The Lasting Benefits of Getting Comfortable With Discomfort

Life can be uncomfortable at the best of times, but moving past the pain can pay unexpected dividends
By Jay Harrington, Life and Whim
August 8, 2019 Updated: August 8, 2019

I woke in a tent, a bit disoriented, and my attention immediately fixated on my feet. It was the morning of Day 2 of what was to be a four-day, 43-mile hike through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Three friends and I had carefully planned the journey. We had enough food, clothing, tents, and supplies to get us through. We had the means to filter the Lake Superior water we’d need to stay hydrated.

But as is often the case when planning an outdoor adventure, a small mistake I made had big implications for my comfort level during the trip. At the last minute, I decided to wear a different pair of shoes than I had originally intended. Instead of wearing lightweight trail-running shoes, I opted for an old, high-top pair of hiking boots. I have a chronically weak ankle, oft-injured from multiple sprains over the years, and I was worried about rolling it while hiking the trail and being a burden to my friends. There’s no easy way out of the trail if you get injured.

The hiking boots provided good ankle support, but they did a number on my feet. After clambering out of the tent that morning, I surveyed the damage.

It was clear to me just a few miles into the first day of the hike that I was going to have blister problems. Blisters are obviously painful, but they’re manageable. The problem was that the blisters that were forming on my heels were causing me to change my gait, leading to an unnatural foot strike on the balls of my feet. This resulted in deep, painful “stone” bruises developing on the balls of my feet.

As we resuscitated our campfire from the night before, made coffee, and cooked breakfast, my only option was pretty clear: pull the boots back on and get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable for a few days.

After 11 miles, we reached our second campsite and quickly set up our tents. During that day’s hike, we had the chance to enjoy the cliffs, panoramic views of Lake Superior, waterfalls, and other natural wonders that Pictured Rocks is known for. It truly is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

The campsite was much deeper in the woods than the first and the mosquitoes were out. So after setting up camp, we grabbed what we needed—food, water, and bourbon—and hustled down to the beach, where we only had to contend with black flies. We spent a relaxing six or seven hours chilling out on the beach, cooking dinner, and allowing the frigid Lake Superior water to take the sting out of sore feet and calf muscles. After the sunset at about 10:30 p.m., we made our way back to camp and zipped up our tents as quickly as possible as the ambient noise of buzzing mosquitoes enveloped us.

On Day 3, as we set out on our hike, we began to assess our options. We had 21 miles ahead of us, which we intended to complete over the next two days, but the idea of setting up camp among another swarm of mosquitoes wasn’t appealing.

After hiking 13 miles, we took a break at Miner’s Beach around 5 p.m. By this point, we were all experiencing some level of discomfort, ranging from blisters to sore knees, backs, and feet. We had two more miles to go to our campsite, but we decided to knock out the last eight miles and finish the hike rather than deal with the bugs.

By the time we began the final leg, we knew we only had about three, maybe four, hours of light left, so we had to move quickly. Our hike became a trail run and we spilled out of the trail in near-darkness at 10:30 p.m. We were soaked in sweat, sore, thirsty … and exhilarated.

Our little adventure pales in comparison to many of the epic excursions you’ll see splashed across Instagram and documented on Netflix, but for me—a middle-aged desk jockey—it was pretty extreme. And it definitely got me out of my comfort zone.

Grow Through Discomfort

It’s easy to get stuck in day-to-day routines. As we get older, our lives begin to fall into familiar patterns. The spontaneity and adventure of our youth is displaced by the monotony of the familiar. While days may drag, life seems to speed by.

Routine is comfortable. Breaking one’s routine, even in small ways, is uncomfortable, which is why most people don’t. But getting comfortable with discomfort is the path to personal growth.

Here’s a seemingly trivial example that has paid some lasting dividends: I check for new work emails on my phone way too often. By going into the woods, where we lacked a signal for three days, I was forced to break this routine. At first, despite knowing it was futile, I still found myself pulling out my phone out of habit. Within a few hours, I adapted to the new reality (life without the internet) and became much more present in the moment as a result.

While it was uncomfortable at first, I came to realize the madness of allowing technology to steal my attention from the wonders of the world around me. Upon reentering the world of “five-bar” data signals, I found that my digital detox endured. By no means have I been perfect, but the positive feelings of my tech-free weekend have led me to be less likely to reach for my phone in search of a quick dopamine hit. There are way more appealing things to look at in the beautiful setting of Traverse City.

Another example: Physical fitness has always been an important part of my life, but over the past 12 months, I’ve fallen into a bit of a rut. My workout routine became, well, routine, and I started feeling stagnant. The Pictured Rocks weekend helped break the script. The hike was a physical challenge to be sure. Covering 43 miles in three days of hilly terrain with a great deal of wet, muddy trails, and obstacles—all while carrying heavy backpacks—was taxing. However, I found that, despite the increasingly acute pain in my feet, the hike got easier as the days went on. In fact, we ran the last eight miles of our 21-mile hike on Day 3.

It was a good reminder that the human body is a pretty remarkable machine. Most of the physical limitations we face (except for injury and disability, of course) are mental. While the body’s primal, evolutionary instinct is to conserve energy, it can turn it up when it needs to. While the first couple of days of a physical challenge may seem extremely difficult, by the third day, it’s as if the body says to itself, “Okay, this is what we’re doing now,” and taps into rarely used reserves. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable on the trail has, like the digital detox, paid me ongoing dividends in terms of better, more rigorous workouts.

Experience Something New to Create Lasting Change

All of this is to say that, while it’s not easy to break free from old routines, one of the best ways to do so is to thrust yourself into new (often uncomfortable) situation and experiences. You can’t think your way out of undesired habits. No article or online video is going to provide the motivation necessary to overcome the inertia of the status quo.

It’s almost always necessary to experience something new—even if it’s unpleasant in the moment—to see things differently. Personal experience is the precursor to personal improvement. Discomfort is the catalyst for growth.

Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim. He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.

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