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The Art of Enjoying The Burn

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After inspecting my ankle, the doctor told me to strengthen it by doing a hundred calf raises a day. I try to do them whenever a few minutes present themselves: when soup is heating, coffee is brewing, or something is downloading.

After a few dozen reps, the calves really start to burn. I hadn’t done calf raises for years, and it turns out my relationship to that burning is very different than it used to be. Having done a fair bit of weight training since then, I hadn’t quite realized that I now enjoy the burning sensation of fatiguing muscles. I’ve come to know it as the feeling that goes with getting stronger.

I used to hate this same feeling. It was the feeling of slogging through the final laps in gym class, dying to hear the buzzer go. It was the feeling of awkwardly holding up a plank while I waited for my dad to put in all the screws.

Interestingly, the physical side of this muscle-burn feeling is the same as it ever was. It’s still uncomfortable. It’s still a relief when I can stop and rest. But my psychological relationship to it has completely reversed.

Instead of trying to escape from, ignore, or stop the burning, as I once did in Phys Ed class, I settle into it willingly, like the heat from a sauna. I let it build and intensify as I push on, without trying to defend against it, and that intensity is exhilarating. Even though it burns, it feels like strength, capability, progress. 

I guess that’s what all those 1980s television aerobics instructors meant when they commanded us to “Feel the burn!” If you’re going to be making progress, you’re going to be feeling a burn. So you might as well come to it willingly, embracing it as the intense feeling of making long-term gains, rather than a punishing side-effect we want to feel as little of as possible.

There seems to be an equivalent “burn” with all forms of personal boundary-pushing, a tension or discomfort that comes with all attempts to reach higher-hanging fruit. Getting anywhere with public speaking entails walking and talking through the burn of nerves. Creative work entails the burn of completing mediocre pieces of work, and showing them to people. Entrepreneurship entails the burn of working under the risk of failure and rejection.

In every endeavor that isn’t already easy for you, progress requires you to move into certain uncomfortable feelings with regularity. So it makes sense, if you can, to interpret those feelings as good, rewarding, and reassuring—even though they aren’t, in and of themselves, pleasant.

To do that we have to recognize the burn as it happens, and remember to let ourselves dwell in it as we carry on our work, without our usual contentiousness toward it.

As the burn becomes more familiar, you start to find a certain second-level pleasure in it. The burn can feel good, but not if you still resent it. I’ve brought this perspective to weights for a long time now, but recently I’m trying to “feel the burn” on purpose in other areas.

Lo and behold, there’s a burn everywhere I look. I experience a psychological “burn” whenever I carry on writing an article that feels stuck or bogged down. It feels hard, intense, not quite safe. Part of me is dying to pull the ripcord: File – Save – Exit. But another part of me is excited to be wading through this new, seemingly forbidden territory.

The burn intensifies every time I stride a little further than normal—when I decide, for example, to give an article another half hour beyond the point at which I was about to quit. The more I let myself feel that particular burn, the more it makes me feel capable and confident rather than annoyed or discouraged. It’s still uncomfortable, but it quickly becomes exhilarating too.

When you make room for the burn, you realize that it’s not dangerous, just intense, and that intensity can energize the work once you stop seeing it as undesirable.

My Depth Year project is teaching me how much lies just beyond the point at which I usually pack in my efforts. That’s the secret to growth as far as I can tell: carry everything past the point you’d normally quit, even just a small distance, and do that regularly. Not a new idea, but I’d never thought much about how it feels to do that.

When you reach one of these points and press on, something in your mind or body burns. And of course it does—things are getting stretched, tested, rebuilt.

Think about how much hinges on our relationship to “the burn” in all its forms: the outcomes of our goals, our sense of what’s possible, our self-esteem, our incomes, our health, how good our “best” ends up being, and every other status quo in our personal lives.

When it comes to personal growth, in any avenue, new territory burns. Get to know the burn. Feel the burn. Enjoy the burn.

***

Photo by Bruno Nascimento

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Curtis M Michaels March 12, 2018 at 2:40 am

Dude you’ve got some seriously useful timing! I’m working on taking self-discipline from feeling like some big-bad adult is standing over me with a ruler, just waiting to beat the tar out of me for every little mistake – to finding the joy in it. Then you explore what feeling the burn really means in the same language I understand when addressing emotional healing. Step into it. See it for what it is, a symptom of making life better. Embrace it and allow yourself to feel the pain of it while loving what it gives you and loving yourself.

Seriously! Deeply! Thank you!!!

Curtis M Michaels March 12, 2018 at 2:40 am

OH, and putting my social media in a folder in my bookmarks has helped quite a lot, by the way.

David Cain March 12, 2018 at 8:34 am

It’s intimidating on the surface level, but after that there is a real feeling of empowerment you can get from moving into the burn. It really reframes the whole idea of difficulty.

Tom Southern March 12, 2018 at 3:18 am

This piece reminds me of the time I took up jogging and jogged 2.5 thereabouts home from a park. The sense of exhilaration was amazing. Then I lit a fag. Mh, healthy living. Still, years later, I no longer smoke and am venturing on a weight loss plan. Feel the burn!

David Cain March 12, 2018 at 8:36 am

Haha… even major league athletes used to smoke on the bench during games. Things have changed!

Andrea Sharb March 12, 2018 at 6:17 am

Thanks for posting this on a Monday morning. Two of my favorite feelings have always been the burn that comes with lifting just a little more weight or pushing myself to walk another mile and the soreness the day after that reminds me of what I accomplished. I’m in a place right now with lots of opportunities to feel the burn in other areas my life – writing, experimenting with a career change and watching my kids accept responsibility for themselves. I’ve recently been dousing any hint of burn in these areas as soon as I experience the tiniest bit of pain. I know that today will provide opportunities to experiment with pushing a little further. I also know from experience I can handle more. I just needed to be reminded of that. Thank you and have a great week.

David Cain March 12, 2018 at 8:37 am

What’s interesting is that every sort of work eventually reaches that point where your usual boundary starts tapping you on the shoulder. This is amazing when you start to see it as an offer to get better, right then and there. It’s so dependable.

Rama March 12, 2018 at 8:20 am

This is a very insightful piece!

I try to do this with physical exercise and but one trick that has been useful to me is the following (I think I read this in one of your articles but am not 100% sure):

When the burn starts, your mind starts imagining how you will feel when the burn is over, and automatically comparing to what you are feeling right now. This contrast makes the burn feel much worse.

Instead, if you stop the fantasy and force yourself to focus on the burn itself and really feel it, it paradoxically starts to feel less painful.

David Cain March 12, 2018 at 8:39 am

Yeah I agree… that little fantasy we have about feeling relief can totally take over. Any time you’re on a treadmill, it’s easy to picture how much of a relief it would be to hit the stop button. I guess the trick is to train that as another reminder to embrace the burn and carry on, even for just a bit.

Tonya March 12, 2018 at 8:21 am

I’ve definitely become accustomed to the physical burn, but less so with emotional burn, aka, boredom. I’m working on not just reacting to give myself comfort the moment I’m in that zone.

David Cain March 12, 2018 at 8:41 am

I have found meditation really helps with this, because feelings like boredom do happen, and the instruction is to see if you can let it sit there with you. Same with desires, aversions, minor discomfort, and anything else that happens when you try to sit still :)

Jeff March 12, 2018 at 8:37 am

David,

Lovely article. I am currently listening to Jocko Willink’s audibook “Discipline Equals Freedom,” and this article came at a perfect time for me. Like you alluded to in your own past, most of my life I’ve run from “the burn” and dreaded it. By embracing it and owning it, and even seeking it, we can massively change the direction of our lives. So powerful yet so simple. Thank you for the eloquent description of personal growth, change and transformation!

David Cain March 12, 2018 at 8:41 am

I have heard people mention that book… the title is intriguing

Alaina Raychel March 12, 2018 at 1:15 pm

Read it! It’s fast, and has a different voice than you might be used to hearing. I loved it.

esther nagle March 17, 2018 at 2:44 pm

oh my goodness, about an hour ago I was just thinking ‘there needs to be a book about how discipline is actually the greatest path to freedom’, or words to that effect. :) I shall investigate this one right now!

Tara March 12, 2018 at 8:43 am

Thank you for this article, it is very timely for me. Although I am very accomplished at feeling the burn and pushing through on a physical level, on a work level this has been terrifying. I recently committed to being self-employed and doing consulting as well as a blogging business but although the work is enjoyable and exciting, the whole newness and uncertainty is terrifying. I had never likened the exercise burn to that felt in other sectors of my life. Your article reminds me that others experience these challenges and get through them. Thank you.

David Cain March 13, 2018 at 3:56 pm

Oh man self-employment is like an avalanche of that feeling! I guess that’s the price we pay for no boss. I wish I’d learned to see it in terms of various “burns” earlier.

Bernz JP March 12, 2018 at 9:15 am

I agree with your post 100%. I was doing physical therapy a few months ago after a surgery and it definitely was harder in the beginning, but the feeling that you are improving, getting better and accomplishing things that I was not able to accomplish before was powerful. Just like in life, self-discipline and commitment is the key to be successful and to reach our goals and expectations.

Kenneth March 12, 2018 at 9:28 am

Even you, David, must admit this is a strange Universe. Things just show up in your attention, like for me, another Raptitude article. I haven’t been reading you lately – I get the whole mindfulness thing. But “Feel the Burn” really drew me in, especially the application to anything in your life where you are trying to improve, not just physical – heck, I’m on the treadmill 45 minutes a day, 6 days a week already. I’m used to that. But I need to work on my weight again, sigh. Reached goal of 195 at Thanksgiving, but today at 208. So, eat better, eat less, watch my calories. Feel the burn!

Esther Nagle March 12, 2018 at 9:45 am

this came so perfectly timed for me – i have been wondering why i am so prone to starting things then not completing them, and I think it has a lot to do with this ‘feeling the burn’ thing – I used to do a lot of really strenuous exercise where I frequently felt that burn, but these days my exercise is far more leisurely walking, and really gentle, balancing hatha yoga. I rarely push myself in that physical way anymore, and i am sure this reflects into the rest of my life. I’m still processing exactly where my thoughts are going with this, but know that this post will be part of my reflections, thank you for another superlative piece of writing!

Steve March 12, 2018 at 12:29 pm

David,

I love this analogy between physical and psychological burn. As a middle aged dude (48), I’ve really pushed my running, yoga, and overall fitness to stay ahead of the curve.

At the same time, I find myself retreating mentally a little with the aging. Reading this is a nice reminder to do a little boundary pushing inside my head.

“That’s the secret to growth as far as I can tell: carry everything past the point you’d normally quit, even just a small distance, and do that regularly.”

Great quote right there. Even though there are times these days I feel old(er), that’s no excuse to stop growing.

Thanks for the nudge,

Steve

Liz March 12, 2018 at 5:32 pm

How did this come to me at such a time when I so desperately needed to hear this? I am unbelievably thankful to you.

Please do not ever stop writing!!! We love hearing your messages to the world, David!

Arthur Guerrero March 12, 2018 at 8:57 pm

Good stuff David. Pushing beyond your boundaries & comfort zone is the only way to get better and improve. It can suck sometimes, but it’s always worth it.

Stubblejumpers Cafe March 13, 2018 at 9:20 am

I got to a similar understanding, but with the opposite temperature! The “enlightenment” came while walking outside in severe winter weather. I found myself scurrying, hurrying, head bent, hating every moment. Then I thought, Face it! and lifted my eyes. Sure it was cold but what a different sense of self that brought me! Now I walk into the wind instead of shrinking from it. -Kate

Abhijeet Kumar March 14, 2018 at 6:16 pm

The burn I experienced is almost existential. That sense of being in the moment that became more and more accessible through meditation, and the resulting cascade of being with the experiences, self inquiry, and finding something, but losing a lot (false beliefs). It can be disorienting. Burns, but not quite.

Chelsea March 15, 2018 at 1:19 pm

As a long time jiu-jitsu practitioner, I am very “comfortable with being uncomfortable” and either pushing through hard things or slowing down and embracing them. Psychologically, I can do this as well with projects – personal, academic and career wise.
I can’t tell if I’m not trying hard enough or if I think I’m letting go of negative feelings but I’m really not, but when it comes to anything else physical aside from rolling around on the ground choking people and bending limbs, I hate it. Grappling for hours? Great. Jogging for warm-ups? The heat from it? I have such a hard time, and try all sorts of mental tricks and methods to not hate it. I’ll have to look at some of the things other people do here and try more.

Rafael March 15, 2018 at 6:04 pm

“In every endeavor that isn’t already easy for you, progress requires you to move into certain uncomfortable feelings with regularity.”

I think this is one of the core ideas of deliberate practice. You only improve in a skill if you are uncomfortable while doing it. If it’s fun, you are probably not learning.

Great text.

KG March 16, 2018 at 2:46 pm

Great article and analogies to life. Yes, growth is never comfortable. It’s all in how you frame things in your head.

Tyler March 18, 2018 at 11:01 am

Hi David,
I’m a big fan of your writing! Like you, I am heavily interested in practicing and studying mindfulness meditation. Your post here is yet another benefit of the practice that I have noticed relatively recently. As you mention, “feeling the burn” applies to all facets of life; physical and mental alike.
In reflecting on my own experience on this subject I noticed the arena of generosity or honest compliments and how easy it is to go without them for fear of putting oneself out there. But going that extra mile can be very beneficial for oneself and another although it can feel uncomfortable.
A quote that comes to mind from Einstein on the subject goes something like “It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with the problems longer.”
Keep up the good work!

Andy March 20, 2018 at 10:26 am

This is some of the best advice I’ve ever received (I think from “The Rock Warrior’s Way”). There is a target chart with the center being what is comfortable. The next ring is growth aka the burn. Outside of that ring, is essentially burnout. When we spend time in the growth ring, it eventually becomes comfortable making our center larger. It’s always been a useful visual for me to finding the balance between stagnation, growth, and breaking down.

Income Master March 20, 2018 at 8:56 pm

Great article. I’ve come to love the burn when lifting weights as you know you are pushing your body to it’s limits and progressing to a new high. I agree that this concept can be applied to many other areas in our lives. Anything worthwhile doing usually isn’t easy and requires, time, sacrifice and pain.

Accidental FIRE March 26, 2018 at 3:18 pm

It’s all about the burn man! One must suffer to make progress, that won’t change. There are no shortcuts!!

Rose Pearson April 4, 2018 at 3:08 pm

And like a muscle your ability to have mental and emotional control increases every time you enter “burn territory” and hold it a little longer. And like a muscle it’s important to take small steps to achieve your mental/emotional goals lest you “burn out”. I love to excercie my brain this way. It makes something mundane, the discomfort of not rudely speaking my mind to a customer, being present for someone else’s pain without blurting advice, sitting in silence without entertainment or work to busy my self all an act of willful development that burns just right and is then, after the moment passes, rewarding and exciting because it’s contributing to my “brain goals”. Puns!

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