Recently, while visiting relatives in California, I was invited to accompany several family members on a Sunday morning hike along the coast. To a native of flat, land-locked Indiana like myself, this opportunity was highly appealing–at least in theory. In reality, though, I am afraid of heights and really out of shape (a winning combination!). So my mind flickered back and forth between visions of me 1) toppling off a cliff and taking an unintended dip in the Pacific and 2) being (quite literally) left in the dust by my loved ones. My cousin, an experienced hiker, reassured me that the trail wasn’t as narrow and risky as it looked (!) and that we could stop and rest whenever I needed to do so. Despite her encouraging words, though, I was preparing to decline the offer–until at the last minute, something made me change my mind. Maybe it was a profound moment of bravery, or maybe it was a sugar high from the donut I had just eaten for breakfast. Whatever it was, whether pastry or perseverance, I decided to give it a go.
We weren’t far up the path before I went into Deep Life Reflection Mode and realized that my reasons for hesitating had run far deeper than concerns about my safety or physical fitness level. As my legs burned and my heart pounded and the people and objects at sea level seemed to shrink beneath my feet, I realized that what I had truly dreaded was discomfort: the discomfort of feeling my body struggle to make the climb after so many months of inactivity, of appearing weak and slow in front of my fitter family members, of not knowing for sure what lie ahead on the trail and if I would be able to make it, of wishing things were different or maybe that I were different–stronger, braver, more adventurous–and most of all, of feeling all these things and, with no distractions at my disposal, actually having to face them.
And you know what? This ain’t a fairy tale, and all of these discomforts were, in fact, present during the hike. It hurt. I was slow. I didn’t know what to expect at any given moment. In between gasps for air, I thought about how my life right now is so different from the way I had envisioned it as a child, a teenager, and even a college student. And there was nothing to take my mind off it all–it was just me and the mountain. But I did it anyway. And at the top, I got to share the victory (and the amazing view) with wonderful people who didn’t think any less of me for being Poky McWinded.
When I told my therapist about the experience, I remarked that I can now truly appreciate why mountains are so often used as metaphors, and she and I proceeded to dissect the wealth of symbolism inherent in my own rocky adventure. (It turns out that you can take the girl out of AP English class, but you can’t take the AP English class out of the girl.) We discussed the obstacles that I had overcome, both literally and figuratively, as well as the new perspective I gained at the summit, when everything that had once seemed big and insurmountable was suddenly much smaller. I then asked her for advice on how to better handle discomfort, whether physical, mental, or emotional, moving forward. My aversion to leaving my comfort zone was my own personal “mountain,” and although I thankfully hadn’t let it prevent me from joining in on the hike, I had let it rob me of plenty of experiences in the past. Was it possible, I wondered, to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable?
She replied that although none of us will probably ever reach a point where we enjoy or intentionally seek out unpleasant situations, there are steps we can take to reduce the amount of distress we experience when we inevitably face these circumstances. Although it may seem counterintuitive, one of these tactics is leaning into the discomfort rather than pushing it away and attempting to find a distraction. She encouraged me to “stay curious” and explore what my discomfort could be signaling (e.g., an unmet need), since unpleasant emotions are essentially just indicators that something is amiss. She also urged me to let go of any expectations associated with the discomfort. In other words, rather than anticipating the countless negative outcomes that could arise and creating unnecessary anxiety (one of my many talents!), I should instead focus on what I can control, i.e., my thoughts and actions in the present moment.
Leaning into discomfort and letting go of expectations will no doubt be a lifelong journey, but I am thankful for this clarity regarding the first steps. Reflecting back on the hike in light of my therapist’s advice, I can now see that my discomfort was signaling a mix of self-consciousness, disappointment, and a desire for belonging and acceptance. I created unnecessary anxiety by assuming that I wouldn’t be up to the task, that I would be judged for it, and that somehow these things would diminish my worth. My goal now is to perform this mini-analysis in the moment, before I let anxiety speak too loudly and before I let fear talk me into playing it safe. And whenever I’m feeling discouraged, I can mentally return to that mountaintop, with a sunny valley on one side and the foggy Pacific on the other, and remember what I’m capable of, discomfort and all.