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How I Learned to Love Discomfort

...and how you can, too. A Personal Perspective.

Key points

  • Having the right mindset can make a difficult journey feel a lot more doable.
  • If we learn how to shift our mindsets, we can start to love the discomfort that comes on the way to achieving our goals.
  • Just because you’re struggling doesn’t mean you’re failing.
Angelo Pantazis/Unsplash
Source: Angelo Pantazis/Unsplash

Recently, I’ve been training for an upcoming hiking adventure in the Smokey Mountains. I’ll be hiking a 2,000-3,000-foot mountain. I began training a couple of months ago, building my endurance and breaking in my brand-new hiking boots. I was well on my way to getting stronger…until I got Covid. Not only was I out of commission for weeks, but when I went back to train, my body felt like I was back to below square one.

Then, I took a two-week vacation to Arkansas, where I did some hiking, but mostly I toured the city of Hot Springs, relaxed on boats, ziplined, swam, kayaked, and went tubing. So, not a lot of training happened on that trip, which I have zero regrets about.

Now, I have one month to get ready for this hike. I thought that would be no problem. I’m no stranger to doing hard things. But when I finally began training again, it turned out I was struggling in a way I wasn’t used to.

To kickstart my training, I went to the Ocean City, NJ, bridge with my husband. It’s a four-mile walk with some small hills, and it seemed like a good place to begin. It should have been easy. In fact, I did it weeks before with friends, and it was easy. But that day, it was hard. Maybe it was from having Covid recently, maybe it was from sitting on my ass relaxing on vacation, or maybe it was just an extremely hot day. Whatever the reason, I could tell without a doubt that I was in worse shape than I’d been in for many years.

Every time we walked—or you might say struggled—up a hill, I felt winded and weak. I’d stop at the top, breathing heavily and sucking water from my water bottle. I felt angry. I was angry that something that was supposed to be easy was hard. I was angry that I was so out of shape. I felt shame for struggling to walk up those hills.

I complained to my husband Calvin for most of the four miles we walked. My husband, bless his heart, was amazing. He let me freak out. He encouraged me. And he supported me. Through talking to him, I realized that he, too, was struggling. But he wasn’t complaining about it to me or thinking negatively about it to himself, either. I, on the other hand, had been talking about how horrible the walk was, how hard it was, how out of shape I was, how upset I was, and on and on the whole time.

That’s when it hit me that I was making the walk way more difficult and painful than it really was.

If you have a challenging task to do, and you tell yourself how awful it’s going to be, you make it much harder to begin or finish that task. If you tell yourself how incapable you are, you make it way more difficult to feel motivated to keep trying. My negative thoughts were making the hike feel way harder than it was and making me feel way weaker than I was. I was crushing my own motivation. I was ensuring that every step would be hard because I was telling myself (and my husband) that it was.

When we approached the final hill, I decided to think positively. I told myself how amazing I was doing and how strong I was. I reminded myself that I needed to do something hard in order to get stronger; I didn’t want something easy. I told myself that when it gets uncomfortable, it’s moving me forward. I told myself I’ve got this and cheered myself on. Then, as we went up the hill, and it felt challenging, I paid attention to my breath instead of continuing to think.

Can you guess what happened?

That last hill was a breeze. It was not smaller than the other hills. The only difference was I wasn’t walking while beating myself down. I told myself I could do it. I invited the discomfort because it was evidence that I was working and growing.

After that day, I continued to train. I found myself leaning into discomfort whenever possible, even outside the gym. My confidence grew each time I faced discomfort instead of turning away from it and choosing comfort—and the stagnancy that comes with it. The rewards of shifting my relationship with discomfort have spread far beyond fitness. I’ve noticed decreased procrastination, increased productivity, and an overall positive feeling of self-worth. It’s amazing what happens when we change our mindset!

We’ve all heard before that nothing worth having comes easily.

Yet, when we try to reach our goals, and it’s hard, we assume we’ll never get there. We don’t embrace the struggle as part of the journey. When something doesn’t happen on the timeline we think it should, we fear we’ll never catch up. We don’t embrace uncertainty as part of the process of change. And when we fail, we assume that’s it—we tried, we failed, and now we have to grieve the loss of the goals we imagined achieving one day. We don’t embrace failure as information to guide us as we continue to work on those goals.

In many ways, we have unrealistic expectations of what the “hard” should look like on the way to achieving our goals and dreams. And when the self-doubt, the negativity, the resistance to discomfort, the self-judgment, and all the other versions of “hard” show up as we work to achieve our goals, we tell ourselves to give up instead of seeing those experiences as signs that we’re working toward something worth having or doing.

Training to hike mountains is a good reminder for me that in order to improve in any area of life, we need to get uncomfortable. And the discomfort will likely include negative thoughts, uncertainty, and fear. What we do with those thoughts and what we choose to do with our minds can help us or hinder us. If we learn how to shift our mindsets, we can start to love the discomfort that comes on the way to achieving our goals.

Whether your goal is to hike a mountain, run a marathon, start online dating, start couples therapy, shift careers, take a new job, or something else, having the right mindset will make the journey a lot more doable. Practice the following mindset shifts so you can embrace the journey, and so you don’t give up when it gets hard:

1. Don’t believe your fearful and negative thoughts when you’re doing something hard.

Those thoughts are part of what makes doing important things, growing, and changing so challenging. There’s a part of you who wants to stay where you are and resist change. That part craves comfort, and those fearful and negative thoughts are coming to drive you away from growth and back to the familiar or comfortable.

2. Start embracing discomfort as a positive.

Discomfort is a sign you’re growing. If you dream of something important, something more than what you currently are or have, you’re going to need to grow. That means you’re going to get uncomfortable. If you interpret that discomfort to mean that something is wrong with you or what you’re doing, you’ll make your journey significantly more difficult. If you embrace it as necessary to reach your goals, you’ll lighten your mental burden, making it easier to progress.

3. Get support.

Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that discomfort—fear, hopelessness, self-judgment, etc.—is part of the journey. Make sure you have someone in your corner who can remind you that you’re on the right road and that it’s not an easy road to travel. But if what you want is at the end of that road, be uncomfortable again and again until you get there, and you can let that discomfort go.

Remember, just because you’re struggling, it doesn’t mean you’re failing. Just because you’re uncomfortable and it’s hard doesn’t mean something is wrong. Struggle and discomfort come on the road to something better.

More from Caitlin Cantor LCSW, CST, CGT
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