It seems that we’re no longer willing or able to tolerate feeling uncomfortable. And furthermore, we’ve come to believe we shouldn’t have to tolerate any kind of emotional discomfort. Any situation that could possibly trigger uncomfortable feelings is now viewed as overwhelming, unnatural, and in need of correction.
So then, what’s discomfort—this experience that we consider so daunting and unacceptable these days?
To be uncomfortable is defined as being uneasy, awkward, and literally without comfort. When we’re pushed out of our comfort zone, feel anything other than happy, or have to exert effort in order to feel OK, we think it means something is wrong. The assumption, in fact, is that our discomfort means we’re being wronged and usually that someone else is to blame. We’ve come to believe that any situation that causes us to feel difficulty, difference, or unpleasantness must be fixed immediately so that we never have to experience such feelings again.
But here’s the problem: We need to be able to feel uncomfortable.
Discomfort is one of the most important experiences we encounter as human beings. By avoiding and correcting situations that make us feel uncomfortable, we’re fixing a feeling that, while maybe not easy or pleasant, is also profoundly necessary to our well-being.
And in the simplest terms possible, life is uncomfortable. Rejecting that basic reality creates an impossible expectation that will make us that much more uncomfortable.
Life, no matter how well we manage and control it, always contains discomfort. There’s no way around it; we have to go through it. We’re constantly confronted with situations that make us feel uneasy, excluded, unprepared, inadequate, and everything in between. Being uncomfortable is part of being human. Our attempts to eliminate and prevent any situation that might lead to discomfort are worse than futile: They’re a waste of energy that deprives us of the impetus for growth.
In this culture, we’ve built up the idea of discomfort into an enormous and frightening obstacle to our well-being. We talk about feeling uncomfortable as if it were inherently unjust, unkind, and unbearable. At the same time, the more we try to protect ourselves from discomfort, the more we strengthen the (mistaken) belief that we can’t survive it, that we’ll be ruined by it. As a result, we’re less able to manage it when it does arise—which, in this life, is often.
The truth is, we can survive feeling uncomfortable. We can not only survive discomfort, but we can be well right smack in the middle of it. The more we get used to discomfort—and dare I say get comfortable with it—the less it will restrain us. Furthermore, we’ll become more skilled at managing it.
Trying to make the discomfort go away, to create a life in which discomfort never happens, is in fact destroying our emotional resilience; it’s creating a situation in which our ability to adapt to difficult situations is atrophying and dying. Such a situation also depletes our trust in ourselves and in our belief that we can handle difficult emotions and that such experiences are temporary.
We need to be able to manage emotional discomfort precisely because the experience of discomfort is never going away. In fact, discomfort is part and parcel of life’s most meaningful and rewarding experiences. Mastering a new skill, improving our mind and body, building something in this world—virtually all efforts involving new challenges carry discomfort.
Rather than trying to eliminate, mitigate, or reshape any experience that might trigger discomfort, rather than treating this normal, inevitable human experience as a problem, we would be better off learning to get comfortable with discomfort. Our efforts shouldn’t be in condemning discomfort, but rather in building and honing our skills for managing it with greater skill, awareness, and self-compassion.
In truth, it’s through the experience of discomfort that we learn to self-soothe.
In difficult moments, we develop the skills necessary to take care of ourselves, to bring ourselves back to okay-ness. We build compassion and kindness for ourselves, which is one of the most important things we can ever learn.
Ultimately, feeling uncomfortable is an opportunity to grow and evolve—to change and become more resilient and stronger.
If you landed on planet Earth for the first time and heard us, Earthlings, talking about what we call “feeling uncomfortable,” you would think that we were talking about something menacing and utterly unmanageable. But this is a deep misunderstanding of the simultaneous weight and levity of this particular emotional experience. The weight with regard to its power to change us and help us grow—and also the levity in terms of how vastly capable we are of handling and living through it.
Discomfort isn’t the enemy. Our culture has gotten this one wrong; we’re far stronger than we give ourselves credit for, and discomfort makes us even stronger. If we want to live in this world, even if we never leave the house, we need to be able to face uncomfortable feelings. The next time you feel uncomfortable or are entering a situation where discomfort may be triggered, think about leaning into it and maybe even look forward to it. Approach the experience as a challenge you can tolerate, without having to change or fix it.
The more you can live with and within discomfort, the more prepared you are to live as a human in this very human (and uncomfortable) world.