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Comfortably Uncomfortable

It’s the last thought as you step out of the car and into the parking lot. You’re on the way to a new meetup group, one that you’ve never been to, and you’re concerned. You wonder what the group will be like and whether they’ll like you. The fear of rejection is running through your mind like the running of the bulls.

Despite the logical analysis that there’s nothing here to fear, adrenaline pumps through your veins as you make your way slowly – too slowly – towards the gathering group. The awkward question, “Are you here for the same reason?” is met with a moment of confusion, then an awareness that you’re not a part of the group – yet.

This is just one of the millions of interactions that people who are comfortably uncomfortable have every day. They push through into their discomfort and look for the rewards of greater connection with others and the ability to share their passion.

How do we take the first step towards becoming comfortable? Maybe it starts in a hot, smelly, and sweaty gym.

Breaking Down Muscles

The weightlifter strains and struggles to lift the weight bar over his head just one last time. He’s sweating, his heart is pounding, and his lungs feel like they’ve been sanded down with the heavy air in the room. He gets the one last lift in before his muscles give out. During his exercise, he’s been destroying his muscles bit by bit. They held out for the last lift, but there’s a definite need to rebuild.

Over the following day or two, the weightlifter’s body will assess the damage and build muscles that are more capable than they were before the damage. It’s the natural compensation of the muscle tissue that allows growth and improvement through repetition and strain. What started out as painful and literally destructive to the tissues of the weightlifter’s body will make them stronger. (For more on overcompensation, see Antifragile.)

In the weightlifter’s training, they’ve come to accept the pain not as a signal to run away from or a thing to be feared, but rather as a trusted friend that tells them they’re on the path to improving their abilities. Instead of something to shun, they’ve found a reason to invite it in the name of becoming stronger. They’ve become comfortable with their discomfort.

Considering Coaches

Pushy. Always correcting. Never relenting. Coaches are there to drive people to the best performance, and in the service of that goal, they’re often on the backs of the very people who pay them. The executive or athlete being coached keeps asking for it. They want more of it. Each time there’s a correction offered by the coach, it stings a little. Some comments hurt more than others, but every comment has some sort of a barb to it. (See Peak for more about the role of coaches.)

Good coaches may sprinkle in supportive statements. They may try to keep motivating their coachee – but in the end, a coachee’s role is to improve, and to improve you have to change – and change isn’t easy.

What would make people pay others to subject them to pain – without a mental illness? The answer is in the payoff. These peak performers are willing to be uncomfortable with the comments and the drills to get to the results they want. They have become comfortable with the discomfort of receiving coaching comments.

Finding Focus

How do these executives, athletes, and regular scared humans get comfortable with being uncomfortable? The answer lies in their focus. Philip Zimbardo, in The Time Paradox, describes how people view time differently. They view it from a past, present, or future – with the past and present having two different variants each. Of the five views of time, the future view is the most interesting. It’s the most interesting, because it allows us to focus our interests elsewhere.

One of our most powerful capacities is our ability to launch ourselves into the future in our minds. We don’t need a time machine or a rocket ship to escape the bounds of today. All we need is our mind. This capacity is powerful enough to change our physiology as we imagine potentially stressful future events. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.) This capacity drove the physiological responses of the group finder in our opening, as the mind temporarily simulated the possibility that they would be rejected.

Shifting from unconscious to conscious control, the group goer can remind themselves what they are hoping for out of the encounter. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for a model of how the brain vies for control.) The social anxiety is seen as an acceptable moment of uncomfortable in exchange for the potential value. Since we discount our future rewards, the rewards in the future must be powerful enough to outweigh our current or planned discomfort. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for how we view gains and losses.)

By focusing on the desired end state – what we hope to get – we can amplify the value of the future state and simultaneously reduce the short-term costs. We get the ability to put our thumb on the scale that we use to evaluate what we want to do. We can subtly – or not so subtly – shift the scales for the future gain from the present pain.

Accepting Uncomfortable

Even with the scales tipped, we still must endure the current discomfort to get to the end goal. We’ve got to develop the perseverance to make it to the other side of the pain. Luckily, we can develop this skill just like we can develop our muscles. The more that we are able to tolerate mild pain, the more pain we can tolerate – and the longer that we have our tolerance. (See Willpower for developing our willpower, and Grit for how we can develop perseverance.)

Like anything else, there’s a pain to learning to endure pain. Making small steps, repeatedly, ultimately leads to the ability to be persistently comfortable being uncomfortable.

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