I love to hear about people who are constantly pushing their edges. It is so intriguing to me to read articles about athletes who struggled to finish a grueling number of miles in a run or to learn about the long, exhausting hours of an entrepreneur who struggled to get a now successful business off the ground. We sometimes hear them talk about enjoying the long hours, the gratifying muscle soreness and the solitude this achievement takes. But, if you talk in depth to these people who challenge their limits, we often hear how they were not comfortable while they are doing it or that they didn't feel good while pushing themselves. Yet, they understood the discomfort was temporary and worth it for the moment to achieve their dream. There is something fascinating to me about people who choose to be uncomfortable, in an effort to achieve a goal they have set for themselves.
One of the consistent things I read about these great achievements is that the people who accomplish them are just regular people, like you or me. A recent favorite example of these everyday people doing amazing things is Mirna Valerio, author of A Beautiful Work in Progress and featured in The Mirnavator - an unlikely marathon runner, having pushed past major criticism to achieve great things. Or, Peter Rahal, the creator of RX Bars who overcame some very personal challenges to create a company that was more successful than he ever could have imagined.
I believe seeing past perceived boundaries is something we can all do, even on a daily basis and it starts with the question: “Is there truth to that story?” If we think about the story that goes along with the discomfort of touching a limit, we can assess if this is a boundary that can be challenged or a warning sign from our mind and body that injury is possible- because even if we want to challenge our boundaries, we should also respect the wisdom of our past experience to help us avoid injury. It's a skill to know when to push and when to back off.
My recent experience of this came in the form of a very, very long car ride. While that doesn't sound like much of a challenge, it was a big one for me. I have never been comfortable with being cooped up in a car for hours at a time, let alone listening to the jangling of a vehicle while bumping along a rough road. I tend to get antsy from being confined and irritable from all the noise. In the past, I would take lots of breaks from the drive and absolutely avoid anything that promised to be so noisy. Yet, I was given the opportunity to see an amazing part of the world including landscape and wildlife that is not often seen by other humans. It had to be reached via rough, bumpy road and included 4 days of constant car travel which meant a big challenge for me.
During this trip, as I hit moments of anxiousness (from being cooped up), boredom (no cell service and I sure can't read with all the bumping around and noise) or irritability (it was so noisy I couldn't even hear the radio) I struggled with the story about how I felt. “ I have to take a break and get out of this car”, or “Im going to go crazy with all this noise!” But, was I really in danger? No. Would this go on forever? No. Would being uncomfortable right now bring me to someplace I have never been before. Of course. And with that, the story seemed to have less power. I am not going to go crazy from noise or being cooped up. I can be uncomfortable and stop telling myself how I am supposed to react. I can choose a different story, such as, “This isn't my favorite experience but it will be over soon and the reward will be worth it!” And, both were true. The ride eventually ended and I was able to see the Arctic Ocean and all the landscape and wildlife that come along with it.
Common stories we hear from ourselves when we come up against our boundaries are:
“This is uncomfortable, it must be wrong.”
“Im supposed to be happy all the time, this must be wrong because it makes me angry/sad/anxious (Insert any perceived negative emotion)."
“Last time I felt like this, I had a bad experience.”
Think about the times you are faced with being uncomfortable and what happens in your mind. For example, you are at the gym and you are walking or running on the treadmill. You start to get hot, you start to sweat. Your legs ache. Your mind starts thinking, “ Yup, this is about how far I can go. I should start to slow down and end my run.” But, what if you tried something different? What if the conversation with yourself sounded more like, “I really don't like the way I feel right now. But, I want to get stronger and be more fit. Is there anything dangerous about what I am doing ?” If you are not in danger, try going just a little further, even if just for 2 more minutes.
If you want to try to challenge yourself, here are some questions you can start to ask when you feel discomfort:
“What is the story about being uncomfortable here?”
“Am I in any type of danger?”
“Is this story protecting me? Is this story holding me back?”
“Can I push through it, for just a little bit, and see what I can achieve?”
The answers to these can indicate whether or not you are in any real danger and, if not, could possibly take the power out of the story and allow you to move forward.
We don't have to always feel good or happy. Yes, I believe we all hope to have more happiness than not in our lives. But, the presence of discomfort does not always indicate that something is wrong. It can indicate you are at the boundary of what you are comfortable with and present an opportunity to expand your limits.
The more we break through our barriers, the more confident we become in our ability to tolerate discomfort and experience new parts of ourselves. This can mean holding off on eating that cookie for 10 more minutes than you want to. This can look like walking ¼ mile further that before. In no way, do I advocate for overriding those stories that protect us from true harm. But, I do believe that those protective stories are much fewer than the stories we have that keep us stuck. And, to know that failure is a part of this experiment and by no means indicates you shouldn't have tried or shouldn't try again.
Give it a try, you may surprise yourself!