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The ART of Being Uncomfortable

When I speak about courage, I notice audiences’ increased interest in my thoughts about discomfort.  I’ll assume that interest piques because the youth and young adults listening to me have, at some point, allowed discomfort to keep them from pursuing a goal. (To be clear, I’m not talking about the kind of discomfort that emerges after eating way too much.)  Learning how to be uncomfortable is vital to any act of courage, especially those related to personal growth and authenticity. And, breaking down the process is an ART (kinda of). The stages of being uncomfortable are: Acknowledge the discomfort, Reside in the discomfort and Tame the discomfort.

ART of being uncomfortable

Acknowledge The Discomfort

The saying goes that acknowledgement of a problem is the first step to finding its solution. This applies to addiction to alcohol, Instagram and apple pie (guilty). Acknowledging the discomfort associated with expanding boundaries and taking risks is also the first step to gaining power over it. The word “acknowledge” is a mash up of Old and Middle English meaning “accept, admit or recognize something.” And, the human body gives lots of cues to recognize discomfort. Butterfly swarms in the gut. Heart palpitations. Unshakeable paranoia that everyone around is serving up their fiercest side-eye.

Beyond recognition, though, acknowledging discomfort in this case also requires admitting and accepting its source. After all, the butterflies, heart palpitations and side-eyes could have come from the shrimp at dinner. Standing out, alone, or in the unknown creates the unease. Accepting this is the first stroke in mastering discomfort. When youth and young adults admit discomfort, they sound something like this: I’m uncomfortable saying yes (and saying no). I feel weird about walking into that room of strangers. This is awkward; I’m the only one wearing green when everyone else is wearing purple.

The human body gives lots of cues to recognize discomfort. Butterfly swarms in the gut. Heart palpitations. Unshakeable paranoia that everyone around is serving up their fiercest side-eye.

In talking to youth, though, I’ve discovered that acknowledging discomfort isn’t the hard part because an easy option to make it go away is retreating into a comfort zone – the place where they say nothing, leave the room or desperately search for a green shirt to put on.

The part of the process that is more excruciating, and thus rarely explored, is kicking off the Converse and residing in the discomfort.

Reside In The Discomfort

The difficult piece about being uncomfortable is being uncomfortable – sitting, standing and settling into discomfort like residents settle into their homes. They don’t walk up to their front door, acknowledge they live there and then leave if the inside of their homes are messy. They take off their coats and shoes, put their feet up on the coffee table, let out a sigh and deal. This translates to getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. But, it’s hard to do because, according to physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon, our bodies can perceive discomfort associated with risk-taking as a threat to survival.

So, how do youth and young adults convince their bodies not to flee when the discomfort gets real? They have to take a look around. No rabid dogs chomping at their knees. No thieves with ski masks chasing them down. No clinking tea cups transporting them to the sunken place. They have to occupy and hold their feeling of awkwardness until it stops looking like a stranger.  Becoming acquainted with discomfort doesn’t happen without getting in some quality time.  When youth and young adults take up residence in their discomfort, they sound something like this: Ok Uncomfortable Feeling, you’re here. I’m here, but I don’t want you to be here. But, you’re not going anywhere. I’m not leaving either. So, fine. Why are you here? Residing in discomfort isn’t just about acknowledging its presence. It’s about considering why it’s there.

But here’s the thing. Our bodies would revolt if we attempted to live in a messy house where discomfort ran wild indefinitely. So, the last stroke of mastering discomfort is to tame it.

Tame The Discomfort

I had a choice to use “tame” or “train” to represent this part. While the words may be synonyms, “tame” evokes a larger sense of conquest and submissiveness (read: control). Residing in discomfort is an important part of the process, but getting cozy with it and controlling it are different. Discomfort can be tamed just like thoughts, manes, and lions at the circus. According to writer Debra Ronca, modern day lion taming methods rely on trust between the tamer and the tamed and follow a process of repetition and encouragement. Taming discomfort, which may feel like a lion, can reflect the same method.

Taming discomfort requires sitting in it more than one time, just like taming a lion requires entering its pen more than once. Repeated exposure to discomfort helps with managing butterfly swarms in the gut, heart palpitations and other physiological responses. That’s why therapist use exposure therapy for phobias – to teach people how to “ride out” their unease. Repetition helps build confidence, a gem of an internal resource necessary to tame anything.

Discomfort can be tamed just like thoughts, manes, and lions at the circus.

Youth and young adults have to be willing to expose themselves to discomfort, over and over again, to habituate themselves  to it and to dismantle it. This doesn’t mean they need to take big bold risks every day. It means they need to find small yet frequent opportunities, like wearing a green shirt when everyone else’s is purple, to call up discomfort. When youth and young adults encourage discomfort to show up, they reduce surprise attacks, invite awareness and position discomfort as a guest rather than an intruder. Encouraging rather than resisting discomfort helps youth claim power over it.

But, they have to do more than stare discomfort in the face. They can placate discomfort by talking to it (yes, talking to it) in an affirming kind of way. A simple statement that works beautifully is, “it’s ok.”  When constantly repeated like a mantra, it becomes believable and comforting. A lion tamer repeatedly signaling to a lion that it’s ok is an invitation for both to relax.

Each successful attempt at navigating and taming discomfort builds skill that youth and young adults can rely on in their journeys beyond their comfort zone. 

The Takeaway

The human body is not wired to get up close and personal with discomfort, but if youth and young adults are to experience growth and development that’s exactly what they’ll have to do. Mastering discomfort is an art with three important steps: Acknowledge the discomfort, Reside in the discomfort and Tame the discomfort.  

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