It was 2 a.m. and 60 degrees as I ran through the wooded foothills of Mt. Rainier on a quiet August night. My eyes struggled to find the ground below a thick and dense layer of mountainous fog that often accumulated at such devitalizing elevations. Affixed to my head was a lamp that fired into the murk. I gripped a compact flashlight in my right hand to provide some additional visual support.
I could blame my current situation on peer pressures from friends that ushered me to sign up for this endurance race a few months back. At the time I was excessively buzzed when they suggested I run 16 miles in the Washington backcountry. It never seemed like a good idea if I’m being honest, but I wanted to suffer with the rest of them anyway. This was simply a result of my battle with discomfort.
I was never one for New Year’s resolutions. I can recall those old morning news programs that fashioned together a list of shitty cliched resolutions because it was topical and hip.
“You may consider a resolution to exercise more,” noted one host. “Let’s do our best to really keep these resolutions!” encouraged another. I found these personalities to be a bit ridiculous at the time (most of them still are). After all, a new year meant nothing more than a calendar alteration. You could change your life whenever you wanted, so what did a new year have to do with jack shit?
But then I turned on my heel in 2018. Only days were left on the calendar before another new year began, and I pondered what I could do to become a better version of myself in the upcoming year. For whatever odd reason, I wanted to make a change. So I looked for an answer by examining the many facets of my routine life.
Work was going well. My relationship felt healthy and stable. I was even taking action to expand my circle of friends. But something deep inside was consistently stirring; it was worried and anxious and forever hoping to avoid discomfort at all costs. Like anyone else, I wanted things to be easy; and when they weren’t, I began to panic.
I thought on that inclination for some time and wondered what I could do to influence such behaviors. How could I avoid feeling uncomfortable when uncomfortable situations arose? Many answers presented themselves as I pondered such a philosophical inquiry.
One option presented itself in the form of therapy — it had helped in the past to identify and combat unhealthy behaviors, so I assumed it could help me combat discomfort. And then there was always the technique by which I simply avoided and evaded discomfort, and I was a pro of that method at this point. But then I considered an alternative that felt far more appropriate:
To overcome discomfort, I could simply experience discomfort as much as possible.
Other scenarios of a similar nature suggested this technique would work. If you wanted to conquer a fear of flying, you had to step on a plane. If you wanted to overcome heights, you had to look at the world from really fucking high up. And if I wanted to overcome discomfort, all I had to do was endure it as much as possible.
So I did — for an entire year. And this is what I learned from the experience.
Discomfort Ebbs & Flows
At some point in 2019 I took up surfing. Don’t ask me how or why because I honestly can’t remember. Early one morning I found myself in a local coffee shop, surrounded by unfamiliar faces as we prepared to head for the waves of the coast. And it just progressed from there.
I’ve come to understand that discomfort ebbs and flows like the rolling waves of an ocean. At times the world will feel calm and still until discomfort manifests in the form of a wave that crushes you into the sand. It would be easy to turn your back on the water and ignore what’s to come, just as it would be easy to ignore discomfort. But much like a wave doesn’t care if you see it coming, so too does discomfort give zero shits about your ignorance. It will still crush you and make you fold if you give it the chance.
I’ve learned to anticipate round-the-clock discomfort as a result of this truth. To some this may sound like a stressful outlook, but in reality it simply makes life easier. I don’t live in a constant state of fear or anxiety; I simply understand that life will forever throw curve balls when you least expect them, so it pays to remind yourself that these curve balls could hit you at any minute.
Expect the unexpected.
You’ll Have to Go Looking for Discomfort
As human beings we have a natural tendency to avoid discomfort. If the water is freezing cold, we don’t dare go in. If the hill is too steep, we begin to walk rather than run.
Chances are high that you’ll have to go searching for discomfort if you want to face it. This means being open, curious, and accepting of the world in every possible way. If your running route incorporates a hill, don’t search for a way around it. If the water looks cold, dive in as opposed to dipping your big toe. Discomfort isn’t going to present itself to you on a silver platter. If you want to face it and conquer it, first you must be willing to find it and face it.
Find The Things That Give You Strength
Facing discomfort is tiring, even sickening at times. Putting your body in tense and stressful situations is a surefire way to grow fragile and exhausted. There were times in which I contemplated throwing up to relieve some of the stress.
Don’t be afraid to fall back on the things that give you strength and peace of mind. Be it video games, books, meditation, or climbing tall ass trees, you need to work with discomfort — not against it. Reserve space and time for healing; cut yourself some slack and give in to the everyday things that feel good. Dedicate one day per week to simple, healthy activities that can boost your mood and internal drive. Overcoming discomfort is a marathon, not a sprint.
Don’t Be Afraid to Rely On Others for Support
My relationship abruptly ended in the Spring of 2019 (so much for the healthy and stable relationship I mentioned earlier). At the time I was preparing for an unpaid internship when my life suddenly came crashing down. I was forced to move within a week’s time, begin the internship, and find a stable source of income without my partner’s support.
It would be easy to say I did it all on my own. I found a new place to live, I landed a part-time job, and I successfully completed the internship under my own strength. But in reality I was also an emotional wreck; I was afraid of the world and its endless uncertainty. I started calling my parents and best friends every single day, sometimes hoping they could encourage me to simply get out of bed. I was a confident soul on the big screen, but this was only due to the support I received behind the scenes.
I learned then that discomfort doesn’t have to be a battle all your own. At times you may need a helping hand from others, and forever that will be okay. Don’t assume that you can handle discomfort alone, because it can break you, and it will if it gets the chance. Swallow your pride and be accepting of the love that comes from others.
Seek Professional Help
I was dog sitting for a friend when I realized I couldn’t stand being alone. Sitting in a quiet and empty house made me anxious beyond anything else. I checked my phone relentlessly, hoping someone would reach out so that I could be in the company of another soul. It was then that I chose to seek some professional help from the outside world.
Understand that battling discomfort means battling yourself. When you force your mind and body into discomfort, you’re simultaneously confronting inner demons and unpleasant emotions at the very same time. Every now and again you may need to seek professional help on your quest to overcome discomfort. And that too is forever okay.
After confronting the discomfort of solitude and isolation, it became clear that I couldn’t overcome such a barrier on my own. And I happily accepted that therapy might be an outlet worth utilizing. Just as your friends and family are there for support, so too are others available in the form of professional assistance.
Yes, Discomfort Is Now Much Less…Discomforting
Most of you are probably wondering where this story ends. But before I give my final thoughts, remember that finding comfort in discomfort is not a year-long endeavor; it is a not a resolution that ends with the year. Instead it is a lifelong undertaking of the greatest magnitude.
Much like the body acclimatizes to elevation gain, so too do we grow accustomed to discomfort. But return to sea level, and the effects wear off with time. Our body won’t always accept discomfort unless we provide it with doses of discomfort continuously.
I can say with confidence that the process of finding comfort in discomfort has been a major success, perhaps more so than I originally assumed. I don’t panic when I’m alone, but I do experience JOMO — the joy of missing out — more than ever before. I find myself on kooky adventures with friends because I blindly accepted an invite. I jump into cold bodies of water for the rush, and endure lengthy runs because my body is capable of such feats, no matter how painful they may be.
Give it time and the uncomfortable scenarios grow far less daunting. They’re a part of life we can all learn to accept, and even enjoy. When 2020 came around I threw on a pair of shorts and performed a solo polar plunge on the shores of Cape Cod. Sure, the waters were frigid and my toes were stinging with pain. But the beauty of discomfort is the notion that we can discover a life beyond it. Perhaps that’s a discussion for another time.
As Neale Donald Walsch so eloquently said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”