A few weeks ago, I was trying to explain the value of inflicting discomfort or “pain” upon myself to a friend.
She was puzzled.
This was understandable. It’s difficult to put into words, especially because the benefits are intangible and feelings-based.
But I’ll do my best here.
I described the freezing cold showers I often take. Most people shudder when I do this. A shower is supposed to be a peaceful and enjoyable endeavor.
But even the occasional cold shower can boost your immune function, reduce depression, and speed up your metabolism.
I also told the story of when I ran a marathon in 2020. During the last seven miles, my legs stopped working and it was possibly the most uncomfortable two hours of my life.
“Why didn’t you just stop,” she asked, befuddled.
Several reasons. Firstly, I ran it with my jacked military buddy who kept pushing me to continue, especially when I most wanted to quit. Without his accountability, there’s no chance I would’ve completed those 27 miles.
Secondly, I was excited for the sense of accomplishment of doing something I didn’t think I could physically do. My buddy and I both chugged a Coors Light after we finished. I hate Coors Light, and that was the best beer I’ve ever had in my life.
But the last and deepest reason is the crux of this blog post.
Pain ≠ suffering
Like most animals, we have evolved to see pain as a malfunction or as an alarm. We feel pain and our brains go, Oh shit, something’s wrong.
This is obviously a good thing. If a bear were to start eating you in your sleep, you’d want some sort of alert.
But over the many years of our evolution, as we’ve advanced societies and stepped away from battling the elements…many of us still make this association when it’s not necessary.
You’ve probably gone for a run or started working out only to stop a few minutes in. Why?
Because you didn’t like the discomfort.
Your brain assessed the situation, said fuck this, and aborted the mission. It declared that something was wrong. You might have even decided in your mind, I can’t do this.
But you certainly can.
Hypothetically, if I told you I’d give you $100,000 to complete an intense, hour-long workout, you’d feel much more capable.
Here, the action is the same. The pain is the same. The only thing that’s changed is your relationship to the pain. Which proves we can alter the meaning and power of discomfort.
When I’m running, the voice in my head tells me, “You have to stop. You can’t keep going.”
But then I just remind myself: It’s only pain. Nothing’s wrong.
But what does it mean?
To be clear, my friend wasn’t advocating for a purely pleasure-filled life with zero obstacles and zero challenges.
Her main question was: “Why do you make yourself do things you hate?”
In fairness, I have no idea how to quantify the benefits. I can’t say that I’ve made this much more money or I’ve taken this or that action.
But I can vouch for an increase in confidence I feel when doing difficult things.
If I can run seven, miserable miles with legs that don’t work, I can surely sit down and write when I don’t feel like it.
If I can stay under that freezing cold shower water when my fight or flight system is begging me to turn the knob, I can certainly take on projects that I feel unqualified for.
Why do I torture myself?
- To strengthen my courage muscle—proving to myself that I can do things I don’t think I can do (or that I’m scared to do).
- To reinforce the truth that although I’m in pain, I’m certainly not suffering…I might even be thriving.