I hate being cold! (I have an ambient comfort zone that exists strictly between 68 and 72 degrees.) People who did that were really over the top or from Iceland (or Norway, or any number of other cultures and regions populated by generally healthy people. Hmmm.) But again, it was a friend who had started a regular plunging practice, and who I otherwise knew wasn’t bonkers, who opened the door to discomfort for me. Learning from podcasts, articles, and personal tales of the benefits of cold exposure also had me curious about whether this was something I could consider. So, on a trip to Seattle in late January to see family, my adult daughter and I donned swimsuits and with 2 other friends and 2 people I’d never met, walked into frigid Lake Washington and submerged ourselves up to our necks. We’d agreed beforehand that if we stayed in for 30 seconds, it would be a win. Every part of my body resisted and argued against the icy needles of insult. A calm reminder from my friend that my insides were still perfectly warm, and the presence of other experienced plungers who seemed to delight in the experience, allowed me to breathe a little more deeply and counter the constricting, breath-holding instinct that arrives with cold exposure. The flood of endorphins others described escaped me, but after 4+ minutes (!) we walked back out to the relative warmth of the 42 degree air, and I was jolted by the joy I felt around having done such a thing. Again, it was a feeling of accomplishment, like one might experience only after long, arduous strife and sacrifice. But this effort was relatively brief, free, accessible to anyone, and dependent on no one but me. I wasn’t anxious to go immediately back in, but the door had now opened to the thought, “this is something I can do.” We celebrated with lattes and breakfast sandwiches.
The Gift of the Embrace
Nudging yourself into voluntary discomfort is hard. But I liked what Oliver Burkeman said recently about just doing what’s important: when you dip your toe in, “you’ll feel satisfied you did a bit of it, while also strengthening the muscle of confidence and self-trust that you’ll be able to do more of it later.” It makes more possible, whether you’re decluttering, sorting and organizing a room or taking steps to improve your health and longevity, or just proving to yourself that you’re capable of things you never imagined you could or would want to do. Increasing the chances of doing “more of it later” is what really moves the needle.
There are lots of ways to get uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s just doing the opposite of what feels good. What discomfort are you willing to embrace? Consider these takeaways from my experience.
- Surround yourself with Inspiration: Ideally real people! The person you are – or want to be – is influenced by who you surround yourself with. Take the lead of someone you know and admire who is doing something that feels uncomfortable to you. You can also read books, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, or follow individuals who have achieved what you aspire to.
- Embrace Discomfort: Accept that growth often involves discomfort. Embrace the feeling of being outside your comfort zone as a sign of progress and accomplishment.
- Start Small to Expand Your Comfort Zone: Gradually expand your comfort zone by doing what is just a little bit hard at first to make it more manageable. If a particular task seems too daunting, start with a smaller version of it. Start with a cabinet instead of your whole house. Work for 5 minutes instead of devoting a whole weekend. You can gradually increase the difficulty or time, if you want. Chip away.
- Challenge What Gets in Your Way/Negative Self-Talk: Be aware of your inner critic – your Saboteurs – and challenge negative thoughts that may hold you back. Recognize that you can control the words you hear and how they make you feel. You can change them.
- Stay Curious: Keep looking for opportunities to learn and explore new perspectives, even if they initially make you uncomfortable. Explore perspectives that baffle you – there’s a lot of opportunity there.
- Enlist a Partner: Share your ideas with a trusted friend, mentor, or coach who can join you, help you, hold you accountable and cheer you on.
- Celebrate!: Acknowledge and celebrate your achievements, no matter how small they seem.