“You can get out when you puke.”
We all know that growth requires discomfort, but many people never realize their potential because they don’t actually understand what is meant by discomfort, and so fail to embrace it.
To solve this problem and empower you to get there, we’re going to go into detail about what emotional discomfort is and how to recognize it so you don’t turn away prematurely.
Most people run from discomfort without realizing it precisely because they don’t understand what’s going on. In this series, we’re going to slow down the videotape and granularly examine what kind of “desirable difficulty” you need to learn to endure to achieve excellence.
Let’s go back a little. Swimming was my first sport and I competed at age six. I quit at eleven because the practices changed from feel-good fun to grueling. I switched to springboard diving to enjoy more flying and less near-drowning. After a couple years, I returned to swimming as well. I was good at both, but not great, and here’s why: because my relationship to discomfort sucked.
Diving is fun in the beginning. You soar through the air, and the feeling of tightening every muscle and punching through the water like a knife is indescribable. You get to be the hot knife going through butter. Then you learn to tumble through the air like a superhero. It’s exhilarating. Then it gets more difficult. You learn inwards and reverses, where you rotate back toward the board, and you must somehow find comfort in the laws of physics to shake the sense that you’ll kill yourself. More on this later.
It’s also not unusual to “hit the board.” I once did a reverse dive too close and nearly did a handstand back on the board, barely scraping my wrist and chest as I passed it vertically. One of the judges literally jumped out of his chair. They penalize you for scaring them.
Another time, doing a reverse one and a half somersault, I broke a knuckle on the board as I reached for the water—a knuckle that was about a foot from my head. And then you get up and do it again. You face the fear, that’s how it goes.
The water is plenty hard, too. I once kicked out of a two and a half somersaults too early from three meters and “smacked” face down. That’s when you land parallel to the water. From that height, the pain is indescribable. It’s like being stung by a thousand bees. You get purple welts. I don’t think I went deeper than a foot. I couldn’t see. I followed my coach’s voice to the side of the pool. I shook for ten minutes there, sobbing in the gutter, waiting for the white-hot waves of pain to abate. A great diver would have tried it again. I never did. I was third in the league, ninth in the state. Good, but not great. Fear was bigger than I was then.
Swimming, on the other hand, doesn’t produce that kind of acute pain. But you feel like your limbs turn to lead, your lungs are on fire, and you’re slowly drowning. It’s like running—except if you stop, you drown. This creates a very different experience: like being waterboarded while trying to get somewhere in a hurry.
In swim practice, you share a lane with about half dozen people. You’re a team. Between sets, catching our burning breath, sweating in the water (which is a very odd sensation) sometimes people want to get out.
“You can get out when you puke.”
That was the coach’s rule. I never did, but it happened. Feel like you’re drowning? Keep going.
Left to our own devices, most people do not push themselves to the limit. Have you ever exercised to the point of vomiting? If not, consider that you don’t know what you’re capable of. But maybe that doesn’t matter to you on the physical level, it certainly doesn’t to me anymore. Been there, done that.
But on an emotional level, it’s everything, for everyone, everywhere in our lives.
If only childhood athletics were taught explicitly as a way to learn the power of embracing discomfort. It’s very unlikely your life will ever depend on physical athleticism, but the principles you can learn through the experience are critical: dedication, practice, efficiency, teamwork, and the subject of this series, embracing discomfort.
Between now and next week, I’d like you to consider what your childhood conditioning was related to discomfort in the following categories. You can use these questions to guide you and journal your thoughts.
- What did your parents teach you about exercise? How hard did they push you?
- How hard did you push yourself? Where were you stopped? What did you need that you didn’t get?
- How close do you get to achieving your physical potential at any given time in your life? Your teen years? Your 20s? Your 30s, etc.?
- What stories do you tell yourself about physical discomfort and what it means?
- What did your educational conditioning tell you about your capacity of mind (how smart you are, how much you can learn/retain/problem solve/etc.)?
- What did your parents tell you about your capacity of mind?
- What do you tell yourself about your mental capacity?
- In what ways do you challenge yourself intellectually? How far out of your comfort zone do you go?
- What did your parents teach you about emotional pain and discomfort?
- What did your cultural conditioning teach you about emotional pain and discomfort?
- In what ways do you challenge yourself emotionally? In what ways do you subject yourself to emotional pain for a larger, long-term positive benefit?
- What feelings do you avoid the most?
Keep thinking and looking over these until next week when we go even deeper.