Getting Comfortable with Discomfort
“Whatever makes you uncomfortable is your biggest opportunity for growth.”
— Bryant McGill
We are conditioned by our culture and its commercial values to live a life of pleasure without sacrifice because that yields economic gain for the sellers and promoters. The continually repeating messaging about comfort is ingrained in us subliminally and explicitly, inhibiting our ability to grow stronger, and making it even more challenging to do what’s challenging and uncomfortable! But pleasure and happiness aren’t the same thing as wellness and wellbeing.
Wellness comes from disciplined commitment to acting out healthy and humane values, which requires sacrifice, tradeoffs, compromise, and letting some things go. Living out one’s values through discipline is often without immediate payoffs that we can see or and feel, so the incentives are easy to dismiss as “not worth it.” This practice is about ways to face fear through taking on voluntary stress– what you can control, in order to prepare for when involuntary stress happens unexpectedly and beyond your control.
Physical & Psychological Workouts
When people go to the gym, voluntarily, they manage stress from daily life and they make themselves stronger and more resilient for when tragedy and other human challenges hit—which they will. When people meditate or practice mindfulness or yoga, they are preparing, in body and mind, for challenges that will come their way in the future, not only to deal with or cope with immediate challenge of the present moment.
Continuously venturing out of your comfort zone—in both mental and physical realms— is what it means to learn. Learning means to be uncomfortable voluntarily, so that when the discomfort of being human is involuntary, you will be ready to receive the challenges that confront you with willingness and abilities to respond (that’s response-ability). This practicing with challenge and fear is en-couraging yourself. The characteristics embodied by heroes of being courageous, responsible, willing, resilient—come from small, repetitive ACTION toward facing challenge and obstacles on the path toward the good, beautiful, and true.
“Lifting” Voluntary Stress
Lifting the heavy weight of being human makes us better humans. MINDFULNESS (both in the Buddhist sense and as used in psychotherapy) is something that is popular because it is a way to PRACTICE remaining present in each MOMENT, TO NOTICE reality, not without fear but with courage. Mindfulness teachers encourage people to come into close and intimate contact with their suffering. The approach is to try, step by step, A LITTLE AT A TIME. And to PRACTICE practice, practice. This is the process.
Expose yourself to your challenges: anxieties, fears, discomfort, whatever…. voluntarily, a little at a time. Practice observing what facing your particular challenge feels like in your body. Also, observe how you think about the discomfort and whether or not those thoughts are making the experience more comfortable or less, better or worse, creating more anxiety and stress or lessening it. Notice how your thoughts influence your body, as well as how both influence your choices and your behavior in response to challenge. Remember, the non-judgmental piece? Remember, honesty for authentic growth and development? Recall curiosity?
If you took the SELF AWARENESS COURSE, you already faced the challenge of being you– you came into contact with challenge when you examined your body, your emotions, and your thinking and thoughts non-judgmentally, on purpose to notice what was happening within your inner landscape. You did this a little bit at a time, noticing when you avoided your experiences and also noticing when you tolerated them.
“Always do what you are afraid to do.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Psychologists use the technique of exposure therapy to effectively treat anxiety and phobias, and it is a tool available to all of us for developing wellness regardless of the severity or scale of our fears and challenges. Taking “baby steps” through the trial and error process of learning to face and manage fear or to grapple with problems and challenges is growth, and growth is thriving, and thriving is wellness and vitality. Gradual exposure is a challenge workout.
Avoidance & Intolerance
Experiential avoidance is the opposite of willingness to be vulnerable and tolerant.
Being willing to identify, articulate, and sit in reflection with your challenges are small, important steps toward building your tolerance for vulnerability, ambiguity, uncertainty, fear and more. If there is stress involved with facing your challenges, stress is a necessary and important ingredient in developing distress tolerance. Do this little by little, titrating back and forth between safety and venturing into the unknown, then back to safety and then back out of your comfort zone, and back again and so forth. This is authentic learning– the kind they don’t really focus enough on in school.
As you gradually and compassionately expose yourself openly and honestly to your challenges, to problems, suffering, anxiety, and fear within you, watch yourself grow.
Just like going to the gym to workout—if you have never lifted weights or it’s been a long time and you aren’t in the best physical condition, you don’t go lifting the maximum amount of weight. That’s the best way to get hurt and never want to go to the gym again. You’ll say—that gym hurt me. It’s not healthy. But that’s not true. It’s your responsibility to expose yourself to challenges a little at a time, according to what you can tolerate. This takes patiences and persistence. Through repeatedly facing your challenge, you build distress tolerance—and before you know it, your disciplined commitment to yourself has paid dividends and you are lifting the heavy weight of being human–being YOU. You’ve become courageous, responsible, disciplined, stronger and more resilient, all of which prepares you for the future challenges that come your way, whether from the inside e.g. slips and personal weaknesses and faults, or from the outside from forces beyond your control.
The Obstacle is the Way Practices
Podcaster and Entrepreneur, Tim Ferriss, borrowing from Stoic philosophy and Ryan Holiday’s (2014) The Obstacle is the Way, conducts an experiment he’s done and shared with listeners as an example of how he learns how to face his fear of embarrassment. He intentionally wears colorful, attention-getting pants that would be considered socially unacceptable on purpose to draw unwanted attention to himself. He causes his own discomfort, voluntarily, to practice feeling embarrassed so that he can understand the feeling better and practice coping with them.
Another practice Ferriss has advocated is lying down on the floor in a busy coffee line at Starbucks to draw attention to himself. This is purely to experience the feelings of embarrassment, something he was very afraid of. These psychological and emotion-focused “experiments” are safe and harmless to others. You can come up with similar practices and experiments that are relative to your fears.
If afraid of swimming, perhaps you dip a toe in water.
If you are afraid of making eye contact in social situations, perhaps you practice looking into the eyes of your pet and engaging in hypothetical conversation.
In whatever way or forms you decide to engage in your own exposure therapy, try to embrace failure if it happens and try to observe your discomfort level. Write about these experiences and include every detail you can about how it felt in your body (sensations), emotionally, and what you were thinking.
Learn to love your failures and become more familiar with being uncomfortable, so that it’s not so scary in the future. Notice if you become overwhelmed. Take a break, and try again later when you feel calm and even a little courageous. Every one of your attempts counts toward building courage and will contribute to your growth, especially the failures! How about that, an A+ for failing!?!
Do something hard that will make you stronger or build your strength or flexibility:
- If you are shy, force yourself to say hello to someone you’re afraid of.
- If you are afraid of public speaking, ask to read aloud to your class or give a presentation.
- Have a difficult conversation with yourself or another person you are avoiding. Feel what confrontation and conflict feels like in you rather than focusing on trying to change the other person or win an argument. Be willing to cede loss to learn more about yourself.
- Take a Bikram Yoga class, especially if you’re afraid to! You can use the class as a laboratory for self-study, as a practice field for learning about and dealing with anxiety, stress, and your unique physical, emotional, and mental challenges.