Discomfort Shows Us The Way
We only feel uncomfortable about what we really care about
We are programmed by modern society to seek comfort.
There is nothing inherently wrong with that, asceticism with no goal is as much a pointless exercise in the egotism of denial as hedonism is in the egotism of plenty.
But seeking comfort is normal because discomfort is a precursor to pain and pain is a precursor to injury. So avoiding discomfort is a protective mechanism.
The trouble arises because we also feel discomfort when we do something new because new is unknown and our default setting is to mistrust the unknown.
Even if the unknown may be better, we are hardwired to assume that the unknown is worse than our present situation since being over-prepared is better than being under-prepared. We are already dealing with the devil we know. But the unknown could be a worse devil that we are not able to handle.
This conservatism can be a hindrance if we allow it to dominate our decision making.
Just because pain is a precursor to injury doesn’t mean that pain always leads to injury. When we are working out our muscles to get stronger, we often feel pain, but that pain is a sign of our stretching ourselves beyond what we can do.
Growth of any kind means exactly that: moving beyond what you can do and into the unknown. So while discomfort is always a warning to be on the lookout for injury that just means being more alert. It doesn’t mean that injury is inevitable.
Our unconscious bias to treat the unknown as dangerous turns comfort into a goal rather than a measure. We treat discomfort as a sign of something actually wrong rather than a measure of the possibility of something wrong, again because we’re instinctually going to assume the worst.
How comfortable or uncomfortable something is definitely needs to be something we should pay attention to. But eliminating all discomfort means eliminating all possibility for growth.
By pushing beyond what we can do now we ratchet ourselves up. Discomfort is not a sign of something going wrong in this case, it is a sign that you are pushing the limits of where you currently are. If you are satisfied with where you are, then avoiding discomfort is fine but if you want to grow or change your circumstances then you need to do something new
And furthermore, the things that you are uncomfortable about are the things that you really care about. So following your discomfort will also help you discover the path you really want to be on.
This means that if we want to change, we should actually seek out discomfort. We should view discomfort as a sign of something that we should be doing rather than of something we should be avoiding.
We should still be careful, we should still be alert for injury because change carries with it the risk for injury (even if that injury is not physical). But in our modern society, “going out of our comfort zone” is generally something positive since we no longer live in a world were fatal mistakes are common.
However, let’s recognize that this is easier said than done.
We are both so hard-wired and so conditioned to avoid discomfort that even if we intellectually realize that we should lean into and maybe even search out discomfort, at some level we still think that being uncomfortable is wrong
In fact we are so hard-wired this way that when we talk about being courageous and going out of our comfort zone, at some level we are actually still motivated by the desire to reduce our discomfort. We are not happy or satisfied by our current situation and it is that greater discomfort of feeling like a failure that pushes us to overcome the lesser discomfort of change.
So rather than going out of our comfort zone we are merely expanding our understanding of our comfort zone. We are still being driven by the seeking of comfort and the need to eliminate anything which makes us uncomfortable.
While this approach often results in an initial action, it is rarely sustainable. We overcome the discomfort of our immediate situation only to land in a new “comfort zone” that lasts only as long as it takes for us to become dissatisfied again.
Nothing has fundamentally changed.
We get frustrated because we are simply going from one discomfort to another with a brief respite of illusory comfort in between. That is progress but it is not momentum: we have to continually be putting in personal energy and attention to get moving every time we stop. It’s the difference between jumping and flying.
But if instead we work to eliminate the avoidance of discomfort as a core motivation and focus on our goals and desires, we can shift towards making sustainable progress.
To do this we need to treat discomfort as a measure and not a goal. We need to do is make peace with discomfort, accept it as a companion not as something we “deal with”.
That doesn’t mean ignoring it. We can’t pretend it is not there, we cannot eliminate it, we can only live with it. The distinction is that ignoring it means that we can pretend it doesn’t exist. But it is too foundational a mechanism and so impossible to ignore.
Instead we must shift to acceptance. Accepting something means acknowledging it but not engaging with it, not trying to change it.
We respect our discomfort as coming from a place that is trying to prevent harm. Be kind to ourselves, acknowledge that discomfort comes from the care we have for ourselves.
We can’t pretend that the pain it causes us doesn’t exist. It’s not about aggressively pushing through the pain. Instead we need to recognize that pain and be compassionate to ourselves about feeling it but also be firm.
Feeling fear and pain about taking a step towards your dreams just means you are human. But pain is not the same as injury.
In fact, shifting to this attitude that discomfort is to be accepted and not eliminated will itself help you to work through the discomfort you feel about accepting your discomfort!
So when we feel uncomfortable, accept it, embrace it even, but then continue on anyway. Be grateful that you feel discomfort because that means that you still care about something. Say “thanks for your concern, thanks for pointing that out, self. But now I’m going to do this anyway.”
Start small. going out of your comfort zone is going out of your comfort zone no matter how small. But start today.
If you want to stop working and check out youtube, just work an extra 5 minutes. If you are worried about talking in front of people, say hi to someone as you exit a coffee shop. If you’re trying to write the next great novel, just write anything for 15 minutes every day despite still worrying about whether it is any good.
Practice embracing discomfort and it will lead you down the pathway to success.