Saturday 16 November 2019

Take a leap into the discomfort zone

If we embrace them, challenging times can help us learn and grow

'We think of discomfort as something that has to be relieved rather than observed'
'We think of discomfort as something that has to be relieved rather than observed'

Every now and again I take a moment to recall the big, transformative decisions that I've made in my life...

The careers that I changed and the relationships I left behind; the habits I gave up and the pastimes that I took on.

This isn't a naval-gazing process. I don't look back at these decisions to celebrate my achievements or take stock of my accomplishments. On the contrary, I do it to remind myself that I didn't change when life was ticking along nicely. I changed when I could no longer bear the consequences of staying stuck.

The late M. Scott Peck wrote extensively on this subject in The Road Less Travelled. "The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled," he wrote. "For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers."

Peck's wisdom makes a lot of sense in retrospect, but it's rarely clear at the time. We're hardwired to avoid feelings of discomfort, hence we deny, deflect and discredit the emotions that are trying to tell us something. Meditation teachers often tell us to "sit with" our discomfort but it's so much easier to just turn on the TV and pour a glass of wine.

We think of discomfort as something that has to be relieved rather than observed. So instead of asking why it is that we're feeling uncomfortable, we do everything we can to ease the discomfort - even if it's only a temporary solution to a permanent problem.

"Most of us do not take these situations as teachings," explains Pema Chödrön in When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times. "We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape - all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can't stand it."

We mostly numb the pain with food, alcohol, drugs and shopping, but we can also circumvent discomfort by misdirecting our energy. Sometimes we employ projection, which is when we deny the existence of qualities in ourselves by attributing them to others. For instance, if you've ever found yourself criticising the inner workings of a friend's romantic relationship, it might be a good idea to take a look at the state of your own relationship first.

Likewise, if you've ever found yourself arguing with a colleague when the real source of tension is your boss, then you could be hiding behind the defence mechanism of 'displacement', which is what happens when we take our frustration out on a less threatening target.

These are just a few of the techniques that we utilise to avoid discomfort, but, eventually, even the most sophisticated avoidance strategies will collapse under their own weight.

There has been much written on behaviour change catalysts but the truth is that the vast majority of us only change our ways when we finally accept that something has got to give. It's worth remembering this whenever you feel like you're stuck in a rut. Who knows, maybe the discomfort is the impetus that you need to make a lasting change.

It's also worth learning how to deal with discomfort before it deals with you. Sitting with discomfort might sound like a cross-legged New Age affectation, but it's actually a very worthwhile practice.

The trick, says Chödrön, is to stay present and sit with the discomfort "without trying to make it go away". Make sure you are free from distractions, let the body settle and then allow yourself to just experience the emotion. Where does it come from? What it is trying to tell you? Why are you trying to reject it?

Afterwards, you could try asking yourself a question that author Dr. Michael Bernard Beckwith has posed for deep self-enquiry: "If this experience were to last forever, what quality would have to emerge for [you] to have peace of mind?"

There comes a point when the comfort zone is no longer comfortable. It's like arriving at a crossroads and realising that you have to take a new direction. Those who fear change turn back, but those who embrace discomfort have already taken the first few steps.

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