About five years ago, I set a goal that was so far out of my comfort zone, I had NO idea whether or not I could actually accomplish it: to run a half marathon.
Guys, I am NOT athletic. I never have been. I discovered this early on in elementary school when we would play Sneaky Pete where you have a scarf tucked into the back of your pants and everyone runs around trying to grab each other’s scarves and the last man standing wins. I would try to get out early every single time because I just couldn’t run as much as my peers. This was the trend of my physical activity for years, as I asked the question, “Why can everybody else run for SO long without getting tired?”
I just assumed I was not athletic and left it at that. I never played sports. Not soccer, not basketball, not T-ball, and certainly not track or cross-country.
Then, in my late twenties, a friend of mine pushed me a little and ensured me that ANYONE could run a half marathon. They just have to do the training runs.
I decided to give it a whirl. It honestly took me a few months to even be able to run thirty minutes without stopping. I had to start with running a minute, walking a minute. Then running two minutes, walking a minute, etc.
Running a 5k seemed improbable. A half marathon literally seemed impossible.
After so many runs I can remember thinking, “Who am I kidding? I’m not a runner! I can’t even run for thirty minutes!” I would be embarrassed to even tell people I went for a run, let alone that I was training for a big race. Scared they would ask me my time. Scared they would call me out on what I already was guessing at- that I could never accomplish such a task.
I felt anxious and uncomfortable. I felt out of my element and was often tempted to give up on my goal.
But I also felt a sense of accomplishment each time I ran a little more than I ever had before.
And eventually, I did run that half marathon (and four more since).
I tell you this story, not to be pat on the back, but to point out that accomplishing goals and making progress NEVER comes without discomfort and anxiety. If I were just to say, “Yeah, I used to never think I could run at all and now I run half marathons!” You wouldn’t get the full picture of all the self-doubt, the sore knees, the lack of motivation, the embarrassment of how slow I run.
But those anxieties will always be there when we want to progress. Including when we want to progress our marriages. It may seem easy- go on more dates, have more fun, have more sex, but trust me, every time I’ve tried to “up-level” my marriage, anxiety and discomfort have been constant companions in some form or another, particularly when it comes to personal progress (which will always end up improving your marriage).
This whole month’s posts will be dedicated to the topic of tolerating discomfort for growth. Last week we talked about WHY this is important. Today, we are going to talk about HOW.
HOW DO WE GET COMFORTABLE WITH DISCOMFORT?
I’m reminded once again of a Brene Brown quote that applies to almost any tricky situation I encounter. She says,
“DON’T PUFF UP. DON’T SHRINK. JUST STAND YOUR SACRED GROUND.”
When it comes to improving our marriages, puffing up would look like indigence, like self-righteousness, like pride. Shrinking then would look like giving up on our goal.
Standing our sacred ground is where its at.
How do we stand our sacred ground?
I’ve come up with three steps:
1. Make sure your ground IS actually sacred.
The first step to standing our sacred ground is to make sure our ground is sacred. We have to make sure our goal is going to be for the benefit of the whole and not just to serve some selfish desire that would only serve ourselves and not our partner. We have to ensure that the goal is coming out of the BEST in us instead of the worst. We have to make sure we are acting in our personal integrity instead of merely being reactive.
This is actually a lot harder than it sounds. Let’s say I’m bothered by something my spouse is not doing, and I want to call them out on it. Am I bringing it up because their improvement would be for the benefit of our relationship and both of us as individuals or would it just make my life easier?
This isn’t an easy question to answer. It requires trial and error, experimentation and developing our own integrity. I used to think that a “good” spouse would just never be bothered by anything and be able to accommodate whatever their spouse wanted from them. From years of experimentation and reading, I see now that this is not the case. Sometimes it IS for the benefit of both me and Rich and our marriage for me to not accommodate his requests, and to respect my own boundaries. It’s a thin line between this and just reacting out in anger and not integrity, but I think I’m getting closer. It’s a process.
2. Distinguish between clean pain and dirty pain.
This is an idea from Dr. David Schnarch. He says when we want to improve and we experience the discomfort of leaving our comfort zones, or when we self-confront and feel anxious about our own faults, or when we feel a tinge of guilt for wronging our partner- this is CLEAN pain because it will ultimately lead to our growth. When we experience shame, self-loathing, resentment, blame- these are dirty forms of pain because they do not ultimately lead to our growth. Quite the opposite actually- they blockade our growth and keep us stagnant.
Unfortunately, most people think pain is pain and pain is weak and pain is to be AVOIDED AT ALL COSTS! So, they keep themselves from growing because to grow means to experience pain (albeit clean pain). It is important to distinguish clean and productive pain from self-destructive pain. And then open the door to feeling clean pain instead of giving up or distracting ourselves away from it.
3. Don’t give up until you’ve given it your best shot.
It can be really hard to know when to give up on a goal. Because often, when we push ourselves, our lives will get worse before it gets better. How to tell the difference between something that is just not working and something you just haven’t given enough time? It can be tricky, but again, challenge yourself on whether you are feeling clean growing pains or dirty pain and try to eliminate the dirty and embrace the clean.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about here:
Let’s take the hypothetical marriage of Sheila and Max. Shelia tends to think how I used to- that to be a good spouse, she needs to be selfless all the time and accommodate her spouse in his requests with a smile on her face. Max is a good guy, but grew up in a home where his mom did all the housework and hasn’t really challenged his expectations of his and Sheila’s respective roles. Max loves Sheila and wants to be a good husband for her. But he also dislikes clutter and disorganization, and so he makes frequent requests of Sheila to do this or that differently around the house to help things run smoothly.
For years, Sheila did her best to keep up with his requests. She often even berated herself for being unable to. Why couldn’t she seem to keep the front room picked up and the kitchen floor swept? She was the one home all day after all, not Max.
Eventually, however, she came to have a little more self-love and self-respect and realized that with young kids, keeping an orderly home is all but impossible 24/7 and messes are just to be expected. She decided to set up some boundaries for herself- rather than following around the kids picking up after them all day, she would pick up the front room at night and do the dishes once a day. Then do more on Saturdays- enlisting the whole family’s help.
If she wanted to do more she could, but that would be her new standard of what was acceptable. With her new-found time, she would practice self-care and read a book, call a friend or even sneak in a nap.
She thrived with her new standards and specifically with dropping the expectation of near perfection. She felt more free and more calm.
Max on the other hand . . . loved his new messier house and took it in stride!
Kidding. Of course, he didn’t love it. It stressed him out. He came home grumpy. Even though Sheila explained to Max how much the new lowered standard was improving her life, it didn’t change how he felt about the increased clutter. He would nicely request that she add vacuuming and mopping to her daily standard, but she held firm.
Now. Sheila at this point is feeling anxious about how her changes are affecting Max. He was mad at her. He was frequently in a bad mood. Their connection took a hit. Was this worth it? Was she being selfish? Should she go back to following her kids around picking up after them all day?
She thought of how much more at peace she’d been since she lowered her standard of household perfection and decided to hold firm.
While it took many weeks, Max eventually accepted that Sheila would not accommodate his requests like she used to. In fact, the situation forced him to do a little self-confronting and he realized how little he did to help out and how often he criticized. He saw that if he wanted the floor vacuumed, he would just have to do it himself.
This is a great example of embracing discomfort for growth. Sheila’s pain at first was dirty pain- full of self-doubt and shame. But then, when she set a new standard for herself, she experienced the inevitable anxiety that comes with growth, but she “stood her sacred ground” in part because she felt confident that her ground was in fact sacred after experiencing the positive effects of her new plan.
Max also eventually came around to the clean pain of self-confronting and the partnership was made better by Sheila standing her sacred ground even though it caused temporary discomfort for both partners.
When we change the rules of our marriage, we should EXPECT push back. We should expect discomfort and anxiety. But if we are sure our ground is sacred, stand on it.
Don’t puff up, don’t shrink, just stand your sacred ground (which will feel uncomfortable, but stand there anyway).