The more we practice to observe, accept, and embrace discomfort, the more grounded, connected, understanding, and resilient we can become as a result. Grounded in the present moment; connected to our breath and body; understanding of our own inner and outer landscapes; and resilient amid the swells of change.
As soon as we’re born, we start acting out when we’re confronted with discomfort – and for the first few months it serves a crucial function. We cry and carry on in order to communicate that we’re hungry or tired or cold or that our diaper needs changing. But it seems this sets the stage for a lifetime of detrimental behaviors accrued for the sole purpose of avoiding or managing discomfort. We would do well as parents, family members, and caretakers of young children to work on not over-manicuring the environment and experiences of our little ones. As soon as a baby starts to develop other ways of communicating – which doesn’t take long, just a few months – we can start teaching skills of mindful speech and deep listening, tools for self-care, and coping mechanisms for weathering physical and emotional discomfort. The more meticulously we try to groom the lives of our young children, attempting to keep at bay any modicum of discomfort, the more we rob them of the opportunity to practice training in the art of building strong and healthy relationships with themselves in the present moment.
We are not taught how to interact with discomfort. We are only taught how to avoid it or cover it up. I believe that most, maybe even all, detrimental/unskillful behaviors have a root embedded in a strong desire to get out of feelings of discomfort as soon as possible, and by any means necessary. We may look to numb those feelings with drugs or alcohol; or cover them up by over-working or over-eating or over-shopping or cramming our schedule with things to keep us occupied and exhausted. We may look to sex and love as an escape; we may use Netflix or TV or gaming or pornography, the list goes on and on.
The more uncomfortable we are, the more distracted we become. And this cycle perpetuates itself. So the more we give into distraction tendencies, the more uncomfortable we find ourselves. To break this cycle we need tools and practices to lean on and utilize throughout the day. So, where do we start? Here’s what I suggest, based on my own experience of what I’ve found helpful for myself: Notice when discomfort arises, ask yourself whether it’s time to step into that particular discomfort or not, and then proceed to make a plan of action based on whatever you decide.
In order to expand our capacity for skillfully tending to feelings of discomfort, we have to first be able to recognize them when they come up. As you’re going about your day, practice to pay special attention to when you start feeling “off” or fidgety, as often this can indicate such feelings of discomfort or awkwardness. Notice how often you whip out your smartphone when you don’t really need to or when you use it to avoid doing something else more important. Identify the common and frequent triggers that cause you to feel awkward or uncomfortable or self-conscious (which involves feeling as though OTHERS are looking at/judging/critiquing you). Some common causes of discomfort are: when we’re in larger social situations, when we’re by our self somewhere out in public, when we’re not in control, when we don’t feel skilled at something, or when we experience lag time or moments of quiet/silence/inactivity.
Once we know when it is we are experiencing feelings of discomfort we can then ask ourselves this important question: Is this a moment to practice stepping into it? Allow this question to settle into your body, as this will enable you to get in touch with the clearest, least obstructed answer, verses your habitual tendency to say: Nope, this isn’t the time, I’m getting the heck out of here! It’s important to know that we all generally know what to do when it comes to matters of uncertainty in our lives. The trouble is we’re either too disconnected from being able to listen well to our inherent wisdom and/or we simply don’t want to do what our inner voice is telling us to do. It’s also important to understand that every situation is different. Whereas one day we might feel ready to step into, let’s say, a social gathering where we know very few people, the next day, when the same situation presents itself, we might not. That’s normal and super okay. What’s helpful to us here is that we’re actively engaging with what’s going on and we’re making a conscious and informed decision about what to do.
So, if we decide that yes, this is a time to practice stepping into discomfort then we would do well to start with small steps in this regard. For example: If we feel uncomfortable going by ourselves to certain things then we might try flying solo to a movie that we’re wanting to see – but we might also bring along our smartphone or a book to help keep us company. One thing at a time! Or if we’re more uncomfortable when hanging out with others and more prefer to go unaccompanied to things, then we can try reaching out to a friend or two and invite them to come along with us. Or maybe we find ourselves standing in a line at the grocery store and feelings of discomfort arise and in that moment we make the decision not to reach for our phone to check our texts/emails/facebook in order to occupy our time – our practice in that moment can be to simply not take out our phones. Any time we go against the grain of our less than helpful habit energies is a victory, in terms of strengthening the energy of mindfulness. So try not to underestimate the movement and progress you make when it comes to taking small steps to accept and embrace, and not run away from, feelings of discomfort.
And if we decide that no, this is not a time I choose to step into discomfort then we would do well to practice fully allowing that decision to take affect and not second guess ourselves or give ourselves a hard time about it. There will be times to step into discomfort and times not to, for a variety of reasons. So make peace with that. And maybe, if you’re up for it, you can make an agreement with yourself to work up to something in the near future, when it comes to a particular aversion you have that brings up a lot of discomfort.
Start with small, relatively easy things and then work your way up to larger things. If we attempt to take on super big matters of discomfort before training with smaller situations, we are likely to find that we do more harm than good to ourselves in this undertaking. So set yourself up for success and start small.
Utilizing moments of discomfort can be a tool to help us cultivate our mindfulness practice and build resilience. The smaller our comfort zone is, the more we suffer when things and people don’t adhere to how we think they should be (which, let’s face it, is most of the time). And, in turn, the wider we can extend our comfort zone, the happier and more at ease we’ll be in a variety of situations. So get your practice on!
You might discover, like I did, that it’s a game changer.