As humans we tend to want to feel good about ourselves and comfortable all the time. Consequently, being uncomfortable is something we naturally seek to avoid. No one wants to feel sad, depressed, anxious, bored or angry. However, by avoiding discomfort, we are limiting ourselves and harming our mental wellbeing. We stifle recovery and we aren't living our lives to our full potential. Most of all, we aren't chasing those dreams that we really actually do want! But let me tell you something: if you really want to commit to yourself to your recovery and achievement of your goals, then you need to start getting comfortable with the uncomfortable right now!
The basic types of emotions
It is typically agreed among psychologists that there are six core human emotions:
It is understood that these core emotions act like building blocks for all the other emotions we experience throughout our lives. Happiness is the state we strive for the most, surprise also being another pleasant type, while the rest are emotions we would rather avoid, or not experience at all. Out of six, only two are what we could largely consider to be pleasant.
This means much of our human experience is going to be uncomfortable, making it essential to build resilience for these occasions. The better we can cope, the better we can manage our mental health. We constantly receive messages from one another, from the media we consume and from our own social conditioning that we should create a good life by always feeling good. Surrounded by all this, it is easy to begin to develop a fear of feeling bad. Discomfort is often viewed as being negative and naturally we would like to try and avoid that.
For me personally, anger was an emotion that has been the cause of extreme distress to me after working in my teenage years in an abusive environment. I would try to avoid feelings of anger at any cost, which meant I found it difficult to process thoughts and feelings in a healthy and safe way. This led to unhelpful coping mechanisms and unrealistic thoughts about my own sense of self when I did have times of feeling angry. In turn, I would become more distressed because I felt I was a terrible person for experiencing a perfectly normal human emotion. In my late twenties, I had to learn how to cope with anger and why being angry is okay.
Attempting to avoid our full range of emotions leads to developing unhelpful coping strategies, which in turn only perpetuates our problems. Among these strategies might be: having a drink to unwind, going shopping to relieve stress or it might even be self-harm. The more we try to avoid uncomfortable feelings, the more strongly they’re going to come back until we do something about the way we feel.
Discomfort sends us important messages
The way the mind works is to keep us safe and away from danger. Discomfort also pushes us to walk in line with our own values. Walking in line with our core values is essential to boosting mood, confidence and feelings of security.
For example, you might find discomfort after having a difficult conversation with a friend. Maybe you said something you regret. That discomfort is letting you know that there is an action to be taken in order to make amends. Remembering there is a purpose and value in discomfort and building resilience to learn and grow in these times is crucial to managing mental health. It is only when you learn to sit with these uncomfortable feelings that you can figure out what messages they are sending you.
Acknowledging the uncomfortable feeling or “showing up” – as I call it – is usually the most uncomfortable thing to do. That first step is hard! It doesn't feel nice! I can tell you now though, this is the most important thing you can do for yourself. Without it you really have nothing. You aren't even trying to seriously fulfil your goals (harsh but it is true). Show up, accept the situation and the battle is half-won.
I think it is really important in this step that the decision to show up for yourself comes from within, because once you start and show up, you are probably going to want to quit (it doesn't feel nice to start with). If the decision comes from within, you are going to feel more committed to taking further steps forward. While you need to make this decision for yourself, don't feel like you have to do it entirely alone, tell a friend and rally up some support to get going.
When the going gets tough (and it will), remind yourself that this is important to you and use that motivation to continue despite the challenges.
Don’t give up, don’t give in
Like I mentioned above, once you start, you will probably want to quit because it feels “yuck”. Oh well, that’s life, don’t quit now! If you do, then it will be even harder to get back on that metaphorical horse! It doesn’t matter how small you think your steps are; it doesn’t matter if you don’t always feel like you’re actually going forward – try to keep at it as hard as you can.
Do the challenges you are facing scare you? Good! I hope they do! This is the discomfort you need to find comfort in if you want to continue the fighting. Just because something is scary or hard, it doesn't make up reasons to quit.
Embrace the obstacles and failure
You went out there, you faced it and you fell flat on your face. These are challenges we all have to face sooner or later. Obstacles and failures are a natural result of your pushing yourself and stepping out of your comfort zone. This way you build resilience and strength, which will help you to face uncomfortable emotions with more ease next time.
I can think of many occasions recently, when I fell through and then the following week things got much better because it felt like a failure the week before. Without it, we are not making much progress.
And guess what? Every time you are in this space and become comfortable in it, you give yourself more power, you are making yourself stronger and more resilient to take the next steps forward. It will hurt but that’s totally okay and expected if you do something you really care about.
Enjoy your moments of greatness and nurture them
It is easier to focus on moments when things aren’t going well and beat yourself up about it. Some people may even tell you to be critical of your performances in order to improve, but that isn't going to help you build confidence. You may not have had a great day but the key is to always focus on your great moments and identify things that went well. There is always something.
This doesn't mean becoming delusional in your mind about how great things are and miss the fact that you will always have something to improve and work on, but I label those things as just that – areas to work on. This way I am not becoming negative or despondent about my weaknesses. They are just areas that need work.
Mindfully sitting with discomfort, step by step
Identify what the emotion is, then what it might be trying to tell you – break it down and develop a plan you can move forward with.
Stay with the feelings – developing the skills to be able to sit with the discomfort will help you build resilience. This is finding comfort in the uncomfortable and it is a very difficult but helpful skill that will help you in many situations in life. Notice they are there, unhook from negative stories (as many times as it takes), and acknowledge what they may be telling you.
Check in with yourself – has the emotion changed while you have been sitting with it? Has it intensified or has it started to dissipate? Develop curiosity and explore it as you make room for it and allow it to be there.
Do the right thing – my therapist has always said to me that I don’t have to like the feeling or action I need to take, I just need to do the right thing. This has been a guide for me to always choose better actions for myself. Rather than over-reacting or trying to avoid my emotions in an unhelpful way, I have learnt to make a better choice. It becomes super-empowering the more you can go on developing these skills.
Rinse and repeat
It’s just that. No matter how the day has gone, get up, show up and do it all again tomorrow!
Look for opportunities to always stretch your comfort zone. Stretching yourself builds resilience and ability to cope with discomfort! I used to be so afraid that I would never even ride in front of anyone or push myself. Now, I live for the failure, I learn so much more from it than from winning and I love the strength and resilience I gain from embracing challenges.