George Carter
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What Climbing Has Taught Me About Discomfort

| Thursday 25th May, 2023

There’s a saying in addiction circles, that acting out on your addiction is like ‘feeling the relief of taking off a pair of tight shoes’. We carry stress and tension through everything we do, and acting out (having the cigarette or the drink or the ‘drug of choice’) gives us a temporary pause from that stress. The premise, of course, is that we shouldn’t put the tights shoes on in the first place, and then we wouldn’t need that feeling of relief.

I think this applies not only to addiction but also to any kind of difficult commitment we may make in our lives… anything we want to work towards that is outside out comfort zone.

The ‘tight shoes’ analogy has become very real for me since I have taken up indoor bouldering. You see, tight shoes are a necessity for bouldering (and climbing in general). Beginners are always surprised by how snug the shoes are, and as you progress you go snugger and snugger… not the point of deforming your feet, but certainly to the brink of discomfort.

By way of example, I have dropped a size and a half between the first climbing shoes that I bought around a year ago, and my third pair that I bought the other day. A full size down the first time, and a half size down this time.

So what have I learnt?

I’ve learnt that sometimes, if we want to get what we want, ‘tight shoes’ are a must. We must put ourselves in uncomfortable positions, we must get out of our comfort zone, we must introduce a little stress and pressure into our lives.

But the key is to know when to rest; when to take those tight shoes off.

The pair of shoes I just bought are good for about five minutes right now. After that I have to take them off. They will relax slightly and when they do I’ll probably be able to climb for a full session of a couple of hours without removing them. That’s how it works. But to begin with, they are not comfortable.

Again, how well that mirrors real life!

To achieve what we once thought was impossible we must put on the tight shoes. But over time those tight shoes will relax and we’ll be much more comfortable.

And, as a bonus, as we get stronger we’ll find that we don’t even need the tight shoes any more. Professional climbers, wearing their day-to-day shoes, can find their way to the top of boulders of a much higher grade than I am climbing right now. They’ve built their strength and technique to a point where they only need the tight shoes to work at their limit.

I think I misunderstood the ‘tight shoes’ analogy when I first looked at mindfulness and personal growth… I think I thought we should never put tight shoes on. But over time, and through my climbing, I’ve learnt that actually they are necessary sometimes. But the key is to only wear them for as long as required, and to rest in between.

Let’s introduce that stress and discomfort into our lives, but on our terms.


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