Lean Into It

“Growth and comfort do not coexist.” -Ginny Rometty, CEO of IBM

Do you ever take cold showers…on purpose? Call me crazy, but I’ve tried it a few times. You have to psych yourself up for them. As soon as that cold water hits you, your heart races, you start hyperventilating, and it feels for half a minute like you’re gonna die. But then the discomfort recedes and the cold water starts to feel refreshing. You feel a surge of vitality and energy, and by the end it doesn’t even feel cold anymore. And that energy boost and refreshed feeling lasts for a long time. Given several good experiences with cold showers, and knowing how beneficial they are for your circulation, brain functioning, and energy level, you’d think I take them all the time, but I hardly ever do. It’s that half a minute of discomfort that I have such a hard time voluntarily putting myself through.

If you were given the choice between experiencing discomfort, or experiencing pain and suffering, which would you choose? While the answer seems obvious, I see people over and over again choosing to be comfortable in the moment, even knowing that they will reap pain and/or suffering in the long term. Or, like with the shower example, knowing that rewards and benefits lie just on the other side of a temporary discomfort, but resisting it anyway.

A prime example of this is exercise. It doesn’t matter how conclusively science proves its benefits; many will not exercise enough–even when their doctor tells them they will die an early death! That’s because in the file cabinet of our minds, the discomfort of exercise is filed in the same file folder as “Pain.” Yes, exercise feels uncomfortable or even painful at times, but the surge of vitality that comes with it confirms just how good it is for us. A muscle will never grow unless it is strained first. (That said, please don’t push your body past the limit of what’s healthy! Learn the difference between real pain and fake psychological “pain.”) One benefit of practicing yoga is learning how to breathe through discomfort, finding relaxation and surrender even while pushing to the edge of your pose.

Feedback is another necessary part of life that can feel very uncomfortable, for both the receiver and the giver of the feedback. We shy away from feedback because it challenges us to change, and change almost always feels uncomfortable. A feedback conversation is deep and real, causing us to (hopefully) examine ourselves beyond the superficial. One thing that can help a feedback conversation feel less stressful is going into it knowing that it’s supposed to feel uncomfortable. When we begin to normalize these experiences, we will start to welcome them rather than shy away from them.

I’ve enjoyed reading what Brene Brown has to say about discomfort. She challenges us to “lean into” discomfort instead of instinctually shying away from it. When you lean into and welcome discomfort, you often gain a new perspective that causes you to cease to be concerned about comfort. She writes:

“When we stop ‘taking the edge off’ and those sharp edges come back into our lives, we begin to witness how leaning in to the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us how to live with joy, gratitude, and peace.”

One of the most uncomfortable experiences for me is leaving a conversation before it’s resolved. Sounds pretty stupid, I know, but I have almost never been able to make myself walk away from an unproductive conversation when emotions and tempers are running high. I want to keep on discussing (translation: arguing, repeating myself, crying, demanding, etc.) until the issue is tied up neat and tidy, according to my own standards. It doesn’t matter how many times I learn by experience that continuing to behave this way leads to pain and suffering in my marriage; the short-term sensation of discomfort gets me almost every time. Also, during stressful conversations, silence is so uncomfortable that not talking for ten seconds while I wait for my husband to respond takes every ounce of willpower I have. My poor husband. For him, having these conversations is more uncomfortable than just about anything else in life, and for me, it’s not having them or ending them. What a wonderful opportunity for growth this provides! (Translation: recipe for disaster!) Declaring this here makes it official: I’m now challenging myself to end conversations with my husband when they become strained, and lean into the discomfort of letting things remain unresolved for a period of time. It won’t kill me, and I know it will add to the peace in my home and build trust with my husband.

Comfort seems to have become almost a religion in our society. I won’t get into politics here, but it crops up everywhere, from discussions about altering bathroom legislation so that some individuals can feel more comfortable, to demonstrations in favor of raising the minimum wage in order to provide people with a “comfortable” living. The problem with comfort is that it’s different for every person, and what one person is comfortable with may alter rapidly, even day to day or hour to hour. For this and many other reasons, comfort is not a benchmark we should be shooting for.

Why do so many of us choose comfort above all else? A primitive area of our brain actually thinks that uncomfortable things will eventually kill us. Going without food may cause discomfort, although for a limited time period it doesn’t harm us, and it is in fact healthy to fast periodically. But if we were to keep going without food for many days, obviously, we’d die. Getting pins and needles in a limb is harmless, but uncomfortable, because if the blood flow is restricted long enough, our cells would start to die. We feel uncomfortable being in situations or around people who leech our energy, because our energy is our life force and we’d die without it. That discomfort serves us by motivating us to cut off those drains on our energy.

Discomfort can therefore serve a purpose, but it has a negative effect when we mistake the harmless or beneficial for things that can kill us. The reason the experience of embarrassment is so uncomfortable is because in primitive cultures, if someone were to make a big enough social blunder, they’d be ostracized by the community, which often meant death, since the harsh realities of life caused ancient people to depend upon one another for their very lives. But even though times have changed, we’re still so afraid of doing anything that could cause us embarrassment that we hold ourselves back from doing things that could help us grow and add to our quality of life.

On the other side of discomfort lies opportunities for growth, excitement, love, adventure, learning, happiness, and connection with others. I certainly don’t want to give up these benefits in order to merely remain comfortable. So get outside your comfort zone daily. You don’t have to take cold showers, but challenge yourself. Find out who you really are. Beyond discomfort, you just might find the life of your dreams!