At one point or another, experiencing discomfort is an unavoidable part of life. We know this and yet we still don’t like to feel emotions associated with being “uncomfortable” — whether it’s loneliness, anger, anxiety, hopelessness, shame or you name it.
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.
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.
3 Steps to Better Handling Discomfort
Avoid 'Emotional Avoidance'
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 what 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 think our 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 deserve this?). We default to relying on our critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, those skills are exactly the wrong tool for the job.
(Learn also How to Deal With Feeling Overwhelmed.)
View 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 wholeheartedly?
(And this also means Listening to Your Inner Voice.)
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. 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.
Get Into 'Being Mode'
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 caused by thoughts that are just ideas. 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 on for 6 Techniques to Staying Present.)