As humans, we are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, this strategy can sometimes backfire. Avoiding certain emotional discomforts in the moment can result in significantly increased discomfort in the future. We essentially just kick the pain down the road and, much like a tumbleweed, it grows bigger with time.
For example, I have a client who wants to avoid disappointing her husband, so she frequently doesn’t tell him the whole story. If her husband asks if she’ll be home in time for dinner, she says yes instead of telling him that she has to stay at the office late that night. She doesn’t like the discomfort of hearing his disappointment, so she says what he wants to hear, even if she knows she likely can’t live up to it. But when she arrives home two hours later than planned, her husband is not disappointed, he is angry. And because this has become a pattern he is starting to distrust her word. Now she actually has a much larger discomfort to deal with– a partner who is very upset, and a relationship that feels a bit shakier.
I have another client who is terrified of being rejected romantically, so he avoids going on dates altogether. I explored this fear with him, and he said it would be uncomfortable and embarrassing to be rejected on dates. However, when I asked how he would feel if he was still partnerless 20 years from now, he said, “That would be absolutely devastating, and I feel really sad even thinking about it. That is not the life I want.” But if he continues to be unwilling to tolerate the discomfort associated with the possibility of rejection, that is exactly where he’ll end up.
In both of these cases, it’s clear that tolerating discomfort on the front end is well worth it, because it brings the person closer to something they want (being a good wife or finding a relationship), and it also prevents much bigger pain down the road. That being said, accepting and inviting discomfort into our lives, when we are so well trained to push it away, can be a daunting task. It requires a mindset shift, one that frames discomfort as a friend rather than an enemy.
If you’re tired of avoiding and are ready to try tolerating some discomfort now in the service of a better future outcome, try the steps below:
- Identify things you are avoiding in your life because you know they will be unpleasant.
- Think about the long-term discomfort that you may feel if you keep avoiding discomfort now.
- Think about the good that could come out of choosing to face the discomfort now.
- Create an action step that would help you tolerate discomfort now so you can get something you want or prevent a negative future outcome.
- Accept that you are going to be uncomfortable and be willing to tolerate that in the service of what you want. Remind yourself that the average lifespan of an emotion (when we just allow it, rather than get caught up in our thoughts about it) is less than 90 seconds. You can do this!
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts or experience with embracing discomfort.