Challenge: A test of one’s abilities or resources in a demanding but stimulating undertaking.
Struggle: Strenuous effort; striving. To progress with difficulty.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the differences between struggle and challenge, especially as they relate to careers. I think most of us want to be challenged at work because that is what helps us to grow as human beings and improve our skills—growth springs to life when we are in a challenging and stimulating environment.
Yet, so often we encounter struggle instead of challenge. While challenge implies a positive undertaking, struggle is the difficult, grasping, imbalanced cousin that we encounter when we become dissatisfied with some part of our lives.
As a society, struggle seems to be embraced as a kind of “right of passage” or as something necessary for success to present itself: “If you haven’t struggled, sacrificed, suffered through unsatisfying jobs, relationships, situations…then you don’t deserve the success!”
A few years back, I found myself in a position of struggle with my career. I had just graduated from Prescott College and was working at a therapeutic boarding school where the pay was good and the work was related to my field of study, Human Development. I thought I had hit the jack pot, and in many ways I had—just not in the ways I had anticipated.
Every day there, I struggled to be someone I was not. I am naturally a calm, soft-spoken person. These qualities have their own strengths which I have slowly come to recognize, but while at the boarding school I felt I had to be “out there”—loud and assertive, type “A” at all times.
I had been promoted to Staff Supervisor shortly after I had started working there; during that period I thought I was doing well and was proud of my progress. After three months as Supervisor, I was called into the office unexpectedly and demoted back to my original position. They assured me that I was not doing anything wrong—but I just wasn’t the right person for the position.
They even kept me on at my Supervisor’s salary to prove their point—I was still devastated and took it to mean that I was not enough, that there was something wrong with who I was.
Towards the end of my time there, I noticed that, instead of being challenged by developing my strengths, I was struggling to keep up with expectations of who my superiors needed me to be. I was unhappy and anxious all the time, living in the land of “not enough.”
I eventually recognized these feelings as clues of the struggle and that perhaps my time there needed to come to an end.
The jack pot I had mentioned before was in the discovery of myself and of what I needed in a working environment. Sometimes, we find what we want by first learning about what we absolutely do not want. I learned that I wanted to be in an environment where I was challenged to develop my skills and strengths—but not pushed to be someone I’m not.
I learned that I want to be in a working environment where many types of personalities and communication styles are valued.
So, I quit that job after a year of learning about what I did not want, traveled for a month, and moved to Tucson where I’ve continued to learn about challenge and struggle. I still work with youth, but in my current place of employment, I feel nurtured and appreciated for my strengths and for the way I interact with students and co-workers.
I believe that, in fact, struggling for too long can be damaging to personal development. When we stop grasping, reaching, fighting our passions and let ourselves receive the joy that is possible, real growth and transformation can occur.
When we are waist deep in struggle, it becomes easy to stay stuck in toxic patterns and become resigned to black and white thinking (“This is just the way it is and will always be”).
I continue to set the intention that I want to live my life in the joy, satisfaction and challenge that facilitates personal growth! I can do without the struggle.
I found that the next step was to distinguish between the grasping and the receiving. When am I striving and struggling? When am I following my intuition and holding my arms open to the universe?
I found that if I really pay attention, I can feel myself expanding or constricting.
The struggle settles in my muscles and bones; I can feel my body close itself off. Once I have the awareness that I am struggling with something, I can begin to breathe and envision that air is running through my entire body. This brings me back to neutral, back to the balance.
Body awareness is so important in this process. All too often we fail to even notice our bodies, let alone the signals and clues they are constantly giving us. If we stop to listen and really pay attention to ourselves, we can begin to tune in to the answers that are inside.
We all have true wisdom within us which is accessible when we learn to listen.
Struggle cannot only be overcome but let go of to make room for the challenges that will help us grow and plant the seeds of possibility.
So, next time something comes up, pause, take a breath and notice if you feel any struggle in your body—you may surprise yourself with what you discover.
Tria Aronow is a Youth Counselor, Job Skills Teacher, and Certified Life Coach living in Tucson, Arizona. She loves helping others in uncovering passion and achieving life balance! In her free time she enjoys hiking, bicycling, hula hooping, dancing, being in the desert, and a daily dose of sunshine!
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Ed: Bryonie Wise