The Metaphor of the Mountain: Overcoming the Fear of Discomfort

The Metaphor of the Mountain: Overcoming the Fear of Discomfort | My first hiking experience taught me a lot about the "mountains" we face in everyday life.

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.


Good Mourning: Grieving the Loss of Past Experiences

Good Mourning: Grieving the Loss of Past Experiences | Sometimes the best way to move forward is to give ourselves permission to grieve experiences and identities from our past.

I’ve always loved a good, sad, heart-wrenching love song, and I think I finally realized why.

Interestingly, it’s not because I’ve actually experienced a terrible break-up. Although I’ve had my fair share of crushes, dates, and awkward romantic encounters that I’m hoping we’ll all laugh about in 10 years, I don’t have any actual ex-boyfriends. And although I can certainly relate to the pain of having unreciprocated feelings for someone (I was the mayor of Friend Zone City from 2006-2014), I can’t relate to what it’s like to be hurt by someone who actually told me he loved me. As a result, my affinity for melancholy music puzzled me for a long time (and probably freaked out my current boyfriend). But last week, as I was driving to work and listening to Bring on the Night, a beautiful, brave, and tragic tune from The Corrs’ latest album, it occurred to me that break-up songs don’t just help us get over romantic relationships. These melodies are there for us as we mourn all kinds of losses and cope with all sorts of pain: friendships that end with bitter words and cold silences, as well as those that simply fade over the years as everyone grows up and grows apart; identities we shed like snakeskin in order to adapt to our continually changing circumstances; and memories so golden and sweet that we wonder if maybe the best years of our lives really are behind us.

For me, one of the hardest parts of growing up has been learning to allow myself to mourn these losses in healthy and productive ways. I tend to swing to one extreme or the other: I either bottle up my feelings and tell myself to get over it and quit living in the past, or I let the grief consume me and color my present circumstances with longing and regret. I also tend to focus so much on what I no longer have that I neglect to celebrate what I have gained in the process. So today, I’m cranking the sad tunes and pouring my heart out, in hopes that putting my thoughts in writing will help me to reflect on these losses (or perceived losses) in new ways, to swim through the sadness and, rather than drowning in it, come out on the other side.

One loss I continually struggle with is that of my identity as a musician. I played the piano from age 6-16 and the viola from age 11-15, until I no longer had time in my busy high school schedule for adequate practice. Giving up these instruments was not a decision I made lightly, and to this day, a part of me aches whenever I am reminded of this former me, perhaps by the sound of a string quartet or the sight of a grand piano (swoon). I miss the duets and life chats with my piano teacher; I miss filling the rooms of my house with music and silently tapping out scales and arpeggios on my desk at school; I miss mastering the classics that have delighted for centuries and figuring out catchy new pop songs from the radio by ear; and most of all, I miss having a way to speak when words weren’t sufficient, a means of allowing my feelings to fly directly from my heart to the keys or the strings without having to go through my overly anxious and analytical brain first.

And yes, I realize that music can most certainly be a lifelong passion, and that in theory, I can pick up playing again whenever I choose and take my instruments with me wherever I go. However, as I get older and begin to see my adult life filling up with other responsibilities and pursuits, the more I begin to doubt whether I will ever regain my identity as a musician, or whether I should even strive to do so. It would take a considerable amount of work, as my “music brain” is rusty, my fingers have lost their former ease and dexterity, and I no longer have weekly lessons and yearly recitals to provide structure and motivation. In addition, there are so many places I want to go and things I want to learn and people I want to spend time with that I don’t know how playing an instrument–let alone two–will fit in. I’m not saying that I’ll never sit down at a piano or pick up my viola again, but I also don’t want to promise myself that I will, at least not on a regular basis. But no matter what, I am eternally grateful for those years of musical exploration and expression and for everyone who supported me along the way.

Another loss I mourn is that of my athletic side. (I always hesitate to refer to my former self as an “athlete,” since I never played an organized sport; when people at the gym used to ask me what I was training for, I would laugh and say “life.”) Prior to a string of injuries and health issues that have kept me largely sedentary for the past 4 years, I spent hours on the road, on the bike, on the mat, and in the pool. I was determined to overcome the perceived lack of athleticism that had haunted me throughout years of elementary and middle school gym classes, and in the process I honed my strength and speed and flexibility until I was able to out-run and out-push-up many of the other girls and boys. (My ability to throw, catch, and kick is a different, and far more comical, story…)  The gym was my second home, and I owned more workout clothes than regular clothes. When I wasn’t working up a sweat, I loved to spend time creating new workout playlists or catching up on the latest issue of Runner’s World. I had incredible energy levels without drinking a single cup of coffee and was far more focused and relaxed in school.

This training came at a price, though, and despite my attention to safety and proper form, I experienced several major injuries. Maybe I pushed myself too hard, maybe I have bad luck or weird anatomy, or maybe it was a combination of things. All I know is that even after multiple cycles of physical therapy, a shoulder surgery, and months upon months of rest, the pain isn’t completely gone to this day. I feel like I’m living in a completely different body now, one that tires from carrying grocery bags or shopping at the mall and frequently feels stiff and awkward. In the past few months, I’ve been able to start easing into yoga again, and that has been an incredible blessing both mentally and physically. I doubt that I’ll ever return to my former level of fitness, and I’m okay with that; it might even be for the best. But I also wonder if I’ll ever be able to run, bike, or swim again at all, and that thought is much harder to handle.  For now, I’m just trying to be grateful for every movement that I am able to perform.

In addition to the loss of these identities, I am saddened by the conclusion of certain experiences, particularly by the end of my time as an undergraduate student. My campus, with its infectious energy and breathtaking beauty,  provided the landscape for a whirlwind four years of growth, creativity, excitement, and discovery. I met some of the best people I may ever know, developed a passion for public health, traveled abroad for the very first time, and started my journey home to the Catholic Church. At my commencement ceremony, as I stood in my cap and gown and addressed my fellow members of the class of 2014, I reassured everyone that this was just the beginning, that the best years of our lives still lay ahead. At that time, I was feeling inspired and hopeful, and I truly believed what I was saying. In the two years since then, I hate to admit that my 24-year-old self has often thought otherwise. Grad school was lonely. Therapy is helping.

As usual, I don’t have all the answers, but I will admit that I feel a bit lighter after putting all of these thoughts into writing. Before I close, though, I feel I should add that I don’t want pity, nor do I need to be reminded of the many people who would gladly trade their problems and losses for mine. I’m incredibly blessed to have food in my pantry and clothes in my closet and a roof over my head and people who love me. In fact, I realized that I needed help precisely because I had all these things and was still miserable, precisely because I had such a full life and yet felt so empty. Part of turning my outlook around is allowing myself to grieve if that’s what I need to do, regardless of how others may view or judge the process. I hope you, dear reader, will understand; however, it’s also okay if we disagree. I’ve got my break-up songs to get me through. 😉