Why Do We Do Hard Things: a meditation on challenges

By Megan Nolde, of SAGE RVA consulting, for Shockoe Bottom Performance

The CrossFit Open is coming up. You’ve probably heard about it if you’re a part of a CrossFit box or gym, or if you’re a member at our gym (Shockoe Bottom Performance). The Open is an all-call for anyone who wants to, to participate in the officially sanctioned workouts put out by Crossfit Games HQ, and test themselves against everyone else in the world. These workouts are rarely anything but hard – mentally, physically, and emotionally. They drain you. They push you. They often ask you to find yourself in the pain cave at some point along the way.

Sounds not-at-all daunting, right? (Note the sarcasm please!) So why in the world would anyone do the Open? And a bigger question that’s relevant– why do anything so challenging like this– anything that tests your limits in some way and asks you to re-evaluate your paradigm on the world?

Many among society would say it’s simple – you just don’t. Paradigm shifts, testing your limits, risking failure – these are all things that can activate your sympathetic nervous system and cause fearful feelings of threat and danger. Our sympathetic nervous systems are the things that motivate us in dangerous situations – they bring adrenaline up, fast-twitch muscle fiber on board, and a heightened sense of awareness among other things. They cause a fight or flight (or freeze or collapse) response. And why would you play with such things unnecessarily?

Popular opinion says not to. Changing our outlook as a result of facing a challenge is not easy – as human mammals we’re wired to avoid risk, shy away from change, and be afraid of the emotions associated with admitting we need to be a different version of ourselves than we have been. Paradigm shifts threaten our sense of self, they ask our brains to rewire from old habits, and they require us to reconfigure the way we know our identities. None of this is easy – neurons that fire together wire together, so making NEW connections between neurons takes effort and can be literally exhausting on its own. So again – why do it?

I can’t speak for the general populace on this one. I can only speak for myself and my experience. I can tell you, though, that one of the most important moments in my personal recovery from a traumatic past was the moment I decided to re-do last year’s Open workout – 21.2. 

Here’s the workout, if you aren’t familiar:

For time:

10 dumbbell snatches

15 burpee box jump-overs

20 dumbbell snatches

15 burpee box jump-overs

30 dumbbell snatches

15 burpee box jump-overs

40 dumbbell snatches

15 burpee box jump-overs

50 dumbbell snatches

15 burpee box jump-overs

35-lb. dumbbell, 20-in. box

Time cap: 20 min.

I did the workout once in a group with a scaled dumbbell and barely finished. I simply didn’t believe I was capable of doing the thing RX (with the 35 lb dumbbell). This despite the weight I would lift on a squat or deadlift – despite being strong enough in terms of muscles. I didn’t believe I could because I knew it would be hard – not just physically, but more importantly mentally. 

Having a history of trauma – in my case, an abusive relationship in the past – meant I simply didn’t believe in myself enough. And, that I was afraid of feeling bad, out of breath, or physically in pain because of the associations that I had with panic attacks and my past.

But my community believed in me. I remember even now Mandi telling me that I was capable of more. I remember Ryan doing the same, and Francisco assuring me that he would help if I wanted to try it again RX. They believed in me when I didn’t.

With Francisco as my judge, I redid 21.2 solo two mornings later, the RX version. I didn’t quite finish, but it didn’t matter because the success was in facing my fears. In doing the hard thing and coming out the other side. It was definitely hard – there were so many times during that workout– those 20 minutes – that I wanted to stop, that I cried or felt terrified. But Francisco kept me going, and my desire to not be the version of me that was still afraid kept me going too.

So why do the Open? Why do anything that is challenging?

Because you will learn SO much about yourself in the process. You will grow internally. You will surprise yourself. You will overcome what you didn’t realize you needed to overcome. It’s not about the sexiness of painful workouts (is that even a thing?). It’s about the personal growth that comes with facing down our most difficult interior parts of ourselves. It’s about realizing that we are capable of more than we ever think we are. And it’s about listening to our friends who believe in us, even when we aren’t sure ourselves.

21.2 was a turning point for me. Maybe you’ll have one this Open. Maybe you’ll simply face down some challenging workouts. Either way – it’s about more than the workouts. It’s what you learn from them about yourself.