On the Edge: Doing Hard Things

I have almost always struggled against the edges in my life. As a devastatingly anxious, type-A woman, I have often pushed much further past what is healthy, sustainable thriving. It can be a challenge for me to recognize the difference between keeping myself safe and healthy versus being “wimpy” or “lazy,” running into the same identity crisis Michael Lee described surrounding “doing” in his essay The Edge. So much of my own identity surrounds this idea of achieving and doing at all times, so it can feel nearly impossible to budget space for restoration. I just keep pushing, even if I fell off the edge of my cliff days, or weeks, or years ago.

My approach to my practice was similar when I began attending yoga, and particularly when I struggled most with my relationship with exercise before beginning eating disorder recovery. I would continue to push myself into poses no matter if my body needed a modification or deeper breathing, and it took me a very long time to truly recognize the difference between the burn of growing strength and sting of pain. Especially as I fought to reconcile my distorted, anorexic vision of myself with the reality of my existence, I didn’t really care about my edge as much as I cared about pushing harder than anyone else.

A book by Ryan Holiday called The Obstacle is the Way, which my now-boyfriend loaned me after the breakup of my last long-term relationship, helped me a lot in understanding the difference between growth and pain. The book, a self-help guide based on the foundations of stoic philosophy, was honestly a little shocking the first time I read it. It talks about how the best method to surmount obstacles is to go through them — that facing a challenge for what it is is, in fact, the way to make it to the other side.

At first, I read the “straighten up and scale the wall” tone of the book as “you aren’t allowed to feel stressed out or frustrated when facing hard things,” which was completely in response to my perfectionistic method of breaking down into panic when I failed to achieve or do something (or when I perceived that failure). In reality, the message of the book was essentially, “Things are hard. But you can do hard things.” It was describing a way to be strong and reflective through challenging situations, so I could maintain respect for myself and my edge because I wasn’t wasting energy with panic and negative self-talk.

I think Holiday’s mentality is very similar to Lee’s in that they both prize reflection and response over panic and reaction; Lee discusses the process of finding the balancing point of striving for growth that lies between over- and under-exertion, while Holiday discusses the way to balance on that precipice of growth through life’s obstacles. There’s no sense panicking — just like the Calm app’s 7 Days of Managing Stress series, it’s generally more beneficial to (S)top, (T)ake a breath, (O)bserve the current reality, and (P)roceed.

I used to think operating past my edge at near-constant levels meant I was strong because I was achieving beyond my capacity. But really, it just meant I was really, really good at cultivating personal disappointment and burnout. What I have found as I continue to practice yoga, develop a healthier relationship with food and my body, and cultivate a mindfulness practice of reflection and response versus anxious reactivity, is that it can be much more powerful to know when to step back.

Balancing on my edge often means knowing when to scale back personal and professional commitments, like taking a semester off serving as a volunteer English tutor until I finish yoga teacher training. It can also mean taking a modification or not going as deeply into a pose, and not feeling frustration because the yogi next to me can take bound half moon while I struggle to take “regular” half moon. It also means knowing that striving for constant achievement is unsustainable and unrealistic, and that being present in the moment and moving myself in the direction of a personally meaningful life is achievement in itself.

I am still very much learning how to hover on my edge. When I returned to practice after a couple of years of recovery, I found myself overcorrecting from the self-destruction of overexertion to fear-laden under-exertion because I didn’t trust myself or my body. Even off the mat, that’s something I struggle with — how much is enough to grow, without being too much to sustain? Continuing to explore that edge and learning to trust myself in finding and balancing on it is something I hope to gain as I deepen my practice and continue training. It’s hard, often confusing, and generally frustrating. But I can do hard things.