Getting Comfortable with Discomfort

Suzanne Manser, PhD
September 18, 2020

 “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

-Flip Rodriguez, American Ninja Warrior

Somehow, we have gotten a very dangerous idea in our heads. We, as a society, believe that discomfort and pain are a problem. We see them as an indication that there has been a mistake, that something must have gone wrong. Possibly that we are “wrong.” The aftermath of this kind of thinking is more discomfort and pain.

We all know, theoretically, that life has its ups and downs. We all know that life can’t always be smooth sailing, can’t always be butterflies and rainbows. You know that, right? Of course you do. Many songs have been written about that very fact. And yet, when the downs happen, we are taken aback. When things don’t go our way, we don’t tend to gracefully accept it. When we get sick (especially just before a vacation), when we don’t get the job we were perfect for, when we feel out of sorts, when our relationship ends, or when our new haircut went horribly, horribly wrong, we don’t breezily remind ourselves that this is just a part of life. We get uppity and indignant about it.

We know better, but we still act like we’re never supposed to feel uncomfortable. We still act like we shouldn’t have to deal with any discomfort. We still act like it’s unfair. When discomfort (and I’m talking any kind of uncomfortable feeling including insecurity, anxiety, shame, anger, embarrassment, pain, guilt, sadness, or just a general sense of ickiness) shows up, we act like it has no place in our lives and treat it like an unwelcome intruder.

To be fair, it’s no fun to feel uncomfortable in any form. If we had the option, many of us would choose not to feel it. The problem is that we seem to think we actually do have the option of smooth sailing only. Although we “know” that life has downs, when one shows up, we take it to mean that something has gone awry. We resist it. Instead of the discomfort being a part of life, it is seen as a Problem.

The very wise children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” teaches us that we can’t go over or under a problem; we can only go through it. We adults don’t tend to roll that way. Our primary tool in addressing a problem such as discomfort is Trying To Get Rid Of It. We either Try To Run Away From It (via alcohol and drugs, being on screens, consuming media, being overly busy or never alone, etc.) or we swing the other way and Intensely Focus On It (via talking about it frequently, thinking about it incessantly, and/or feeling constantly indignant about having to feel the discomfort) to analyze it away. Just for the record, neither path makes the discomfort go away. I have tried both and can solidly attest that neither is a helpful life tool. This is part of the dangerous aftermath I was referring to – by seeing discomfort as a problem, we end up making things worse for ourselves.

So how do we make discomfort not a problem? Watching “Inside Out” is a good start! This movie beautifully explains that even uncomfortable feelings are not, in and of themselves, Problems. It teaches us that all feelings belong, including discomfort. All feelings are a part of being engaged with life. Feelings naturally happen when we have experiences in the present, or remember the past, or imagine the future. That is just part of being human.

Most of us will feel most feelings at one time or another, at various degrees and for varying lengths of time. You can’t avoid some of them (or all of them) just because you don’t want to feel them. They are part of the deal of being alive. You can’t control them; they are part of the ups and downs. And they are a package deal: if we want to feel the fun ones, we have to expect to feel the less fun ones. How can you know comfort if you don’t know discomfort?

All of that said, even if you’ve watched the movie numerous times and even if you “know” all of this about emotions, it is still not automatic to accept discomfort as a part of life. Our resistance to discomfort is too instinctual. We are built to defend against anything “bad,” and as we have established, we definitely label uncomfortable feelings as problematic and “bad.” We have an exceptionally hard time not accusing feelings of being “good” or “bad” (the PC terms are “positive” and “negative”).

Most of us would say that we see feelings as “good” or “bad” because they are good or bad. They make us feel good or make us feel bad. I would like to suggest an alternative perspective: these labels of “good” and “bad” are subjective and unnecessary. For example, for some people, it may be unquestionable that pain is “bad,” while others see pain as “good” because it often spurs growth. Whatever that feeling is that you get when you’re almost at the tippy top of the rollercoaster hill and you slow way down and then there’s that slight but horrific pause at the crest just before you go hurtling down the other side – whatever that feeling is, I label it “BAD.” But I know some people who label it “good.” It’s subjective. They are just labels that we affix to the feelings because humans like to label things.

Humans like to label, and we specifically like to divide the world into “good” and “bad.” We, especially in the West, are dualistic. We tend to split the whole world into two categories: good/bad, fair/unfair, right/wrong. It makes the world easier to comprehend. But – here comes the mind-blowing part – the world doesn’t have to be parsed that way. It’s just how we happen to do it. When feelings aren’t labeled as “good” or “bad,” it is easier to see that all feelings – even discomfort – might have some value.

When we can see all feelings as valuable, and as a valid part of life, the danger or creating further discomfort for ourselves is vastly reduced. By seeing discomfort as a problem and stomping our feet and gnashing our teeth about it, we are creating additional, unnecessary discomfort. Suffering comes from focusing on discomfort, and that part is mostly our choice. If we can accept the discomfort as a part of life, we will feel discomfort but will not also suffer.

Truly seeing discomfort as valid and valuable is easier said than done. We all understand the concept in the same way we all understand that life has ups and downs. In real life, when you feel uncomfortable, do you stop and say to yourself, “Self, this is a wonderful opportunity to stop and notice that I’m in a down moment of life. That’s Ok. I am able to hang as long as this down moment lasts, and I know there will be another up moment sometime down the road.”? Yep, neither do I. But that’s the aspiration, right?

So how do we get away from labeling feelings as “good” or “bad?” Look at them through another lens. One that I find extremely helpful is seeing feelings as messengers. Through this lens, anxiety tells us that there is something dangerous or threatening that we absolutely must pay attention to and respond to by fleeing, fighting, or freezing. Anger tells us that one of our boundaries has been crossed and there is an action to be taken to address that. Pain tells us that something we truly value is in danger of being or has been lost. Shame tells us that we see ourselves as “bad” and can use some self-compassion. Emptiness tells us to do something creative. Through this lens*, feelings are doing a job by getting our attention.

Keep in mind, there are times when the feeling is trying to do its job in error. When feelings are consistently elevated to a prolonged degree, it is possible that they are “glitching” (totally technical term). In this case, the feeling may not have a relevant message. It has gotten stuck in a loop: “Danger! Danger! Danger! Danger!” when there is no (current, actual) danger. It is misreading the situation or misfiring. It is our job to assess the feeling to see if its message, and its urgency, are accurate. In the case of a glitch, the glitch is the important information. The glitch is telling you to acknowledge but not focus on the feeling or the potential message.

When we look at feelings from this angle, we understand that the feelings themselves are not good or bad. Feelings are just trying to do a job. They’re actually trying to be helpful. It is us who is interpreting them as problematic when we don’t like how we feel. If we pay attention to their message instead of focusing on how they feel, life gets a LOT easier.

Discomfort happens. If you are alive, there is no way around it. The more we expect it, embrace it like it belongs here, and don’t perceive it as a problem, the more ease we will have with it. We will be able to make use of it, even. When we don’t automatically get defensive just because discomfort showed up, we will have much more room to respond to it in a way that is helpful.

When you notice discomfort, be curious about it (this may take a lot of practice – be prepared!). Wonder if it has a message to pay attention to. If there is a valid message, attend to it (or start the process), and move along. Again, this will take practice – more than you might expect. If the discomfort is going to stick around for a while, allow it to move to the background at least some of the time. Allow yourself, your attention, to move along if there is no helpful message and nothing new to attend to. Nothing to see here, folks. Focus on other thoughts, other feelings.

Although the uncomfortable feeling may still be present, you do not have to focus on it. Some people tell me that it’s impossible not to focus on it, and I get it. We are not good at this skill. But it is possible to move your focus away from it, even if only for a few seconds at a time. The trick is to figure out what else you are going to focus on, and then stay “awake” and gently guide your attention back to where you want it to be whenever it wanders (for more on this topic, read Choosing Focus to Impact Your Experience. Clumsy title, good article.).

As I suggested, you can focus on the feeling’s message, if it has one for you. But please loosen your grip on the feeling itself. If you don’t perceive it as a problem, it will be easier for you to let it go and move along because there is nothing to be alarmed about or to “fix.” It’s just a feeling.

We are not meant to hold onto feelings. Feelings are transient, like weather. That is their nature. If we try to hold onto a “good” feeling, we will inevitably be disappointed when another feeling takes its place. If we try to push away a “bad” feeling, we get distressed that it is not exiting at the pace we want it to. We are not meant to control feelings. We are meant to learn from feelings. Their messages point to what is important to us.

When we view feelings through this lens, it is easier to be curious about them. There is no dualism or prejudice. From this lens, it is not, “This bad feeling should not be here! I hate it! How do I get rid of it?” From this lens, it’s, “What’s this feeling about? Is there something I need to pay attention to? If not, I’m going to pay attention to something else.” That shifts the whole game. Discomfort is no longer dangerous.

From this lens, discomfort can bring knowledge and increased self-understanding. It is appreciated as a part of the ebb and flow of life.  It is appreciated as the flip side of comfort.  Now discomfort can be greeted with more ease, less defense.  It is not an unwelcome intruder but an honored guest at the dinner table.

*****

*If you are interested in learning more about this lens, check out “The Language of Emotions: What your feelings are trying to tell you” (by Karla McLaren).

**If you struggle to identify your emotions, an Emotional Barometer can help you clarify them.

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