Think for a moment about the last time you felt a uncomfortable. Not the physical kind, but the psychological kind. What kind of discomfort was it?
Was it embarrassment at something you’d said or done in front of others? Was it anxiety about a meeting you were due to have. Was it a deep nameless discomfort at having to network in a large room full of strangers?
Did you feel uncomfortable about something in your distant past? Or was is discomfort about something that hadn’t even happened?
Discomfort is everywhere and it’s noisy.
We’re basically wired to pay attention to it, as it’s a sign that something in our environment is a kind of threat. However, paying attention to overly noisy discomfort isn’t always in our interests.
It’s also a topic that comes up in my coaching practice very regularly. Discomfort is at the very heart of self-defeating patterns like procrastination, for example. We seek to avoid the discomfort associated with a task (e.g. boredom) and look to do something much more comforting and enjoyable. Even when we know we’d be better served by completing the task now, we’re motivated to avoid lithe perceived discomfort.
Avoidance of discomfort means we can miss out on opportunities to speak up, to speak out, to put ourselves forward and expose ourselves to situations that can really contribute to our development.
So it’s quite a powerful driver.
Even so, it’s something that we can change. Not the experience of discomfort itself, but our responses to it. So that we can better navigate uncomfortable experiences and take action that’s in our interests.
Avoiding discomfort comes naturally – facing up to it is hard
We can quite easily paint a mental picture of anticipated discomfort and let it guide our behaviour. We might find ourselves saying things like “Oh, that would be awkward” and begin thinking about how we can avoid feeling that awkwardness.
But is that really helpful? What we’re doing is focusing on the uncomfortable feelings and not the experience itself – which could be beneficial for us or others.
Consider how much discomfort you’ve experienced so far today. You’ve probably not enjoyed waking up and getting out of bed. You might have felt frustration while waiting for a late colleague. What about boring or monotonous work tasks? Talking to someone you didn’t particularly get along with? Face up to a mistake or giving someone else feedback?
Our lives are littered with potentially uncomfortable situations and experiences, but if we avoided all discomfort, we’d never experience things that help us grow and learn.
If you find yourself working hard to avoid discomfort, you’ll also probably notice that the relief is short-lived. The situations, people and tasks we’re trying to avoid remain and sooner or later we’ll be exposed to them again. Avoiding discomfort is an unhelpful pattern, but once you start noticing the habit, you can do something about it.
So what can we do?
Let’s start with a very basic premise. Discomfort isn’t going anywhere. We can’t banish it from our lives, so our job is to get better at dealing with it and persisting with what’s important when we encounter it. So what could this look like? Let’s look at a common source of discomfort: speaking in public. Many people will do almost anything to avoid speaking to an audience but their fears are often misplaced.
1. Focus on the goal, not the discomfort
If you have to prepare a presentation to an audience and your mind focuses on how nervous you’ll feel or you get repeated images of you messing up, it’s going to do nothing for your performance. If however, you can notice these mental experiences and then focus on why you’re doing the presentation in the first place, it can make a big difference.
You’re not stepping up in front of lots of people because you want to feel nervous or potentially embarrass yourself, you’re doing it to share your expertise, or to convince people on an important topic, or to relay important news.
Be clear on your goal and keep focusing on that. The discomfort will still be there, just not in the driving seat.
2. Be clear on how you’re living your values
On a related note, it can be really helpful to be clear on how you’ll be acting in accordance with your values. Our values are aspirational behavioural standards, the things we feel really matter in life. So if one of your key values is ‘developing others’, then by standing up in front of colleagues to share your knowledge, you’ll be putting that value into practice.
So if you’re clear on the goal and you know how you’ll be being ‘myself at my best’, then you can persist despite the discomfort.
3. Seek out even more discomfort
I know – it sounds terrible! But if you can place yourself in situations you find uncomfortable and come out the other side intact, you can learn to differentiate between the discomfort and the meaning of the event.
Take time to explore the experience of speaking in public and you’ll notice how few of your fears came true, how discomfort is passing and brief and how, regardless of what it felt like to speak, you’ve both achieved a goal and acted in accordance with your values.
4. Think about what you’re actually avoiding
You can probably identify a list of things you’ve been avoiding or putting off for all kinds of reasons. Dig a little deeper and get clear on the kind of discomfort you’re trying to avoid. This will highlight what you’re actually avoiding and allow you to give it a name.
“I’m avoiding speaking up in case I’m wrong and look foolish” – avoiding discomfort associated with potential embarrassment, rather than contributing positively to a discussion.
“I’m not sharing my thoughts on this in case people thing I’m being awkward” – avoiding discomfort associated with others’ judgment, rather than being a voice of reason.
“I’m not applying for this promotion because I don’t want to deal with not getting it” – avoiding discomfort of potential failure, rather than taking action to advance my career.
We discussed the concept of discomfort and what avoiding discomfort means during episode 38 of the ‘My Pocket Psych’ podcast. If you’re interested in learning more about this, have a listen and let us know what you think.