Becoming Comfortable with Discomfort
Updated: Mar 1, 2020
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
Haruki Murakami, author, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
I lined up with the nearly 40,000 others on Columbus Drive with butterflies in my stomach. I had spent the previous five months training for something that, until just recently, had been unthinkable. Just five years before, I was overweight and couldn’t even run to the end of the (short) block. And now, I was bouncing up and down with nervous energy, waiting for the starting horn of the 2012 Chicago Marathon.
I can run long, but not fast. More than five hours of nonstop running lay ahead of me, and despite having trained religiously, I still wasn’t sure if I could do it. My training had only taken me up to 20 miles, and it was really difficult to imagine tacking on another six…err…rather, 6.2. (Anyone who’s ever run Chicago knows that last .2 mile is up the only hill in the city of Chicago, known by marathoners not-so-lovingly as Mount Roosevelt. It’s a punishing finale to the otherwise flat course.)
My coaches had told me over and over to trust my training. Over the summer, I started chalking up my longest distances ever. After every one, I’d say to my coach, “OK, that was 14. How am I going to run two more next week?” And my coach would always say, “Well...you just will.” And she was right. I just did. Week after week of adding on just a little more than the week before helped condition not just my body, but also my brain to believe that I’d just run whatever was required of me.
So it was October 7, 2012, and there I was, former fat girl about to become first-time marathoner, if I could only muster up what was required to finish those unknown 6.2 miles.
I didn’t know if I could finish. But one thing I knew for sure: I was not going to finish a marathon if I never started a marathon. And once I started, I wasn’t about to let some pain and discomfort get in my way of finishing.
I recall something a fellow runner said during training that stuck with me: “If you run marathons, you get really comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Think about some of your biggest accomplishments. How many (if any) of them came to you easily? What went through your brain as you contemplated taking the steps needed to accomplish this thing? What did you do when things got uncomfortable? What was special about that situation that made you push through and finish it?
A lot of us have big dreams and ideas. But we often let doubt, fear or complacency get in the way of actually achieving them. We allow discomfort to take our eyes off the finish line, giving up when things get tough.
But discomfort is a part of life. It serves a purpose, teaching us something every step of the course. And, just like running a marathon, pushing through that discomfort to achieve something that once seemed impossible delivers the most incredible feeling of accomplishment. Why do you think people run marathons over and over?
President Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
So knowing all of this, why do we let discomfort get in the way of reaching our goals and dreams? The better question is: How can we be sure that discomfort doesn’t thwart these goals and dreams?
Here’s my four-step secret…
Step 1: Break It Down into Baby Steps.
Most big goals have lots of moving parts that can be overwhelming, to the point of stopping us before we even start. When training for a marathon, you break down the process of conditioning your body for endurance by gradually adding on a couple of miles each week. It’s the same with any big goal: Break it down into small, manageable steps that seem easy to achieve and build on each other.
Step 2: Make a Plan. Then Stick to It!
Now that you have your small steps, map them out in a big plan, with timing milestones. And then, commit to this plan. Treat it just as importantly as you would anything else that’s important in your life or work. Find someone to keep you accountable. Then tackle each step with focus, and celebrate when you hit milestones. My race training team always celebrated long training runs with brunch or a couple beers. Those hot, painful miles were easier knowing a reward was waiting at the end.
Step 3: Trust Your Training.
When you start to doubt whether you can do it, remember that your past experiences have prepared you for this. You have all the tools and skills you need to nail it, even if your brain is trying to tell you otherwise. If you’ve stuck with your plan, you WILL achieve your goal. You just will. Marathoners who peak their training at 20 miles just believe their training will carry them to the finish. Quitting isn’t an option.
Step 4: Remember the Reason.
Why is this goal important to you? What would it bring that you don’t currently have? Remember why you decided to take on this challenge. When I decided to run marathons, I decided to attach myself to a cause I valued. Not only did that give me an instant support network, but when things got tough, I remembered the reason I was running, which was much bigger than just the satisfaction of finishing a marathon. Create a visual board of all the things achieving this goal will bring to you. Revisit it DAILY, especially when the going gets tough.
If you follow these four steps, I know that you’ll accomplish the thing. You just have to train yourself to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Embrace it, knowing that it means you’re on to something good. And once you do, you’ll be unstoppable.
As "The 4-Hour Workweek" author Tim Ferriss says, "The most important actions are never comfortable." What’s a big goal you’ve been avoiding because of the fear of discomfort, in whatever form? Coaching will help you get out of your own way and make it happen.
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