How To Embrace Discomfort For Personal Growth

Can you be comfortable with being uncomfortable? 


I’ve recently moved to a foreign country, and I’m having many opportunities to feel self-conscious and embarrassed. Some examples:

  • Trying to communicate when I don’t know the language.
  • Making various driving gaffes, including repeatedly getting in the wrong side of the car (they drive on the left side of the road here).
  • Interacting with a staff at my house (housekeeper, guards) which is bringing up issues around egalitarianism, privilege and fairness.
  • Getting sauce on my tie at a formal event at the US Embassy.

Most of use, when faced with any type of discomfort, react to it with resistance. We berate ourselves for not being fully competent or graceful. We tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be embarrassed. We feel like something is going wrong and needs to be fixed or avoided. We tell ourselves how much the feeling sucks and we wish it would go away.

It’s interesting to notice how much of our drinking behavior is driven by the desire to avoid discomfort.

  • We drink to cover up the discomfort of anxiety, sadness, or boredom.
  • If you have a regular time or event that signals that it’s beer-thirty (for me that was when sitting down to dinner) your brain generates an urge. If you don’t go along with that urge, discomfort sets in.  
  • When other people are drinking and you aren’t, you may experience the discomfort of FOMO.

The phrase 'take the edge off' pretty much sums up the relationship between alcohol and discomfort.

I’ve been using situations like the ones in my new foreign life to practice embracing discomfort.

So how do you do this?

There are two ways – the hard way and the easy way.

The hard way is to power through the resistance with willpower. That’s better than just avoiding discomfort, but the problem is that willpower is a limited resource. Some people have more than others, but no one has an infinite reserve. And when you’re trying to make long term changes in your life, relying solely on willpower isn’t sustainable.

The easy way is to embrace the discomfort as a physical sensation. And in fact that’s all it is. You’ve experienced some situation and you’ve thought about it in a way that creates negative emotion. A cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters get emitted that create physical reactions in your body. In evolutionary terms, these chemicals and the associated reactions are preparing you to take action to mitigate some perceived threat. 

So just notice that you’re experiencing some sensations. Do a scan of your body and observe what’s going on where. I typically experience embarrassment as a feeling of constriction in my torso, a tingle or tension on the back of my neck, and my breathing gets shallow.

When you just observe what’s happening in your body, without judging or labeling it, or wishing that things were different than they are, you’ll find that it’s no big deal. There’s nothing about a mild constriction in your chest that is going to actually harm you.

A life with no discomfort is a life without growth. Comfort = the status quo. Any meaningful change or transformation is going to involve discomfort. You want a better job, to start a business, or to change your relationship with alcohol, you better get ready to be uncomfortable.

What would you do this week if you were willing to feel some discomfort?

  • Tell someone the truth.
  • Ask for a raise.
  • Do something new and be willing to suck at it.
  • Skip the beer for a night, or stop after the second one.

Go do something that makes you uncomfortable.  Pay attention to how it really feels.  I think you’ll discover that it’s nothing you can’t handle.  And then you can do anything.

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