The Opportunity of Discomfort

Thinking we can find lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what keeps us miserable, caught in a hopeless cycle of suffering–Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

All of us on some level wish we could escape emotional pain. While we may not use these exact words, what many of us are saying is:

  • I want to escape from the emotions I find uncomfortable and only invest in what will produce happiness and a sense of increasing worth.
  • My own way of escaping my discomfort is to use perfectionism. I tell myself that the closer I am to perfection, the futher I am from disappointment.
  • Trying something new or something I am not already good at would set me up with the possibility to fail. The fear of failure is an uncomfortable emotion I try hard to avoid. So I often find myself sticking with what I know, sticking with what I can guarantee, but end up missing out on seeing all the opportunities to grow that life sets in front of me.

It can be hard to realize that the discomfort we are running from can actually present unrecognized opportunities. It is uncomfortable to feel anger, pain, sadness, and other emotions we perceive as negative. Our reaction is usually to try to find ways to avoid this discomfort by doing whatever we can to feel better. For instance, in place of having a difficult conversation with a partner, we may choose to avoid the unwanted feelings we anticipate in an argument…by working longer hours, drinking to take the edge off, gossiping with a friend, or keeping busy so the feelings don’t have time to surface. But by avoiding the discomfort, we are missing out on the opportunity to emotionally connect with our partner and resolve the conflict, missing out on being heard, and missing out on increasing our confidence by facing our fears. Moving toward whatever is triggering the unwanted feelings is ultimately what contributes to feeling better; running away from our emotions ensures we get stuck in them.

The emotions we run from, the ones we perceive as confirming our failure and shame, might really be opportunities to learn. Our emotions do not always reflect reality. Emotions aren’t fact; they aren’t even good or bad. They serve to reveal more about who we are than what is actually occurring in our lives. They are signals to what worries us, what hurts us deeply, and what excites us. Emotions are there to be pondered, to be felt, and to learn from. As humans, we tend to associate pain with the negative and pleasure with the positive. However, discomfort, while uncomfortable, is neither good nor bad but rather an opportunity to grow as a person. 

A great parallel to pushing through discomfort and into growth is going to the gym. You already know it is going to be sweaty, painful, and exhausting while you are working out, but you interpret that pain as positive and necessary for growth. The expectation at the gym is if you continually place yourself in discomfort you will be increasing your strength both physically and emotionally. If you don’t push past the burning sensation that comes when working a muscle, there is no opportunity for the muscle to grow.

The gym example suggests that it’s really just our value judgement and aversion to feeling certain emotions that causes us to place them into positive and negative categories. If we are averse to the discomfort, sorting through the pain to find the meaning is the last thing we want to do. We would much rather just focus on what will allow us to feel as if we are moving forward and not dare slow down to listen to what the discomfort is trying to tell us. However, as the author John Green so succinctly put it, “Pain demands to be felt.”  Avoidance only perpetuates our suffering. In an effort to only feel pleasure and happiness we are adding to our misery by not pausing to give attention to all of our emotions. While it seems counterintuitive that feeling the discomfort could allow for us to find satisfaction and meaning, avoidance only guarantees we live further and further detached from ourselves and what we really want.

The Power of Saying “No”
Conflict Avoidance: Sink or Swim