The Gift of Discomfort

Do you ever notice how when a theme pops up in your life, it tends to show up in not one place, but all OVER the place?

I’ve been observing discomfort in myself and all around, and understanding ever more deeply: discomfort is the ultimate guidepost for growth.

When you hear the word “HeartStepping,” maybe you think it means stepping towards what feels “good” or “right”. About doing what feels full of love, resonant, earnest. And you’d be right–it absolutely is all of those things!

Except when it’s not. (Yeah, I know you saw that one coming!) There are many situations where discomfort is a sign of good things happening.

Discomfort Grows Confidence

The other day, one of our members at CrossFit Kindred wrote an eloquent reflection on her CrossFit journey, including a beautiful acknowledgement of Jeff and me that made me feel on top of the world! But the piece, the lesson, that really stuck out from what she wrote: her path to discovering what she was capable of was damned UNCOMFORTABLE–let’s just say the word “HELL” was used at some point.

She said she “stepped out of her comfort zone” and it hurt. But she persevered, and eventually, what was uncomfortable in the beginning became easier.

But more important than the fitness gains was the victory they represented. She gained a huge sense of confidence in having made the impossible possible. She learned that she could be uncomfortable, doubt herself, step into the unknown–and she could prevail. And when this level of empowerment is created, it begs the question: What ELSE are you capable of?

Discomfort Indicates Meaning

Another thing discomfort does is to indicate that you’re doing something meaningful. When I quit my unfulfilling career in software development, I spent a lot of time at first creating financial projections, making plans, educating myself, all in preparation for the moment. Yet, at the end of the day, I had to accept the feeling of being exposed–that I was stepping out on my own, removing the safety net, and that my decision might be judged, especially if I failed.

Later, in creating the concept for this blog, I was surprised to discover just how difficult it was for me to receive feedback on it! Here I was, unfurling the message of my heart, my deepest yearnings and sense of purpose in the world, and displaying it for the world to see. When at first people weren’t getting what it was I was trying to articulate, it felt painful. I was afraid I wasn’t being seen, that my message wasn’t important, that it wasn’t going to have the impact I was hoping for.

In both cases, discomfort had come from a feeling of vulnerability. I was terribly afraid of failing or being rejected in these endeavors. Yet, looking underneath the discomfort, what it really drove home to me was how important each of these steps were to me. They were both so aligned with my sense of purpose and meaning, that I really REALLY wanted them to work out well.

The lesson here? Experiencing discomfort can be a good sign that you’re making changes that are near and dear to your heart!

Discomfort Precedes Learning

Last weekend, I assisted a coach training course at CTI. At every single one of these courses, students experience all sorts of discomfort as they go through the failures, confusion, and frustration that are a part of the learning process. For that reason, the course leaders like to remind students about the 4 stages of learning:

  1. unconscious incompetence: “I’m blissfully unaware that I don’t know this.”
  2. conscious incompetence: “Oh crap! I don’t know this! How will I ever get there?”
  3. conscious competence: “I’m getting the hang of this–but it still feels awkward.”
  4. unconscious competence: “It’s second nature.”

What they point out about these 4 stages is that being in the training course involves a whole lot of being at learning stages 2 and 3. And they also point out this fact: Being at stages 2 and 3 is NOT comfortable! Yet, it’s a necessary part of building new skills and understanding.

Discomfort Inspires Connection

Another theme that came up in this weekend’s coach training course was the importance of wholeness in creating intimacy. The CTI course leader spoke of how, at birth, we have a whole range of ways we can be–but as we grow up, we learn to narrow down the ways we act, the things we say, and even how we think based on how we’re received by others.

This isn’t always a bad thing, yet it’s a slippery slope that can kill relationships. We think, “My husband/wife/friend/brother reacted badly when I expressed this particular emotion/discussed this particular subject/made this particular suggestion. I guess I won’t express/discuss/suggest this thing anymore around him/her.” And before we know it, we’re no longer fully expressed around our loved one. We feel less connected, and experience less intimacy and authenticity around those people.

Ironically, this impulse to avoid conflict (and therefore discomfort) by narrowing down our range of expression comes from an underlying desire for belonging, acceptance, and companionship! But true intimacy doesn’t come from always staying within the range of what’s comfortable. To truly connect with others and feel seen, we must make ourselves available to be seen. When we are willing to be vulnerable, we allow others to see our humanity, and give them permission to be human around us too.

Working with Discomfort

Not all discomfort is created equal. I’m not suggesting you should strive to be uncomfortable all the time; that’s not sustainable! And some kinds of discomfort or pain are good indicators that you should stop what you’re doing, not push through.

The key is this: be present with your discomfort. Don’t run away from it at the first sign of difficulty. And don’t ignore it, grit your teeth, and try to plow through without feeling any of it, either.

Breathe into it. Acknowledge it. Even get curious about it. As you grow your capacity to feel discomfort, you will free yourself up to grow, create, and connect.