Being uncomfortable sucks.
But it's still necessary. How can we learn to be with it?
Coming up on three years ago, somewhere on the interminable stretch of I-40 between Nashville and Memphis, in the hot July heat, a friend mentioned to me that she keeps her air conditioning during the summer in Memphis at 80 degrees.
I was aghast - how in hell could that be possible? Why would she do such a thing?
As with most times when I’m really challenged by a view, I thought I’d give it a try. It turns out 80 is too much for me, but ever since, I’ve kept my air in the summer at 77 and the heat in the winter at 67. Three years ago, that was a BIG adjustment for me. It felt impossible at times. It felt silly at others. There are definitely times (in the summer, at night, because hello) where I go cooler or hotter.
But it’s a moment and change in my life that I come back to regularly when I am faced with discomfort - my own, my clients’, our society’s, or even humanity’s.
Biologically, we are hardwired to be averse to discomfort. To simplify things, discomfort is a massive unknown in our system and, in reaction, our brains cycle through questions at lightning speed: Will we survive this? What will happen? Will we get hurt? Will we lose out on something important to us like a desire or power? Can we guarantee that good things will come of this? Anytime our nervous systems are dysregulated, our brain reads it as a threat and tries to take over our reactions. Unless we spend a lot of time learning to slow down, notice what’s happening, and choose the response we want (and not just automatically running with our reactivity), we will do whatever our brains want us to do to avoid discomfort.
We crank our ACs in the summer. We avoid taking responsibility for the hurt we cause others at any scale, tiny to massive. We make others wrong for our own insecurities. We complain. We judge. We collude with others. We obsess over the drama of our lives as if telling or thinking about what happened offers some new path for us, instead of recognizing it keeps us trapped. We use drugs. We exercise or diet compulsively. We binge TV. We game. We ghost. We read. We daydream. We…you get the idea.
There is nothing inherently wrong with anything on any of our lists of how we avoid discomfort; and many things can actually bring us a lot of joy, energy, and other positive benefits. There’s also no easy way, rule set, or listicle to tell us definitively if we’re avoiding discomfort because we aren’t up for something or because we really are unsafe (in any interpretation of this word). It takes practice and effort, getting it right and getting it wrong. It takes a system of care around us. It takes courage alongside radical care.
The challenge - and why I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot of late - is that all growth is painful. There’s just no way around it.
Sometimes kids will grow so fast that they are in actual, acute physical pain from that growth. I’ve somehow never broken a bone, but I’m told by those that have that it is painful to have them knit back together. In the realm of personal development, anytime we grow, we are letting go of something else - a habit, a view, something that might have even been the very reason we’ve succeeded up until this point. Sometimes, we grow in ways that take us away from people in our lives we love and have loved dearly for years, but who aren’t growing alongside us.
And despite all of the very unhelpful idioms out there that remind us that people don’t change, it’s simply untrue. Sure, we absolutely have the capacity to settle into the worst of ourselves - and many of us do, but that is a change in and of itself: it takes some effort to resist new ideas, to be unmoved by learning new skills, and the like. Folks who choose this path are changing every time they interact with something new and choose to go back to their old habits - their perspectives, opinions, skills, etc. may be more concentrated precisely because they tried something and didn’t like it, and that’s a change from their original position.
Just as it is to avoid discomfort, it is also a biological and psychological compulsion to grow. To become. To evolve. To learn.
And so we have to regularly confront this paradox in our lives: all change is painful, we don’t like discomfort, but we are compelled to grow.
How do we face this?
If you know or have worked with me, you likely know I’m a big fan of experiments. It was a massive gift from a former coach of mine years ago to approach the kinds of changes I wanted to make as such. It gave me a period of time, or a small scale, to try something on with integrity while giving my brain the comfort of knowing I could simply not choose the change at the end of the experiment if I wanted to go back - it took away a lot of the immediate “NO, I CAN’T” that was raging in my brain.
When I decided to try my friend’s 80 degree summer life, I did it for the full month of July in Memphis. It was enough time to move through the period that was about two weeks long during which my brain’s conclusions simply could not be trusted because of that initial biological response to discomfort. Eventually, it settled and I realized still, 80 wasn’t for me. So then I lowered it gradually until I could be just at the edge of comfort and discomfort. It was 77. Today, I sound like my friend did on I-40: I crave the summer heat and really am uncomfortable most places who crank the air conditioning. It’s unnatural. It’s hot, so we should also be hot (this has another benefit in our ability to survive, fingers crossed, the climate crisis, but that’s another edition)!
Right now, there is someone in my life who isn’t communicating with me as I’d like them to. My brain is going WILD with stories (this person doesn’t really care about me, this person is a jerk, I must have done something horribly wrong, they must be really tired and grieving, etc.) and it is also determined to fixate on the situation and create a solution (I am constantly role playing a conversation that I am simply not having with this person anywhere except my head…and guess who's also a bad communicator now?). I’m taking on the experiment for myself during this temporary period in this relationship to feel what’s really here for me (really feel it all), and to empty myself of the stories each day. I’m noticing what feelings and stories are more pervasive / I’m clinging to more easily and working to disentangle what’s my shit to own and deal with and what’s something that I’m still left with that’s upsetting to me and what request I have for change in our communications. It’s hard as hell. It’s VERY uncomfortable. And I don’t know if I could keep this up for any long length of time. But I can do it for two weeks, and I am betting that I’ll have a stronger ability to manage my own stories about how people don’t really care about me while also getting really clear on the needs I have that are non-negotiable for communication. Those seem like really important payoffs to get from two weeks of discomfort.
When I wanted to face the trauma I had from my home break ins as well as reduce my usage of systems of the carceral state (in this instance, my home alarm system), I took it in steps. I stopped setting the alarm during the day for short periods. Then I worked my way up to not setting it at night, too. Two years later, I’m trying on never setting it, including when I’m out of town. I still have my system’s videos going at all times. I’m not ready for that yet. Maybe I will be soon; maybe I never will be in this house given how many times I was broken into and the psychological toll that had on me, particularly the night break in. But I also know I don’t want to live a life trapped in my own home with the blinds closed at all times, behind a security system. It’s simply not the vision of my life that I want. So action was required. It was hard. It was painful. I have a lot of new relationships with my neighbors on all sides of me that have enriched my life and made a choice like this possible. I had a lot of help to confront and deal with all the stuff that arose as I took this on. And I’m so glad I did.
I think learning to confront our discomfort (and discern between when we should listen to our brains to run like hell and when that’s just its conditioned response, and we can stay a bit longer) is one of the most important gifts we can give ourselves and each other. And no doubt it is confronting. But I also believe deeply in the goodness of humans. In the desire to love, to connect, and to grow.
So, with that, what are the experiments that you could try on to help you come up against your discomfort, and to grow in ways that you really want?