Getting Past "Can't"

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This piece was originally published on the ZGiRLS website on October 28th, 2012.

My legs were burning like crazy, my heart felt like it was going explode out of my chest, my lungs were gasping for more oxygen, and my back was tightening with every pedal stroke. I was on a mountain bike ride, and I had about ten excruciating minutes left of an exceptionally steep, challenging ascent. My mind was racing with all of the reasons why I couldn’t make it.

I had a whole list of reasons why I was going to have to get off my bike and walk it to the top of the peak. “It hurts.” “I can’t breathe. “I can barely turn the crank.” “There’s no way I am going to make it without getting off my bike.”

After several minutes, over my screaming thighs and labored breath, I finally began to actually hear my own thoughts. “Why on earth,” I asked myself, “when you understand the power of positive self-talk, would you build a case in your head for why you can’t do this right now?” Yes, the riding was painful, but I knew that kind of attitude definitely wasn’t going to help me get through the pain, or to the top of that climb. I recognized that I needed to change my thought pattern.

So like a mad woman playing whack-a-mole, I basically tried to bat away my discouraging thoughts. “Nope, go away,” I thought to myself, “those thoughts really aren’t useful right now.” I tried to focus on my breathing, relaxing my shoulders, and looking ahead.

But the negative thoughts came back, and this time they were accompanied with all of the reasons why the thoughts were true. “It hurts because you haven’t ridden in two weeks. You can’t expect to complete this hard of an ascent when you haven’t been riding much lately.” “You can’t breathe because you have exercise induced asthma and you literally aren’t getting enough oxygen right now.” “Your legs are so short that you have really bad leverage. No wonder this feels impossible, you have to work much harder than taller riders to turn the crank on this steep of a hill.” And finally, “there’s no way around it, I’m going to have to get off my bike and walk the rest of the way.” As I listened to my own thoughts, I actually thought I’d come up with a pretty sound argument for why the climb was too hard and that I should just give up and walk.

But again, as I pushed down on my pedals, I knew that I should try being more positive before I let the mountain win. So, stubbornly, I literally started telling myself, “I can do it. I can do it. I can do it….” It felt ridiculous. After all, at the time, I didn’t actually believe that I could do it. The words were 100% forced, and the thoughts felt completely contrived. I reminded myself of the Little Engine That Could children’s book, and I was glad that no one could hear how cheesy I was being.

But the thing was, it worked. After forcing myself to think “I can do it” maybe 5-10 times, things started to shift. I was able to dig into an untapped reserve of energy and grit. My muscles started to feel more powerful. And after a few minutes, I started to discover that I actually could “do it.” I was doing it. I proved to myself that I did have it in me, and I disproved all of those reasons for why I should just give up and walk…

At the top of the climb, I was rewarded with a beautiful view. My legs were so tired that I could barely stand and I was gasping for air, but still, I felt good. Standing at the top of the mountain felt victorious, but the real victory wasn’t necessarily reaching the peak, it was the mental battle that I’d won ten minutes earlier. Even though I regularly practice positive self-talk, I was still surprised at what a difference it had made. If I hadn’t overcome my mental block on the ascent, I would not have felt such a meaningful sense of accomplishment at the top.

It occurred to me, as I soaked up the view, that a lot of people miss out on feeling that confidence-building sense of accomplishment because they aren’t always able to navigate past the “can’t.” That is, when things get tough and uncomfortable, when all signs point to “can’t,” most of us decide to stop pushing the pedals altogether and just get off the bike.

There is so much to be gained at the top of the mountain, but to get there, usually we have to navigate past “can’t.” Will it be forced? Yes. Will it feel cheesy? Almost always. But will you reach the top of your own mountains and challenges? A lot more often.