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Why We Need to Seek Out Discomfort


Joseph Campbell is known for his work in mythology. He outlined the hero’s journey that influenced George Lucas in the creation of Star Wars. But when Campbell was asked by PBS’s Bill Moyers what it was like to have a peak experience, to feel fully alive, he shared that his “peak experiences all came in athletics.”

Campbell ran the half-mile (800 meters), and quite successfully. He was world-class back in the 1920s. Anyone who has ever lined up to run an 800 can tell you one thing: it hurts, and a whole lot. The 800 is at this unique juncture of speed and endurance, of aerobic and anaerobic, that makes your lungs sear and your muscles burn. It is one of the most uncomfortable races. And yet, for Campbell, it made him feel most alive.

Whenever we take on something difficult, be it physical or psychological, we experience a rush of feelings and thoughts. Lifting weights, running a race, giving a speech, having an uncomfortable conversation, wrestling with a life-changing decision—each is accompanied by a mixture of anxiety, excitement, fear, and joy. We can feel simultaneously alive and like our life is in danger if we don’t quit or give up. Sometimes this flood of arousal is exhilarating, other times it is overwhelming. That’s the beauty of doing hard things. They can bring both joy and fear, flow and choking. What follows are three strategies we can deploy to improve our chances at experiencing the former and avoiding the latter.

1. Embrace Instead of Avoid

In 2018, there was a push to eliminate in-class presentations in high schools. Why? Because it caused anxiety in students. Students (and adults) already face an inordinate amount of anxiety and pressure. Why add more on top? So the thinking went.

We tend to handle discomfort by trying to minimize or eliminate it. We take that hint of anxiety as a sign that we need to avoid whatever was causing it. We retreat to texting someone instead of calling because we have phone anxiety. While avoidance works in the short term, it repetitively sends the signal to your brain that this item that I’m avoiding is dangerous and threatening. Your brain takes notes and learns that it should unleash its full battery of strategies to get you to stop doing the angst provoking activity.

In writing and researching Do Hard Things I found an astonishingly simple trend. The best performers were skilled at figuring out how to navigate discomfort. They weren’t avoiding it. And they weren’t trying to bulldoze through it, like old-school models of toughness promoted. They simply embraced it, which meant sitting with their feelings and emotions, trying to see if they should listen to the warning of danger or let it pass by. It meant understanding that sometimes the doubts and voices screaming at them to stop were worthwhile, and other times they were more like a crazy aunt on Facebook going on and on about whatever conspiracy she saw on youtube.

It’s not just the best performers who benefit from embracing discomfort. A recent study found that seeking out discomfort is motivating when it’s done in pursuit of growth. Those who sought discomfort as its own reward (instead of focusing on a more direct outcome) were more engaged and open to reading about and learning from the opposing side on a controversial topic. Furthermore, when people were recruited to have a discussion with someone on the other side of the political aisle, those who were instructed to seek out discomfort were more open and receptive to other viewpoints than those who were told to only to try and learn from the other side. When it comes to dealing with controversial topics, perhaps the answer isn’t to avoid them (as we do with politics at holiday gatherings across the country) or to simply give in, but rather to reframe the situation as a chance to practice discomfort.

Dealing with uncomfortable situations helps prepare you to cope with future stress. The most widely used and effective therapies in dealing with anxiety and other mental health disorders teach us to work with with the thing, not avoid it. As someone who has suffered from OCD for decades, I quickly learned that avoidance backfired. Instead, I had to use exposure and response therapy to learn to sit with the anxiety and the urge to respond. It was as if I had to tell my brain, “Hey. I appreciate you sounding the alarm and telling me there is a knife on the counter. But there’s no need to sound the alarm. Everything is okay.”

Exposure and response prevention therapy relies on gradually increasing interaction with your trigger. Another gold standard in treatment for anxiety disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy, relies on cultivating awareness of inaccurate or irrational assessments of triggers and threats and changing our response to such events. Learning how to skillfully navigate rather than avoid bulldoze through challenging thoughts and feelings works in the psychologist’s office just like it does out on the athletic fields.

2. Capacity versus Demands

In endurance pursuits, there’s a simple formula that our brains use to drive how we pace an event: our current capabilities versus the imposed demands. If our capabilities outshine the demands, we keep moving along at our current speed, ready to tackle the final miles of the marathon. If our capabilities are lower than the demands, our body starts setting off alarms. We start to feel pain and fatigue. Our inner voice screams at us to start slowing down. We often oblige.

Expert runners are skilled at riding the line between their capabilities and the challenge of their event . They are keenly aware of what a just-manageable pace may be. They aren’t delusionally optimistic. They don’t carry around a sense of false bravado, as they know that will crack as soon the first sign of fatigue rears its head and their brain realizes they are in trouble. Expert endurance athletes have to embrace the reality of what they are taking on and what they are capable of.

The same principle applies to the rest of us when taking on life’s challenges. If we can get clarity on what we’re capable of, as well as the difficulty of the task we have before us, then we know what we can handle. Over time, we gradually stretch it, gradually increasing our capacity. It’s the worker who first stands up and presents in the small staff meeting before doing the same in the large auditorium.

3. Support Instead of Thwart

Imagine standing at the bottom of a massive hill, knowing that you’re about to have to hike or run up it. You know what’s coming, and the effort it would take. It’s a bit daunting. Does this change if you have a friend or partner beside you?

Researchers out of the University of Plymouth found that when individuals had a friend by their side standing at the bottom of a steep hill, they perceived it as less steep. The same psychology holds true when instead of a steep hill, it’s lifting heavy boxes. When a friend is nearby, the total weight seemed lighter.

When we’re taking on something hard and demanding we need support. We need to know that even if we fail, we’ll be okay. Contrary to popular opinion, the best coaches and leaders aren’t the authoritarian kind that yell and ride us to perform. Such a style backfires. It creates an environment of fear in which people are complying because they have to, not because they want to. And when the leader is gone, they cease complying and working hard.

It is all too common to set high expectations that are incredibly demanding, thinking that setting a top standard is the pathway to excellence, but then forget the most crucial part: a high level of support and care. People perform their best when they are challenged, not threatened. And one of the most reliable ways to shift from threat to challenge is knowing you have the genuine support and caring of others.

***

As we age, we often default to comfort. We stop doing hard workouts and just go for a jog. We stop dabbling in creative, attention-demanding projects and stick to what we know. Some may say life is hard enough as it is! Why do additional hard things? I am sympathetic to that argument.

But there’s a catch.

When we don’t have control, hard things that we face can be miserable. We can’t control a pandemic or what our boss does or why that person is screaming at us on the internet. When a situation is both demanding and we lack control, our hormonal surge is tilted more toward stress and anxiety and less toward excitement and arousal.

And herein lies the key. Joseph Campbell said racing the half mile made him feel alive. He had control over whether he sped up or slowed down, whether he showed up to race or not. He chose to do it. He embraced it. It made him feel alive. This, perhaps, more than anything, is the value of doing hard things.

Steve

 

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