The Life-Changing Magic of Being Uncomfortable

The Life-Changing Magic of Being Uncomfortable

Running isn't known for being a comfortable activity. Tell people you're a runner and, more often than not, the other person will recoil, reflexively telling you how much they would love you to know that they hate running.

I get it. It doesn't always feel good. Sometimes, like at the end of a 20-mile mountain run or just on an off day, it feels really bad. You might feel like a clumsy hippopotamus lumbering along your route. Every cell in your body feels rocked with the impact. The simple act of breathing feels off-kilter as you try to inhale against the constant jostling of your lungs.

It's rough out there sometimes.

I don't run in spite of the fact that it's uncomfortable. I run because it's uncomfortable. It's an inextricable part of the process that is frankly beautiful.

Whether running or some other difficult thing, the practice of being uncomfortable through endurance sport is what imparts its transformative power.

But why does being uncomfortable matter in the first place?

The more privilege we accumulate, the more it becomes perfectly feasible to engineer the mundane discomforts of life out of your routine almost entirely. From the simple conveniences to meet basic needs, like climate-controlled housing, to bypassing even minor discomfort, like having a device to quench your boredom on a whim, being uncomfortable is increasingly optional.

While avoiding discomfort has nice short-term payoffs, and can sometimes be a crucial relief in the face of overwhelming stress, long-term aversion to discomfort slowly hollows us out. Being uncomfortable connects us to our humanity. Without struggle, we are a sanitized, infantilized version of ourselves. We struggle to occupy the present moment, and we miss out on our full potential as complex, compassionate human beings.

The practice of being uncomfortable is one of the most important practices we can opt into.

Most of the time in life, we don't get any say in the hardships we are dealt. We cannot choose the time, duration, frequency, or the thing we're facing. Life is traumatic, and it spares no one. While we can never truly inoculate ourselves against trauma, we can build our emotional toolbox to have healthier coping skills when bad things come knocking.

It's not enough to endure hardships once in a while. Like the practice of joy, being uncomfortable is powerful when practiced in small doses very frequently.

Unlike unexpected challenges, when we engage in the conscious practice of discomfort, we get to pick our poison. Going for a run might make us tired or sore, and while that's uncomfortable, it pales in comparison to heartbreak or financial stress. In the quotidien practice of discomfort, we know upfront how hard it's likely to feel, we can make plans and mitigate risks, and we can usually tap out or back off if the experience proves to be overwhelming for some reason.

This sense of control provides an emotional safety net, which enables us to grapple with discomfort in a lower stakes environment. And just like any kind of practice that includes built-in safety mechanisms and controls, practicing still builds the metaphorical muscles. Practicing sitting with the bad feelings of burning leg muscles is a micro-simulation for practicing sitting with the pain of loss. But even the tiny practices add up to a tremendous amount of resilience.

As you learn to sit with discomfort, at a certain point, you push through some sort of wall. The experience inverts on itself, creating a paradox where the discomfort is itself mundane, unremarkable, and even welcome. Leaning into the burning muscles or the frigid temperatures feels somehow soothing. You cross over into a flow state where you're in a dance with suffering. Ah yes, my old friends: crispy quads and cold hands. It echoes of the mantra that floats around fitness circles: "embrace the suck."

This paradox is what the practice of discomfort is about. When the uncomfortable becomes routine and familiar. Do not be misled: this isn't the discomfort leaving your mind or somehow no longer feeling pain.

On the contrary, it is full awareness of what feels bad. It's complete acceptance of and surrender to it.

Working toward acceptance and familiarity with purposeful suffering is what builds our resilience against the inevitable chapters of deep, inescapable suffering.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, aiming to remove or even minimize hardship in one's life is not a ticket to an emotionally fulfilling journey. On the contrary, engineering an intentional, safe practice of being uncomfortable is life-changing and enriching.

Avoiding struggle and engineering away pain is not the way. Ignoring feeling uncomfortable is not the answer either. Learning to sit and befriend the discomfort is. Cultivating resilience is.