Learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable

Over the past few years I’ve gotten considerably faster as a runner, cutting my PRs by about a third at all of the major distances from the mile to the marathon.  I’m still not super fast, but I guess you could say I’m normal person fast.  I’ve been asked a few times to write about how I did it, and the truth is that I didn’t really do anything special.  I just followed the standard suggestions you’ll find in any running publication: regular speed work and tempo runs, running with faster people, strength training, a bit of fat loss so I was carrying less body weight when I ran.

But it’s occurred to me that there’s one big thing I’ve done that I’ve never seen mentioned in any of those “how to get faster” lists, and that’s making the conscious decision to embrace discomfort.

In the past whenever I tried to push myself, I’d notice that I was breathing harder or my muscles were burning or that I felt like I was going to throw up, and I’d back off. In retrospect, it’s hard to say what exactly it was I was so afraid of. I think it was mostly that instinct towards pain avoidance that’s part of most people’s psychological wiring.  My brain was like, “Holy shit, this feels weird, something bad might happen, let’s stop doing this immediately before we burst into flames and die.” I didn’t know the difference between pain that leads to injury and just the normal discomfort of serious physical exertion, and so my brain interpreted it all as DEFCON 1.

I found that when pushing myself up against my perceived limits, a little bit at a time, that I not only didn’t burst into flames and die, but I also felt pretty good once that discomfort went away.  Plus, the gains to my performance were undeniable. Over the course of several years, I went from struggling to run a mile in less than 10 minutes to being able to easily run several miles at a 7:30 pace.  The only thing that really happened was that I made the choice to stop recoiling from discomfort, and to instead find a way to sit with it and make it work for me.

I’m not the only one who has made this realization. For instance, here’s an article by Charlotte Hilton Andersen that talks about this very concept:

However, there’s also another option that’s equally viable and totally transformative: Learn how to become comfortable with discomfort. It may sound like a yogic cliché, but developing the ability to be steadfast in the face of stress has the power to unlock a world of benefits for your physical fitness and your life.

The entire article looks at the question from the perspective of pursuing physical fitness, which I am obviously all about, but as with so many of the psychological skills I’ve developed while I’ve been up in the gym workin’ on my fitness, this skill has been applicable to the rest of my life.

Every bit of personal growth I have ever experienced in my life was preceded in some way by discomfort. Learning new skills and ideas, becoming a more ethical person, absorbing new experiences, seeing the world through perspectives other than my own: every single bit of it came with some discomfort.

Here’s a short but by no means exhaustive list:

  • I agonized for months before finally making the decision to leave the Mormon church, even though I knew it would hurt my parents.  It’s been almost twenty years since then, and I still don’t regret that decision.
  • When I was in eighth grade, I struggled with geometry for most of a semester, pulling mediocre grades at best.  I hated it and wanted to give up every day, until one day, the concept of theorems clicked, and suddenly I loved geometry.
  • I was busted for stealing quarters from my stepmom’s dresser when I was in high school, so I could buy soda at school. She was crying when she confronted me, and told me she had been saving those quarters for a trip to Las Vegas. Since then, I’ve never taken a single thing that didn’t belong to me.
  • I don’t even want to lay out all of the dumb shit I’ve said to people as a result of being a clueless white straight girl raised in the land of the clueless white straight people (aka Utah).  Let’s just say that a) that shit still plagues me even if it happened twenty years ago and b) I’ve never said any of those things again.
  • I am a miserable public speaker.  I get so nervous whenever I have to talk in front of a group of people numbering more than, say, three. It’s even worse when I compare myself to Brian, who is a brilliant off-the-cuff speaker. I want to get better at it, so I’ve done the following: spoken on panels, read my writing in front of an audience, given radio interviews, been a guest on podcasts, reported on live TV.  Every single time has been terrifying, and yet never once did I finish speaking and think, “Gosh, I wish I’d never done that.”

There’s so much more I could include in this list, but I’ll leave it there. All of these are deeply uncomfortable experiences – some of them admittedly much worse than others – and yet I like to think I’ve used those experiences to become a better human being.  And what I’ve found as I’ve gotten older is that I’ve come to embrace a little bit of discomfort – and all of its feelings-cousins, like awkwardness, nervousness, even fear – because I know that if I use it the right way, it will make me stronger, better, and yes, faster.

I am like most people in that I really like being comfortable, and pointless suffering and martyrdom isn’t really my style.  However, I also know that growth is inherently an uncomfortable experience, and because I’d like to keep growing as a human being, I know that being uncomfortable is just going to be a part of the life I want to have.  So I figure, why fight it? It’s going to happen whether I want it to or not, so instead of hiding from it, I’ve chosen to embrace it and make it work for me.

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29 responses to “Learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable

  1. “Every bit of personal growth I have ever experienced in my life was preceded in some way by discomfort.” This this this. A thousand times THIS! Great post. 🙂

  2. wow that’s actually true!
    i can totally relate to “Holy shit, this feels weird, something bad might happen, let’s stop doing this immediately before we burst into flames and die”. next time i’ll push myself harder, i guess.

  3. Gosh I thought of this very topic, just last night during my run. Why I am not faster, why can’t I go farther, WHY? Because I’ve kept steady at a pretty even pace for the last couple years, that’s why! Time to get a little uncomfortable! Great post!!!!

  4. I decided to do some impromptu speed work last night in an attempt to run off the day’s crazy, and at the end of the run, found that I had beat my existing 5k record (which says more about an old PR and less about current fitness, but I digress). The best part, though, was remembering *how* painful that original PR had been, how this time had been 75% of that pain, and how viscerally aware I was of the difference. I really liked this post, and I guess to add on to that idea of getting comfortable with discomfort, it’s also about a shifting level of discomfort. Similar to your “learning to swim in bogs and not dry heave” sentiment recently, it was surprisingly pleasant last night to realize that my discomfort will continue to shift to a different space in my brain (or fitness), and that there’s a certain pleasure it learning how to find it again.

  5. Wow! This is exactly what I needed. I’m struggling to increase my running pace (am crazy envious of your 7:30, btw) and have found it to be such a struggle. I’m always shying away from the fast tempo runs in my training schedules but never missing the easy ones for this very reason: the fast runs hurt, they’re uncomfortable, they take a lot of effort. Time for me to, like you said, make “the choice to stop recoiling from discomfort, and to instead find a way to sit with it and make it work for me.” Great post!

  6. I love your attitude, I’m actually working on seeing a task beyond its immediate comfort/discomfort right now. I’ve run a few marathons while being afraid of pain, and although I got in shape and ran really hard and got good times, I was always afraid of getting back into the cycle of injuries I was in back in high school, so I always ran cautiously, slowing down to a crawl if I needed to. Running lost its excitement after that, but I’m trying to get back into it now. I need to read this article before I go on my next run to pump me up!

    • For what it’s worth, I think you’re wise to be cautious as a result of a history of injuries. It’s such a delicate dance, knowing when to push and when to hold back a bit to preserve your health. I do hope you are able to reclaim your love of running, no matter what your pace may be!

  7. Hi Caitlin – I loved this post. When I start running again I know I will stress about not getting faster – and you’ve pointed out quite clearly it means going beyond the comfort zone, something I’m accustomed to but need to keep remembering! BTW re – your geometry experience – I fully relate to that, with me it was Latin (and this was A-Level LOL) – once I’d got the grammar sorted out I was fine. Keep up the good work!

    • Thank you! Yeah, it really sucks to struggle with something but when you can recontextualize it as a part of the growing process, it makes it a little more tolerable, I think. I’m glad you liked this post and I hope it helps you keep this in mind with your training. 🙂

  8. “However, I also know that growth is inherently an uncomfortable experience, and because I’d like to keep growing as a human being, I know that being uncomfortable is just going to be a part of the life I want to have.” awesome and wise! ^^ love it!

    • I think it’s something we’ve all experienced. I just went through it last weekend myself! I think the important thing is to not be discouraged by it and to allow it to be part of our growing process, you know?

      • I’m going to try this weekend at a half to be uncomfortable and keep going and see how it goes. Hopefully blast some demons away.

      • Good luck! I think that if you can get yourself right up to the edge of that feeling, you might surprise yourself by how manageable it becomes. Let me know how it goes, okay?

  9. Definitely thought of this on my run two days ago. I’m still slow, but it helped a lot!

  10. I wonder what you think about your improvement along with the “run less, run faster” training plan? It seems like eliminating the junk miles and really focusing in on having fast runs for the ones you do is working out for you! I know for me, I’m always slacking off on my “easy runs”…

    • Well, I think that part of why it worked for me was because I had built up an endurance base using a lot of easy miles. Like, I spent a whole year building an endurance base, and that base was still there when I spent four months basically working on speed. I don’t know how things would have worked out had I not done that…

  11. I have to say, I used to have this mentality about life and I ended up with chronic fatigue syndrome. And I’m not just talking about exercise, but everything. I had to push, push, push to always be better. I was very comfortable with being uncomfortable. In fact it was the only way I knew how to be.

    Your body’s responses of pain and fatigue are there to protect you. You keep ignoring them long enough and hard enough, your body will force you to stop doing it in the end.

    I am now having to completely relearn how to live, putting my physical and mental wellbeing first ahead of those external goals to be faster, better, stronger, more successful. It’s very hard but it’s the only way I am going to recover from this extremely disabling condition.

    Please be careful. You don’t want this to happen to you, trust me. Many people who get CFS are hardcore athletes, driven and successful people, just like you.

    • Oh man, I am so sorry that you are dealing with this. I’ve heard about this happening to other athletes and I want you to know that I do keep this in mind, and that I prioritize my recovery and take regular rest days and easy days for this very reason.

      This was more a philosophical musing about a change in perspective I’ve had in my life, as I spent much of my early years going out of my way to avoid work and effort and discomfort, only to realize that these things had a place in my life. (Seriously, no one seems to believe it but I used to be very lazy and not at all driven.) But, as with most things in life, balance is key. It’s not productive to be go-go-go, always pushing yourself, just as it’s not productive to always shy from challenges and difficult things.

      Thanks for your comment. I do very much appreciate what you are saying, and I’m glad you took the time to write it. I wish you the best with your recovery.

      • Thanks a lot for your comment, that was really nice. I am now trying to adopt a perspective based on pain avoidance! Not saying I am never going to challenge myself but I think before I made too much of a virtue of it. It also meant I stayed in bad relationships and in jobs and things where I was unhappy because I felt like self-indulgent or a slacker if I didn’t stick with it. But ultimately I just realized that being unable to reject things that hurt me means I have no real autonomy and just end up hurting myself.

        I’m sure it’s bad also to get stuck in a rut from trying to be too comfortable too though. I guess we are always learning from where we are coming from and that’s often different places. Thanks for your well wishes, best of luck with your training and finding balance in life!

      • You know, I thought a lot about your comment over the past couple of days, specifically the part about staying in bad relationships. I had my own experience with a terrible relationship where I basically stayed far too long because it was all I knew and I was terrified of what I was sure was going to be a complete catastrophe. And yet to your point, at some point I had obviously acclimated to the discomfort of that relationship, because I kept sticking with it even though it was making me miserable. So maybe this is something I’ve always done but just not realized it because of the way I framed my ideas about myself? I don’t know, it just made me think about things in a different perspective. Thanks for that.

      • I’m glad you got so much from my comment! I am always a little apprehensive to be the lone dissenting voice.

        “So maybe this is something I’ve always done but just not realized it because of the way I framed my ideas about myself?”

        That’s interesting. I think it’s easy to have a view of yourself as a certain way and just not even see the ways in which you’re not like that. I’ve done the same myself many times.

        I think what troubled me the most about your original post was the suggestion that it’s a good idea to disregard your body’s signals. It may be the case that the reason you are able to surpass these is not because the discomfort was meaningless, but because your body assumes that if you disregard these signs some serious threat to your survival is going on it had better help you run away instead of keeping screaming ‘stop’ at you.

        On the other hand, I do believe there are differences between different kinds of discomfort. Becoming a feminist can be pretty damn uncomfortable, and that’s in no way comparable to the discomfort of being in a damaging relationship. I think problems can happen when we make too much of a virtue of either discomfort or comfort – neither of those two things can actually tell us on their own whether we should do them or not.

        It’s been good to think about this, thanks for the discussion!

  12. We talk about this in my workshops in relation to oxygen deficit and oxygen debt. I found that yoga has really helped me to learn to live with a little discomfort because it always asks you to go to the point of mild tension. That spot just outside of your comfort zone. Then stay there and let it resonate and try to relax in that groove. I’m glad you’re finding ways to push past that comfort zone and finding the happiness and great results on the other side!

    • Yeah, that spot of mild tension! Like, not so much that you actually hurt yourself, but just enough that it’s a bit uncomfortable. That way the next time you try it, it’s not nearly as bad.

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