What Is Struggle Really Telling You?

from It's Just a Thought by Thomas M. Sterner

Posted 2/24/23 | Updated 9/17/23

Here is a truth I will repeat and that I want you to keep close to your heart: Everything in life is a skill. It doesn't matter whether it's learning to walk, learning to feed yourself, learning to conduct an interview, or learning how to have a successful relationship. They are all skills.

With all skills, we start from the beginning, which is a place of no skill. We then move along the line of skill development. We call that learning. So what is your interpretation of the process of learning, whatever skill you are working on?

I've always found it curious how we attach judgment to particular words; for example, the word mistake. The word mistake conjures up an uncomfortable feeling, a sense of doing wrong, of failing, of perhaps being inadequate. In reality, the word refers to a process of data-gathering. It is a natural part of learning what works and what doesn't work.

StruggleYes, some mistakes carry more weight than others, but I'm not speaking about mistakes that could cost people their lives, although even in those situations, we learn a hard lesson of what works and what doesn't work.

I think it's safe to say that in everyday life, the mistakes we make are honest mistakes and don't come from intentionally doing something wrong, and yet when we make these mistakes, they tend to make us feel bad about ourselves. There is a certain subliminal sense of fear with regard to mistakes. What will others think of us if we make a mistake? This is another example of how our interpretations create our experience.

The word struggle also deserves some examination. At first glance the word struggle conjures up a sense of difficulty. But both of these words, struggle and difficulty, refer to a feeling that we experience. That is the interpretation and it is not absolute. Some people would feel a sense of struggle to give a speech in front of hundreds of people. Other people would look forward to it.

I have observed an early-childhood teacher go through mornings in a room full of out-of-control five-year-olds, each demanding attention, with total calmness on her face and a sense of enjoyment. Most of us would struggle and find it difficult to get through those mornings. So what is driving the difference in experience? It's the interpretation. But what is driving the interpretation? The level of skill of the participant. In other words, our interpretation of this experience would be based on our relative mastery of this particular skill.

When you're in a situation that is creating a sense of struggle, what that is really telling you is that you are in the process of mastering that particular situation. If you had already mastered it, you would already be good at it, and you probably wouldn't notice it because it would be effortless. The key here is that we don't have to judge that feeling of struggle as being bad. We can interpret it as an awareness that we are in the process of developing our skill in this particular activity.

When I work with people, I ask them, "If you could be really good at dealing with this particular situation, would you like to be? Would you like to be so good at it that you experience that inspirational feeling that comes from mastering something that used to be difficult?" Quite predictably they answer yes.

And I tell them that to get from where they are now to where they want to be requires being in the circumstances that demand the skill. That is when you have the opportunity to execute your practice plan. In fact, it's the only time that you can really get an accurate read on where you are in the skill. When interpreted from this perspective, that feeling of struggle or difficulty is judged to be "this is what I've been waiting for," and your experience becomes very different.

One important technique for refining your interpretations of a situation is to monitor your feelings. In the beginning of practicing to consciously intervene in your interpretation of a situation, it is too difficult to stay out in front of your preprogrammed thinking, but your feelings are more in your face. They are a better heads-up as to when you need to pull back and analyze where your interpretation is taking you.

I think that we have unknowingly predefined the feeling of struggle or difficulty as having a component of fear. That fear is coming from the reaction that you have told yourself you should have to this particular situation. You can burn the energy of that fear by using it as the fuel to develop the skill. In other words, you use the energy that you are wasting on worrying and apply it to the process of what you're going through in whatever way you can.

Perhaps that means trying to understand why you feel the way you do about the particular situation, checking in with yourself, and asking what is the worst that could happen. I find that many times when I ask someone what is the worst that can happen, it pulls them out of the behavioral reaction of fear long enough for them to see the situation from a different perspective. That brief moment allows them the opportunity to have a different interpretation.

If you are aware of what thoughts your mind is producing, you have the ability to see these feelings of struggle or difficulty as messengers alerting you to the opportunity present before you. The most important part of the process of change when dealing with all of this is to remember the phrase I coined: "do, observe, correct," or DOC.

When faced with an opportunity to execute changes in your interpretation, practice your plan. That is the "do" portion. Understand that that portion will always be limited to where you are in the development of that skill. We don't get angry at a child in the second grade because they can't do higher math. They aren't there yet, and that is normal.

Treat yourself the same way. You're on a path of change to a more powerful you. Execute your plan for the situation, and then "observe" how it impacts your experience without judgment. You can and should analyze what happened, but avoid judging what you observe as good or bad.

Judging can be infused with undesirable emotions, which can work against you. Analysis has a more detached perspective. Afterward, make your "correction" for the next round. It's a simple process of refinement, and you can use it in every area of your life. Judging only makes the process uncomfortable. It does not expedite it or make things happen faster. In fact, it decidedly decreases your performance in any situation. This is all an integral part of deliberate thinking. End

©2023 by Thomas M. Sterner. All rights reserved.

Thomas M. Sterner

Excerpted from the book It's Just a Thought: Emotional Freedom through Deliberate Thinking ©2023 by Thomas M. Sterner. Printed with permission from

Thomas M. SternerThomas M. Sterner is the author of The Practicing Mind, Fully Engaged, and It's Just a Thought: Emotional Freedom through Deliberate Thinking. The CEO of the Practicing Mind Institute, Sterner is an in-demand speaker and coach working with high-performance industry groups and individuals, including athletes, to help them operate effectively in high-stress situations and experience new levels of mastery. Visit him online at