Most of us consider discomfort something to be avoided- like the plague. We prepare for the worst, run from misfortune, medicate the pain, numb the loss. We even go on vacation to “get away from it all”, as if the “all” in our lives were something to be avoided.
When did our lives become so uncomfortable that we had to take vacations to elude them?
Most years, I am fortunate enough to travel at least once out of the country. While many of us grew up considering the chance to travel “abroad” a luxury, there are people like Chris Guillebeau who consider traveling an essential endeavor, similar to, or another form of, getting an education.
There’s something to this notion that travel is almost an obligation. By necessity, traveling to other countries, especially those where you’re forced to use a different language, eat local food that might have a pet name at home, and listen to barking dogs and crowing roosters makes you uncomfortable.
In a good way.
You’re forced to be in someone else’s shoes. Live without familiar surroundings or the usual stuff of daily life. Sometimes be sick without your favorite healing regimen, or experience weather you aren’t prepared for.
Even when I can somewhat speak the local language, I’m embarrassed that I won’t get the verb tense right or use the right word and sound foolish. And it’s hard to walk around a neighborhood that doesn’t look like mine at home- it’s hard to look poverty in the face and not feel responsible. It’s Uncomfortable- with a Capital U.
We are so uncomfortable with discomfort.
Much of the time our discomfort is well beyond a slight physical ailment or extreme wind and rain when we don’t have an overcoat. It’s the kind of discomfort that causes us to want to run, or makes us reach for a cocktail, watch reality-TV, shop online or search for forbidden sex in an erotic novel. We run and numb and hide rather than deal with the uncomfortable emotion.
But what leads to this discomfort (dissatisfaction, frustration) with life, and why can’t you make it go away?
Take the basic notion that an emotion is a source of energy that serves a purpose in your body. It’s telling you that either something is not right (for instance- fear, doubt, anger, sorrow) or that something is definitely good (like joy, happy, ecstasy), or something in-between. You are evolutionarily wired to experience emotions- they are physiological cues in your body prompting you to respond, as the fear you experience when you suddenly lose track of a child in a crowd.
But you’re not meant to experience them for hours, days or years… only for 60-90 seconds. Total. The emotion is an instigator- an alarm clock that something’s going on and you need to pay attention, and even perhaps take action. You’re not meant to drown in the emotion.
So the lingering rejection you recall from a lost lover, the trauma hangover from a coworker argument, or the prolonged bitterness from a spouse’s stinging remarks- are all signs that you don’t allow yourself to process the emotion.
You stuff it. Hide it. Run away from it. Like the Pam Tillis song “Cleopatra”- you’re a “queen (or king) of De-nial”.
And perhaps the original 90 seconds of anguish was so uncomfortable that you couldn’t even tolerate that. Instead, you drown it in a sea of self-righteous anger, blame and judgment, or self-pity. Which of us hasn’t added fuel to the fire because we didn’t want to experience the discomfort of owning our emotions?
The reality is that facing your discomfort- the fear, doubt, pain, anger, sadness, grief- helps you develop resilience to the discomfort, and believe it or not, eventually liberates you from the emotion. And that doesn’t happen if you turn away in denial (run, numb, hide).
Facing discomfort liberates you from the traumatic effects of the lingering emotion, and also the fear of facing it in the first place.
By being present to the emotion- looking it in the face- you are able to learn to regulate the intensity of the emotion, as well as focus your mental energy in a way that modifies your typical reaction to it.
If you’ve ever sailed a boat, you know that sailing directly into the wind diminishes its force. The greatest force against the sail is when you “turn away”, much as when you turn away from an emotional expression, you are most likely to experience the full brunt of it. Becoming aware of your emotions, and the suppressing thoughts that control your reactions, helps you gain self-realization and breaks the bonds of suffering from your emotions.
Many spiritual traditions believe that in the process of being mindful to your emotions, you also cultivate a compassionate relationship with yourself, and ultimately with others. Centering exercises or “prayers” are one way of learning to sail directly into your emotions and infuse your life with self-compassion. Lovingkindness meditation is also a practice that evokes compassion, connection and open-heartedness.
It’s also useful to recognize that emotions provide clues to what else is going on in our life- they’re predictors of things “gone awry”. Having gratitude for your emotions, all of them, teaches self-compassion and empathy and helps you become aware of the areas of your life that may need some attention.
While heading upwind into your emotions does provoke a sense of vulnerability, with practice you’ll learn that dealing it with now, rather than the next few weeks or months, decreases the festering damage the raw emotion can cause.
Integral Life coaching can help you uncover the emotions you’re struggling with, if you’re having a hard time finding the clues.
What emotions typically send you running- looking for cover? Leave me a comment below and share the emotions to which you have a hard time being present and how you deal with it.
Holly Woods, Ph.D. uses Integral Coaching and Somatic Experiencing to help adults who are weighed down by stress or trauma, and who want to be free of the overwhelm so they can find a life full of joy and purpose. Sign up on the Right or Click Here to receive a Free Report and to receive my weekly newsletter. Please forward to a friend if you liked this post!