The moments that define our lives are often those times when we’re most uncomfortable – stressful situations at home, key plays on the sports field, placement tests, public speaking, etc.
Naturally, these situations are difficult. There’s a lot at stake, and our body responds to that.
But those of us who can put aside this discomfort and perform anyways are often the ones who excel.
How do we do this?
By becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable – learning to stay calm when you’re shooting free throws at the end of the game, learning to take a breathe and relax when someone cuts you off, learning to keep your mind clear when you’re working.
Ultimately, this is a learned skill that you can develop. There are many ways to build this ability, and I won’t try to cover every technique here, but I’ll go through the three techniques that have had the biggest impact in my life:
- Starting a mindfulness practice
- Utilizing cold exposure
- Pushing my body physically
A mindfulness practice is about creating space.
Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.
This space is what gives us the ability to stay in control in stressful situations.
When things get uncomfortable, our body’s natural reaction is to snap into our fight our flight response, which is actually counterproductive. This response was designed to help us hunt and escape dangerous situations. But the stressful situations we face today aren’t the same physical type our ancestors faced.
We don’t need more physical strength, we need the ability to think clearly.
And that’s where mindfulness comes in.
By learning to observe your body’s reaction to external stimuli, and then decide how you want to respond, you gain control during these uncomfortable situations.
Just looking at the sports world, many top athletes have been known to include mindfulness as part of their training. The list includes Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Luke Donald (golfer), and countless others. And even for those who admit to lacking a formal mindfulness practice, such as Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks, they understand the importance of the concept.
So how do you build this type of mindfulness?
Really, there are many ways. I’ve heard of people having success with everything from traditional meditation to yoga, long-distance running, weight training, and more.
For me, any activity that allows me to be fully present and observant of my body works.
Over the past 2 and a half years or so, most showers I’ve taken have been with the coldest water that will come out of the faucet.
Well, first of all, the physical benefits alone are well worth the effort.
But the main reason I stay with this practice is the mental benefit.
The first few times I took a cold shower, I panicked as soon as the water hit my skin. I began hyperventilating, and I got to the point where I could barely think well enough to clean myself off.
But over time, I’ve improved significantly. Now when I get in the shower, it barely feels cold. I continue breathing at the same calm pace I was before, and I have complete mental clarity.
That’s the benefit of practice – I’ve learned to be comfortable in the inherently uncomfortable situation I put myself in.
And yes, the ability to remain calm in cold water isn’t particularly useful by itself. But this ability has actually translated to other areas of life as well.
The natural physical response that comes with cold showers is the same that you experience when you’re in the middle of a competition, or when you’re placed in an emotionally stressful environment. And since I’ve learned to control myself in a cold shower, I’ve noticed that I can keep my mind in check during these other inherently stressful situations as well.
Furthermore, the simple act of turning on the cold water each morning reinforces my belief in my own self-discipline. Every time I prepare to take a shower, I have a clear decision to make – I can either go for the comfortable option of turning on the hot water, or I can choose the less comfortable option that I know is better for me in the long run.
Every time I’m able to overcome the urge to touch the hot water, I win an internal battle. And when I’m placed in a higher stakes situation later in the day with similarly comfortable and uncomfortable options, more times than not I’m able to carry that discipline into my decision making.
Demanding Physical Work
Finally, physical training, particularly running, has also been critical in helping to form my thought making process.
Running track might be my least favorite sustained activity that I’ve ever done. But I’m grateful that I went through it.
Every practice, and every race, I had a decision to make. When things got hard, I had to decide whether I was going to settle for good enough, or if I would dig deeper and expose myself to tremendous pain for a goal I believe in.
Every time I went with the second option, I was thankful that I did.
And as with cold exposure, these experiences taught me how to behave in situations of extreme stress and pain. I learned that no matter how much pain I was going through in any given moment, I would always be better off if I chose what was better in the long run rather than what I wanted in that instance.
Through these three techniques – mindfulness practice, cold exposure, and demanding physical work – I’ve seen a tremendous impact in my life. And in particular, in my ability to perform in stressful, or uncomfortable, situations.
Now, when I’m put on the spot to deliver at a key moment at work, or when someone makes a rude comment that irritates me, I’m able to create the space I need to properly respond.
It still isn’t easy, and I’m certainly not perfect, but I’ve noticed an incredible shift from my old habit of letting my emotions get the best of me.
As I’ve said before, don’t take any of these thoughts as prescriptions. These techniques happen to work for me, and they work for many others, but maybe they aren’t right you. So give them a try, and see what you think. Whether it’s from cold exposure or some completely different technique, the benefits of learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations are well worth the effort.