Embrace Discomfort and Connect to the Meaningful Things in Your Life

Did you make a new year’s resolution at the start of this year?

Or have you ever made one in the past?

Like most of us, you probably started off with a lot of enthusiasm and lofty goals.

But how many times have you actually succeeded in sticking to the resolution? How many times have you reached your final goal?

And if you failed, have you ever wondered what exactly has gotten in the way?

There is no shame in admitting it. You are in good company.

Even with the best intentions and motivations, we all have a tendency to lose sight of our goals and falter at making the changes that we desire.

Why is that?

An Unsound Relationship with Discomfort

One of the biggest obstacles to making lasting change is having to repeatedly face discomfort. Often, we try to white-knuckle our way through it, only to find that will power and muscle are not enough.

The real problem is that our relationship with being uncomfortable is unsound. We have grown up with the notion that discomfort is something negative—a bad thing—and therefore, something that we have to avoid or get rid of as fast as possible.

The reality is that any change you make in your life, even a positive one—moving into a new house, starting a new relationship or job, or traveling abroad—comes with inherent discomfort.

But if discomfort is something that must be avoided, what do you give up as a result? Make discomfort the enemy long enough and you may even lose sight of what really matters to you in life.

Learning to See Discomfort in a Different Light

Many years back, I realized that much of my life centered around being comfortable. I had a good job and friends, but I lacked passion and meaning. It was as if I was living on autopilot.

It was then when I realized in order to have the life I wanted, I needed to adopt a new motto – “get comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

I started to see discomfort as just an inherent part of change and growth—as something welcomed, neither good nor bad. From then on, when I felt discomfort, I stopped looking for ways to get rid of it. Instead, I reminded myself that it was simply a part of the process.

The lesson for you?

When you learn to see discomfort differently and start to actually invite it into your life, you can better connect with the things that are meaningful to you.

If you no longer have to avoid discomfort, what might you spend your energy doing?

Creating a Different Relationship with Discomfort

What steps can you take to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable?

As odd as it may sound, in order to try creating a different relationship with discomfort, you actually have to actively pursue the things that you know will make you uncomfortable.

Ask yourself: “Are there things I always wanted to do but did not do because I felt too awkward or embarrassed to do them?”

For some, it may be taking a dance class, singing karaoke, or doing improv. Remember, the important thing is that whatever you decide, it is something that matters to you.

The next step is to pursue these activities while noticing how it feels to be uncomfortable. You will likely hear some of the same old discouraging thoughts: “I can’t”, “I look silly.”

But what happens if you continue anyway and invite discomfort and all its friends to the party? Could you learn to engage differently with discomfort, embrace it, and in turn, grow and enrich your life? The only way to know is to try it!

Therapy is a great way of exploring your relationship with discomfort, how you responded to pain and discomfort in the past, and how you can get more in touch with the things that are meaningful in your life now. I would love to help you find the right balance and perspective.

Vulnerability and Recovery

Because I work with people who struggle with addiction, I am particularly attuned to the ways that the public perceives people struggling with addiction and in recovery.  Too often, media portrayals of addiction dramatize or glamorize addiction in unrealistic ways.  These images contribute to a negative perception of addiction and recovery and lead to misunderstandings, fear, and stigma.

In my work, I’ve had the fortune to witness and be inspired by some of the many people who stop using alcohol or drugs each year. Based on this experience, I want to propose an alternative perspective on addiction — that most of us share a lot more experiences with folks struggling with addiction than we realize.

Think of a habit or behavior that you know is not so good for you or gets in the way of who you want to be.  This might take the form of a (more) socially approved of “addiction”.  Things like

  • chocolate,
  • shopping,
  • TV,
  • texting,
  • cell phone games

Have you ever tried to change that behavior?  Was it easy?

Have you noticed what happens when you start entertaining changing a habit?  If you are anything like me, your first thoughts might be something like “I could change if I wanted to,” and “it’s not a good time to change because…”  The truth is that changing is hard and would require being willing to experience a whole lot of difficult feelings and thoughts.

I experienced this recently when I quit eating sugar a few months ago.  For ten days I couldn’t concentrate, my emotions felt extreme and unpredictable, and my body ached in places that had not ever been injured.  I experienced triggers, urges, cravings – the whole nine yards.  I felt extremely sensitive, like a buffer between me and the difficult things that happen in my life had been removed. In the process of making this change, I encountered my own vulnerability.

In her now famous Ted Talk, Brene Brown talks about how she didn’t choose just one substance to retreat into to protect her from vulnerability, she used a failsafe combo: a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.  Many of the behaviors that we do routinely may protect us from having to experience our own vulnerability.  But our vulnerability is a part of our humanity – and part of what connects us to each other.

My admiration for folks in recovery comes from their willingness to experience their vulnerability in order to make a change.  Recovery usually involves giving up something that, at least at some level, feels like it keeps you safe and protected. Often it requires making changes to relationships, to daily routines, and to the things we use for comfort.  As if that weren’t vulnerable enough, it sometimes means making amends to people that you harmed in the past.  In my experience, recovery requires a courage of heart that is rarely required of most of us.

Now I am aware that experiments in vulnerability, like choosing to give up sugar, TV, or your cell phone, or making other changes that disrupt our sense of safety, do not capture the experience of overcoming addiction. My intent is not to make light of the experience of addiction or recovery.  It is to suggest that making changes is hard for all of us and that we have more in common with those who struggle with addiction than we may realize.  In fact, I often think that stigma and judgements about others, including people who struggle with addiction, may be a way to distance ourselves from vulnerability. Unfortunately, this also restricts our connection to our humanity.

The truth is all of us humans experience very unpleasant sensations and feelings when we change our behavior — there is no permanent way to keep us safe from that.  We all have vulnerabilities we might prefer to avoid.  By noticing the ways in which we defend our vulnerability, we increase our empathy and humanity, and may even find a little of the courage of recovery in our own lives.

Your Mind Thinks its an Expert (or Calling Dr. Rutherford)

You’ve probably noticed this already, but our minds have something to say on most topics. Some of this is pretty minor: “That iced tea looks refreshing!” In other cases our minds dole out expert opinions. We become:

  • Critics of modern art: “My three-year-old could draw that!”
  • Experts on gastronomy (i.e., food): “Why would anyone pay high prices for small portions in that fancy-pants place?”
  • Amateur meteorologists: “Looks like it’s gonna rain today.”

Most of the time, our running commentary is pretty harmless. It’s also built into us. As human beings, we seek patterns in our environment in order to understand our world and keep ourselves safe. This tendency has helped us survive.

But it can also create a lot of problems.

A common way I see this tendency go awry in my practice is when our minds become medical experts. Some degree of monitoring our health is important in deciding when to take a sick day, see a doctor, or get some rest. But sometimes our minds jump to worst case scenarios. The Internet tends to escalate these problems. Here’s an important equation to consider:

Ambiguous physical symptom + worry/anxiety + Internet search = “I might be dying!”

In researching that small brown spot that you recently noticed on your face, you’ll learn it’s probably just a harmless freckle—OR IT MIGHT BE SKIN CANCER!

Dr. Rutherford

The people with whom I work often come with clever and interesting images, metaphors, and ideas for working with their problem—far most interesting than anything I come think of—and I’ve learned a lot from clients over the years. I wanted to share one of those ideas in this post. The client gave full permission, and I changed the details to maintain confidentiality.

We had discussed his tendency to interpret physical symptoms—usually symptoms of anxiety—as signs he was dying. At one point I asked him in session, “Does your mind have a medical degree that you yourself don’t possess? It sounds like your mind thinks it’s an expert in areas that you yourself are not.”

I didn’t think much of my comments at the time, but for this individual it planted a seed.

He and his partner named his worry mind after a sketchy-looking educational institution they saw located in a retail area. For the sake of confidentiality, I’ve changed the name and key details. I’ll call the worry mind “Dr. Rutherford,” even though the actual name has a nicer ring to it. According to the client, Dr. Rutherford became certified in different specialties during one-day certification programs in areas such as:

  • Neuroscience
  • Veterinary medicine
  • Infectious Diseases
  • Relationships
  • Dentistry
  • Food allergist
  • “Sudden death prediction analyst”

Dr. Rutherford became a way to talk about excessive worry. When he’d begin to worry, his partner might say to him, “Looks like Dr. Rutherford is here,” and the two could light-heartedly laugh about it. Over time, this tendency towards worry became something funny rather than something frustrating.

He even wrote down a series of Dr. Rutherford’s sayings or mottos in order to identify when he was worrying.  Again, for the sake of confidentiality, I won’t give them word-for-word, but they reflected ideas such as, “Sure it’s rare, but if you get it, YOU’RE DEAD!”

Some concluding thoughts about the ubiquitous Dr. Rutherford

In conclusion, it’s generally pretty harmless when your mind has strong opinions about Wagnerian opera in the absence of a musicology degree. However, you might hold your mind’s views with some skepticism on topics such as interpreting vague physical symptoms or contamination risks that no one else seems worried about. That might just be your own version of Dr. Rutherford talking.

And finally, I just wanted to say thanks to the individual who gave me permission to share this fantastic idea!