Growth: The Uncomfortable Comfortable

If I asked you to walk home in the rain, how would you respond? Would you tell me to open my eyes; it’s raining, duh? Or maybe you might feed us both an excuse that you don’t have your umbrella and it’ll ruin your hair? What if I told you that sometimes taking the uncomfortable option can help you grow? Now I know you’re not a thirsty plant, but hear me out! Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is essential for developing resilience, a “Fuck It” attitude and for finding out what you are really made of. Most of the time, these uncomfortable situations that we frantically avoid aren’t all that bad, such as walking home in the rain. Sometimes they may even be a source of joy, imagine that! Walking home in the piss wet rain could be a highlight of your day? Maybe you think I’m full of shit. Maybe I am, but let’s ignore that for a moment because there is one person who we owe it to to do the things that make us feel uncomfortable – and that is ourselves.

Every day I see people that inspire me to push myself, whether it’s that they have something that I want *ahem a Marathon Majors 6-Star Medal cough* or they’re holding the first copies of their newly published book – I’m jealous, so shoot me! I just want to smell crisp new pages covered in my words! What lies between where I am now, and where I want to be is very simple and very painful: a whole lotta growth.

Make yourself do unpleasant things so as to gain the upper hand of your soul – W.E.B. Du Bois

This is where owing it to yourself to get comfortable being uncomfortable comes into its own. Do you remember any of your teenaged growth spurts? Those HURT! Growth is uncomfortable, and of course, it takes effort to grow, relentlessly unforgiving and continuous effort. You owe it to yourself to challenge yourself and get comfortable being uncomfortable. By becoming comfortable with discomfort we learn how much we can push ourselves, we realize and learn our limits, and that our resilience reaches beyond our own imaginations.

The option to stay exactly where we are is always there. When we have had enough we can always stop and decide if we like it just as it is. Maybe you do, or maybe it’s just easier to stop, for a long time self-harming was more comfortable than facing the rawness of my psychology and mind, learning to eat was more uncomfortable than starving myself and there came a point when being unwell becomes more comfortable than undertaking the journey to becoming well because being unwell was all I knew- I soon learned that growth happens in the most treacherous and uncomfortable of waters, as the adage and many a meme go. It’s true. That shit is scary and itchy ants-in-your-pants uncomfortable. The best teacher and arena I have found in persevering through discomfort has been exercising, without it, I doubt I would have recovered as much as I have.

Sometimes when you’re covering a large distance in one go, hi there marathon, or hiking and climbing up a mountainside (Tryffan, we have unfinished business), it is uncomfortable. It is hard. In each task, by putting one foot in front of another, a very simple yet vastly symbolic act, the finish goal will eventually appear. In continuing to show up for yourself through the challenge and continuing to push on through the burning quads, aching knees, jarring concrete and absolute monotony that can be associated with covering distance, you get there and all of a sudden the intense and immense gratitude, pride, sense of accomplishment that you feel makes it all completely 100% worth it. You don’t forget the pain, this isn’t childbirth, it just all becomes worth it.

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So taking this ideology into a bigger playing field is the next step, and they don’t always have to be huge strides of progress that are acquired during an activity for it to be worth it, next time it’s raining, which if you’re in London is probably tomorrow lets be honest, walk for a bit in the rain even though you don’t want to go out in it. Go for that walk in the cold. Take your shoes off, feel the ground and the cold iciness of a wintery puddle submerge your toes. Practice different types of discomfort, physical, emotional, mental: turn the heating down to below comfortable for a day, have a cold shower, go for a run up a hill. This is the reality. Life isn’t always sweet, it’s mostly pretty grim. In practise, you empower yourself to manage situations when you lack control over a situation. Sit in the overwhelm and when exposing yourself to uncomfortable situations, go ahead and nurture yourself as well. Self-soothe yourself through the discomfort, learn how to do this for yourself. Figure out whether it’s a mantra that you repeat in your head, a texture that you feel, a particular way of fidgeting your fingers that is soothing. This is great practice for self-soothing in situations that are uncomfortable where you have no control over being able to escape them, i.e. depression, anxiety, that presentation in front of your colleagues, public speaking, a race, a challenge, commuting on an overpacked tube at rush hour. It doesn’t mean you always succeed, just that you will succeed more than when you couldn’t tolerate any discomfort.

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Behaviour Change and The Monday Mentality

I first encountered what I call the Monday Mentality when I was engaging in dieting behaviour. I would design a diet plan that would always start on a Monday. If I designed the plan on a Thursday for example that gave me until Monday to eat, indulge and gorge on everything I wouldn’t be allowed from Monday onwards.  During the Bulimia days this would equate to days upon days of bingeing and purging. Monday would come, and this was a new start. Every Monday was a new me like the 1st of January, except Monday just kept on coming around every single week. This is 52 chances a year to start a new diet, exercise regime, habit, project, study, checking off the errands on that list as long as your arm and as old as your eldest son.

There is a fresh feeling about Monday. We start a new study week or work week or just a new week in general. Everything starts up again and it feels like a perpetual chance of new starts and the beginnings of new habits and lives. I used to delude myself into thinking that from next Monday everything would change. I would stop bingeing and finally exist on a minute amount of calories. I would finally lose weight. I finally stop purging.

The Monday Mentality creep into every avenue where we start goal setting. It usually trumps the ‘why not start today?’ and the ‘There no time like the present’ thinking because it is more enticing to continue with shitty habits for a few more days in favour of trading them in tomorrow, always tomorrow and of course, for every single day that we exist in this universe, no matter what happens, there will always be a tomorrow until our final day. Thank you universe. There is a great gift in tomorrow.

Today is shit? You’ve had a crap day from start to finish, have a sleep and there is always tomorrow where you get to start over on making a good day. Wait a few more days and give yourself time to sulk it out and start again on, you guessed it, Monday. There’s always a Monday just on the horizon. Even on a Tuesday or Wednesday there is always a Monday on the horizon so it is easy to get stuck in the Monday Mentality of, I’ll start on Monday.

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I got caught up in this thinking pattern during my first year studies at university earlier this year. I had a depressive episode which meant that most days were going not according to plan off the mark every week for a number of weeks. I would push myself really hard to change my behaviour and get to university on Monday. Tuesday would come and more often than not during my first year I wouldn’t make it. This for a good few weeks wrote off the rest of the week until the following Monday when I would get a ‘fresh start’ to try to improve my attendance, get off the ‘fitness to study’ radar, and ultimately get my shit together. Whilst working with the welfare officer at university she said, ‘why wait until Monday?’. I didn’t really have an answer other than, it felt more like a goal to start changing.

The truth is, goals never get met whilst engaging with the Monday mentality. Thursday is as good a day as any Monday to start. Together we decided that starting now would be a good idea and if today didn’t work, I can always sleep and there’s a brand new day to start now on in the morning. This meant that every morning I gave it a good go in terms of getting to places, leaving the house, showering, and managing to catch up and complete some study.  This means that even if I wasn’t making massive gains each day, or I wasn’t achieving loads all of a sudden overnight I had started to practice the Now Mentality, which ultimately leads to smaller achievement that build up to create great differences and, fingers crossed it all works out, eventually building mastery over myself, and my illness.

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This isn’t to say that I cured my depressive episode this way. That took a medication change and some more tweaks further down the line. What it did mean however, was that every morning was a chance to improve. Every morning was a chance to seize the day the best I could for that day. So each day I would make a plan that felt achievable and not overwhelming. It would include something like, shower, mindfulness, dishes, study. Sometimes I would only manage to eat, and have a shower and that was fine. The key difference was that Tuesday or Wednesday wasn’t pissing me off and I wasn’t then vowing to stay in bed until next Monday before I tried again. This method over time built a bit of resilience and a fresh view of each day being as good as any Monday to try. That’s all I was asking of myself, to try. That’s all anyone can ask of themselves, but if you decide to wait until next week each week before initiating change then every time you wait a few days to indulge in the habits you’re trying to break you are entrenching those habits deeper. If you are trying each day to change a habit, even if you slip up and indulge in the habit in question, you are trying again as soon as it’s done to change it again. That way you are entrenching the habit less, and enforcing the habit change more frequently, which is more likely to lead to a successful habit or behaviour change.

It seems like common sense. It really does feel obvious however, the temptation to be comfortable, which bad habits often are if they’re our usual way of functioning then the amount of self-discipline to say no to yourself and within yourself when no one is around to motivate or encourage you otherwise is great. Self discipline I think though is another habit that can become the new norm in this way. Being accountable to others can help but it isn’t healthy to rely on others to change your own behaviour. No one can change your behaviour or habits but yourself.

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This area gets more murky when mental illness is involved, but it rings just as true for mental illness. Although often a health professional is required to guide behaviour change in this instance. I’m not saying someone with OCD can change their rituals alone in this way, or that someone can stop engaging in eating disorder behaviours like this alone. Not at all. For small habits though, the trying every day brings a clean slate and a new opportunity to do better than before, every 24 hours. This can be quite helpful and can help with making the most of each day even during depression because some days you won’t be able to get out of bed, but on the days when you can you will likely achieve more on the good days which could help with the progression of the episode. It may buffer the loss of self-esteem during an episode as well when coupled with self compassion.

So scrap Mondays. Monday just means the world starts a new week. Next Monday will be no different to last Monday if you vow to make huge changes overnight on Monday. It won’t happen. We slip and we slide when breaking old habits and forming new ones. Accepting this and living in the present will likely mean in 20 Mondays time, you will be able to look back and see more successful changes because you’ve had 140 new starts, and 140 clean slates rather than 20.

Each Monday holds no more value in its 24 hours than any other day of the week. How about we stop putting Monday 1st on the podium above all the other days? Each day is a new day. There’s no time like the present. Every new morning is a new day, and the opportunity for a new start.