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Getting good at being uncomfortable

Getting good at being uncomfortable

Over the Christmas break, I spent quite a lot of time trying to figure out why I was finding it so very hard to get my bottom off the sofa and get back to some form of regular exercise.  It was frustrating because I have a history of really enjoying exercise – not only have I been a competitive swimmer as an adult, but I also used to work as a health and fitness coach where I supported other women to move their bodies.  The academic school (department) where I’m doing my PhD is the School of Exercise and Nutrition Science (SENS) and not only is my own research centred on mental health and physical activity (exercise) but I’m surrounded by the very latest evidence around the vital role that exercise plays in our whole-person health and wellbeing – I’ve even conducted some of that research.  So, I really had no excuse!  Except that all of that wasn’t enough motivation to get moving again.  What I realised throughout my self-reflection (and yes, the irony was not lost on me that the longer I was pondering it, the more obvious my procrastination became) was that the biggest barrier for me was associated with the initial discomfort that I knew I would experience in the process.

Back when I was about 10 weeks postpartum following the birth of my second child, I went for a swim one day during the Christmas holidays.  It was the first time I’d been back in the pool since he’d been born, and I it was equal parts amazing and painful. Getting reconnected to my body through exercise was really hard work, but it did wonders for my sense of self-worth, my relationship with my post-baby body and it served as my version of mindfulness practice (there’s a lot of focusing on breathing and counting when you swim freestyle). Fast-forward almost three years, we’d moved to Australia, and I’d started training with a swimming team/club in Doncaster, VIC.  My first trial session with the squad is vividly etched on my memory.  It was 90 minutes of sheer pain.  There were so many uncomfortable experiences!  I hadn’t swum breaststroke or butterfly since I was in my school swimming team (a LONG time ago), I wasn’t used to swimming outside with no roof to follow when swimming backstroke (I learned that it’s a bad idea to use clouds or birds instead, and I hit the lane ropes so many times that night I had bruises all over my arms for days) and lastly, pools in the UK are mostly 25m so I nearly died adjusting to a 50m pool!  Plus, I was meeting LOTS of new people, in bathers. Going back for the next training session was one of the hardest things I did that year. I didn’t want to feel that much physical discomfort (ever again), and I didn’t want to have to front up to a bunch of lovely people who must (I believed) have thought I was a joke and not good enough to swim with them.  But I did want to get better.

And I did.  A year or so later I held the Victorian 1500m freestyle record (long course) and a couple of years after that I won a gold medal at Nationals for the 800m freestyle.  I also swam in the Great Victorian Ocean Swim Series for a number of years where I usually placed in the top three women in my age group over the series (not many people are silly enough to swim as many of the long swims as I was).  The thing about swimming long distance events is that you have to get yourself very used to feeling very comfortable.  In a race the aim is to get to a pace where you are almost about to vomit in the first 100-200m and then hold it consistently for the rest of the race.  I had trained myself to tolerate the pain of lactic acid, of sore muscles, and of burning lungs.  I was actually pretty good at discomfort.  Which is why I was really annoyed that I was actively avoiding feeling discomfort over the holidays when I was trying to get my butt off the sofa.

So I turned to podcasts.  Because that’s what I do.  And they reminded me of something that I’ve always known – discomfort is part of the growth process and there is simply no way around that.  I’m pretty sure that the process of being born must be incredibly painful (I know it is for the person giving birth) – if the start of our life is that uncomfortable, why do we expect that other moments of change and growth would not be accompanied with some pain and discomfort.  Growing pains are a thing after all. But all these podcasts got me thinking about how the impact of trauma might play into this, and, whilst I’m still pondering this, my strong sense is that trauma causes us to either lean into that discomfort more easily (hello post-traumatic growth), take bigger risks and frame the discomfort as something that we have confidence in moving through, or trauma causes us to actively and strongly avoid discomfort at all costs.  These people might believe that they are not strong enough to withstand any more pain, believe they don’t have the resources (internally or externally) to navigate discomfort, or they have beliefs about their own defects that mean they literally don’t see growth and development as a realistic option.  I also think there are probably a group of people who are so used to pain and discomfort due to their trauma that their tolerance levels are impacted to embrace it too much.

I’ve not got any studies to back up my thoughts right now (I know, rare for me) – these are just my reflections and my musings this Sunday, but when I’ve dug a bit deeper, I will follow up with more on this topic.  In the meantime though, here are some of the podcasts that influenced my thoughts:

  • The Imperfects with Gina Chick:

  • The importance of discomfort in life and relationships:

  • Straight talk with Nedd Brockmann:

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I didn’t get back in the pool this summer, but I did get start exercising again!



If you need support around discomfort, we have a team of experienced therapists at Thea Baker Wellbeing – please reach out to us at: / 03 9077 8194.