Why are you so uncomfortable?
Why do we work so hard to avoid discomfort? Within our first few days of existence we’ve figured out that discomfort is part of the deal. To cope with it, we scream our heads off. We have to depend on others to change our diapers, feed us when we’re hungry, and soothe our anxieties. Until we learn other tactics, screaming is all we’ve got.
Even with the most attentive parents, we get some practice being uncomfortable as babies. The screaming doesn’t always work as expected. It takes time to start to understand where the discomfort comes from, and years to learn how to address it on our own. But we never really get used to it. It’s always uncomfortable.
You would think that eventually we’d get the message that discomfort is just part of daily life and not get so caught up trying to avoid it. We can learn that as a piece of information we have in our prefrontal cortex, but the more primal parts of our brains have evolved to absolutely detest discomfort.
This signal that something is wrong is an important tool in our survival kit. It gives us the wisdom to move away from danger and stress, and in some situations may keep us alive. But in real life it makes things like meeting new people, sticking to diet and exercise plans, public speaking, and doing creative work really challenging.
Discomfort practice for your health
Exercise can be downright uncomfortable, especially when you are just getting started. There’s often a hurdle of “I really don’t want to be doing this” to get past that out-of-breath, muscles-burning sensation.
The only way to get fit is to get uncomfortable. There is no magical exercise routine that will increase your cardiovascular endurance or muscular strength without some discomfort. No pain, no gain (or something like that). It doesn’t have to be painful, but it will undoubtedly be uncomfortable.
We are programmed to save our energy. Not to run unless something is chasing us. Save energy for short bursts of urgent activity, our well-programmed brains and bodies tell us. Unfortunately (or rather thankfully), modern life does not offer a lot of opportunity to sprint away from threats, climb trees, or chase down our prey. Conserving energy becomes self-defeating when we never expend the energy.
In order to get past the psychological barrier of discomfort, you have to be willing to spend some time being uncomfortable. It doesn’t need to be a massive amount of time, but a little bit every day will help you build tolerance. This is what I call “discomfort practice.”
I recently finished the “Discover Your Power Zones” program on the Peloton bike. Every endurance interval felt like it went on forever, but each one was only a few minutes. All I had to do was sit there, turning the pedals and being slightly uncomfortable for a few minutes. Discomfort practice. I endured it, and ended up raising my functional threshold performance score by 10 points over the course of five weeks.
You know what else is uncomfortable? Sitting through cravings for alcohol, sugar, pizza, and donuts when you have made the decision to not consume them. It can be uncomfortable to feel a little hungry when you’re losing weight, rather than stuffing yourself. Healthy diet choices can quickly send us back to screaming infant mode. It feels dire.
Make small changes over time rather than trying to overhaul your diet overnight. Just cut one unhealthy choice and add one healthy one. When you start to feel cranky and want that donut, let yourself feel that way. You will find that it passes. And then it comes back. And then it passes again. No big deal. If you eat the donut, also no big deal. Just recommit to the discomfort practice.
Discomfort practice for your relationships
I have a lot of discomfort around connecting with others, especially in unstructured social situations. I always feel like I’m being judged and probably acting weird. I never know what to talk about and find small talk to be almost intolerable. My happy place is alone in my house.
It turns out relationships and connections are critical for humans. We have evolved as social animals and to cut ourselves off from that does us real harm. I have a hard time accepting this. I want to do life 100% independently.
There are good reasons for this feeling. Without going into therapy-mode, I can tell you that at a very young age I learned that it was up to me to take care of myself, emotionally and to some extent physically. The message from the universe (and my sundry caretakers) was that I am on my own. So I learned not to need people.
And yet I do need people. I need people to hire me and to not want to fire me. I need people to help me process emotions and get through difficult situations. I need a whole slew of people to get my food from its source to my refrigerator. I sometimes need help opening a jar of pickles.
The more connected we are to others, the more secure and happy we tend to feel. For me, this connectivity means getting past discomfort. Every time I travel I have to ask someone to look after my parrot. I have onboarded a handful of people to do this, and even pay them for their trouble, but I still hate sending that text asking if they can do it. I will procrastinate sending that text for days or weeks. But when I finally do, it is discomfort practice.
How does anyone date without a lot of discomfort? They don’t. Meeting someone new and trying to find some grounds for a connection is an absolute forest of discomfort. When I was single, every date I went on was a grueling discomfort practice, often with little reward or any kind of connection. But is was still practice.
Once you are in any kind of relationship, romantic, friendship, or otherwise, there is sthe discomfort of starting difficult conversations, setting healthy boundaries, and negotiating where to go for dinner. In other words, you can’t have any kind of relationship without occasional (or frequent) discomfort.
If you are unable to tolerate the discomfort that comes with healthy human relationships, you might find yourself embroiled in constant drama, or isolated altogether. So have that difficult conversation, assert a boundary, ask for help. It’s all practice.
Discomfort practice for your career
No one is comfortable in a job interview. You might meet someone (almost always a white guy) with a sort of cocky arrogance in interviews, but that’s just a mask for the discomfort. By definition, a job interview is a venue for judgement, and absolutely no one is comfortable being judged or rated by others–even if that judgement is positive. We sense that behind a positive evaluation is some sort of negative dissection of our very soul.
I have learned–over the course of many dozens of job interview–that I can be uncomfortable to the point of barely breathing, and still come across as confident, competent, and articulate. You know how I got to this point? Practice.
Besides the mixed blessing of a very unstable career path with quite a few layoffs, I have also forced myself (yes, forced!) to go on coffee dates and schedule informational interviews with people I thought could help my career evolution. Many of these conversations led to unexpected opportunities.
Have you ever asked for a raise or promotion? Uncomfortable, right? But the sad fact is that most employers expect you to be proactive about asking for what you deserve. People who are not comfortable with discomfort tend to stagnate in jobs that are not very satisfying or rewarding, The discomfort is a barrier to seeking or asking for something better.
If you work with other people, a great venue for discomfort practice is meetings. The social dynamics of meetings is unsettling, so simply speaking up, giving a presentation, voicing an opinion, or trying to adhere to an agenda can be discomfort practice.
Being uncomfortable is a big part of of advancing your career or starting a business. If you can train yourself to function within the discomfort, you may be surprised by where you end up.
Discomfort practice for creative work
I truly believe that not only are all humans creative, but that we need creative activities to feel fulfilled in life. Most people sense this, even if they are not actively engaged in the arts. Some people love to cook, others play Minecraft. Some might do makeup tutorials on YouTube or share elaborate Instagram stories. There are antique car enthusiasts and gardeners. These are all creative outlets.
Discomfort comes into creativity when we allow ourselves to admit to others that we have a creative bone in our body–that we made a thing. Once again, revealing any kind of creative work to others feels like instant judgment, even when it isn’t.
I’m a writer (which may be obvious from all of these words I publish on the internet), but it took years for me to get used to the idea of sharing my writing. When I started blogging in about 2007, it seemed like a radical act of vulnerability to write about my own life on the internet. Then I got on Livejournal and realized I’m pretty low stakes when it comes to exposing my inner life.
I am now trying to figure out how to publish a memoir without allowing anyone to ever read or edit a word of it. I’d really rather not have to take any feedback, or possibly be judged for what or how I write.
If we keep our creative works to ourselves, they are not really “works.” They’re hobbies. There’s nothing wrong with a hobby! Everyone should have one or two things they do just because they like doing them.
If you want to go beyond hobbies and share your creative works with the world, you will have to get uncomfortable. Just show your work to one person to start, and see what happens. They probably won’t judge you too harshly, and if they do there’s still something to learn.
In order to grow, change, and to find some kind of meaning in life, you have to be uncomfortable sometimes. There is not a shortcut. The best thing you can do for yourself is to get used to discomfort. Remember that discomfort practice is the only path to better things.