Learning about discomfort the hard way
During my bicycle ride across the U.S. a couple of years ago, I encountered many challenges that forced me to cope with some crappy situations beyond my comfort zone (bad weather, mechanical breakdowns, physical fatigue, mental exhaustion, etc). A self-confessed control freak, I had always struggled with situations that made me feel powerless and my usual reaction was a mixture of fear, worry, and anxiety that was sometimes paralyzing.
I know I’m not alone. This is something that many of us struggle with, especially athletes; our bodies and performance are the results of dedicated training and nutrition, which we control. But learning how to positively cope with those situations which we cannot control is a very valuable lesson. Over the last couple of years, I have turned it into a mantra: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
A self-confessed control freak, I had always struggled with situations that made me feel powerless and my usual reaction was a mixture of fear, worry, and anxiety that was sometimes paralyzing.
I was riding across Wyoming with a couple of other transam cyclists I had met along the way when we encountered the state’s brutal winds – a steady 25+mph that gusted to well over 40. It was merciless and there was nothing we could do about it. Wyoming’s terrain doesn’t offer any natural shelter, which makes the wind a constant, inescapable fiend. The four panniers on my racks acted like sails, catching every gust as we crawled along at an agonizing 3-5mph (barely fast enough to keep our bikes upright).
The longer we were in the wind, the more pissed I got.
After a couple days of this, I was almost in tears one afternoon – we were still over 25 miles from our destination for the night and I was so exhausted I was beginning to feel crazy. The cycle of negative self-talk had begun… we’re never going to make it, I am so tired, I don’t think I can go much further, and so on. I was getting my ass kicked and starting to melt down over it. I thought that maybe venting would help me feel better, so I bitched to everyone during lunch (as if they didn’t already know how much the situation sucked). I was full speed into my diatribe when Ryan, one of the other cyclists, said something I will never forget: “Jess, you just have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
That statement hit me like a ton of bricks because I knew he was right. There was nothing we could do to change the situation we were in, short of aborting the trip. The wind was not going to stop and I was fighting a losing battle that was draining me both emotionally and physically. If instead of kicking and screaming, I could accept the discomfort and move on, I thought that maybe I could get through Wyoming without going insane.
It was as if a switch was flipped in my mind. Maybe I couldn’t control the wind, but I could control my attitude about it. From that moment on, I decided to stop wishing for the winds to die down and quit obsessing about how exhausted my body was because of them. I blocked all thoughts about it. Any time I felt a related negative thought creep into my head, I squashed it. I forced myself to be okay with the discomfort. I knew it was going to hurt, but I accepted that.
Once I was able to genuinely be comfortable in my discomfort, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted. Believe it or not, it actually helped me to feel like I was back in control. It was empowering to know that not only was I physically capable of making it through the challenge, but I was also mentally tough enough to accept the pain of it.
It’s human nature to fight the uncomfortable. It’s a survival mechanism – if something hurts, our brain tells us to change the situation. But sometimes, dealing with the discomfort has great benefits. As athletes, we know that making it through grueling training sessions is necessary. How often have you soldiered on through a workout despite your body begging to stop? How much control do you have over your decision to push through discomfort? The ability to do this is a telling sign of true fortitude.
On Thanksgiving day, I went for a ten mile out-and-back run with my boyfriend, Joe. On the way out, we sailed along to an amazing tailwind; it was actually more like a tail gale. We joked a little about how it was going to suck coming back and I kept trying to convince Joe that it was really a crosswind and it probably wouldn’t be that bad on the return.
I was wrong.
When we turn around, we were immediately blasted. Alright, I told myself. Get cozy. Instead of thinking about the wind, I focused on being thankful for how strong my heart, lungs, and legs were. I enjoyed the scenery. I chatted with Joe. And before I knew it, we were back.
When you are able to be comfortable being uncomfortable, you have broken through a mental barrier that most succumb to. You know you’re tough. You know you’ve got what it takes… sometimes, it’s just a matter of convincing your mind to do what you know your body is able to.