Discomfort is Inevitable
At one point or another, experiencing discomfort is an
unavoidable part of life. We know this, and yet we don’t like to feel emotions associated
with being “uncomfortable” – whether it’s loneliness, anger, anxiety,
hopelessness or shame.
Even when discomfort is out of our control, we often blame
ourselves and assume that we’ve done something wrong when we’re feeling bad. Because
discomfort doesn’t feel “right” or pleasant, we assume things aren’t as they
should be. If we’re not blaming ourselves, feeling ashamed deep down about our short-comings, or trying hard to
get rid of our discomfort, we’re looking around for someone else to point our finger. By making our discomfort someone else's fault, or by acting like it doesn’t exist, we attempt to soothe ourselves by finding a way to make the discomfort go away.
The problem is that blame and pushing discomfort away only make
things worse. It leads us to feeling even more uncomfortable since now we've added even more negative emotions
to the mix (frustration, disappointment and fear, for examples). Before we know
it, we’re pulled down into a spiral of ongoing struggle, which can feel
harder and harder to find our way out of.
Awareness About Our Feelings
The more we ignore and fail to accept our discomfort, the deeper we end up hurting ourselves and others. In the end, it’s not actually the discomfort,
disappoint or unhappiness itself that is so hard to take, but our reactions
to these feelings. Instead of letting go of what might otherwise be passing moments of sadness or disappointment, we turn these struggles into
persistent dissatisfaction and unhappiness. The good new is that we can re-frame how we look
at uncomfortable emotions in order to help stop them in their tracks. (Read more in
The Freedom in Letting Go.)
Refusing to become aware of and accept our discomfort, is what
researchers call “emotional avoidance.” When avoiding painful emotions, we play
into repetitive mental patterns, or enter into a “doing mode of mind,” trying
to disguise and problem-solve tough feelings instead of turning toward them,
feeling them and viewing them as learning opportunities.
To break emotional avoidance patterns, first and foremost, we
need to be willing to feel the discomfort that’s there. If we can’t even become
aware of what we’re feeling in the first place – because we’re too scared of
awareness could potentially do to us – then our unpleasant
emotions leave us reacting in the same, unproductive ways.
The first step is to see clearly the ways in which we entangle
ourselves. In particular, we need to become more aware of the pattern, or mode,
of mind that gets switched on and can cause so much suffering. Most of the time,
the problem is that we try to
way out of our moods by working out what’s gone wrong (What’s wrong with me? Why does everyone hurt me? What did I do to
We default to relying on our critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, those skills are exactly the wrong tool for the job.
Discomfort as a Messenger
There’s an alternative way of dealing with
discomfort. First, acknowledging that it’s there. Then accepting it, and then opening
up to it. This way it can teach its lessons and be on its way. It’s not always
easy to face negative feelings head on, which is why most of us usually don’t,
and yet this approach practiced over and over again in key moments of
discomfort (whether physical or emotional) is what gives us the possibility to transform.
Believe it or not, our physical sensations and emotions, both good and bad, are vital
messengers. Along with our intuition, these are your body’s way of sending you signals
to keep you healthy, happy and alive. Emotions actually evolved to help us meet
our most basic needs as a species, such as those intended to facilitate
self-preservation and safety. Discomfort is your body’s attempt to let you know
that something isn’t right and needs your attention – so why not listen
What is your discomfort trying to tell you? Where did it come
from in the first place? Discomfort can stem from any number of situations, but often
relates to taking things personally, having expectations that aren’t met, or
making assumptions about yourself and others. (Read about expectations and
Finding Happiness.) If you can gently investigate the
source of your discomfort and what it might be trying to tell you, you’ll
better be able to receive its message, stop the cycle of negative ruminating
thoughts that follow, and act appropriately.
By cultivating the awareness of “being mode” (as opposed to
“doing mode” in which you problem-solve) you can learn to experience the world
directly, experientially, without the relentless commentary of negative
thoughts. Being mode requires seeing uncomfortable thoughts as simply mental
events that come and go in the
mind like clouds across the sky. This is very
different than taking them literally. If discomfort has you feeling scared,
hopeless, angry or self-critical (presenting the idea that you’re no good,
unlovable and/or ineffectual) then consider trying to see these feelings as being
thoughts that are just ideas.
(Learn how in
Quieting the Commentary of Your Mind.)
They are not necessarily the truth and, in fact, might be far from it.
Ask yourself: Are there alternative ways to handle a situation
that is causing you discomfort or fear? Is it possible that your discomfort is
based on beliefs that aren’t even necessarily true? In any way are you making
yourself more uncomfortable than need be by adding judgment, blame and/or worry?
Learn to discern thoughts from reality. Chances are, if you directly
experience discomfort without adding judgments, you’ll be much more capable of
handling it. Start living right here, in each present moment, taking things minute by minute. Slowly work up the ability to avoid dwelling on the past and stop worrying about the future. Stay open to the rich sources of information you
may be missing out on in the present moment. (Read more in 6 Techniques to Staying Present.)