Why It’s So Important to Seek Discomfort

Cat-ption: “Bring me whole milk, or I will sit on your favorite sweater. I hid the lint roller.” (photo by OliBac)

I was about to bring my laptop back into bed this morning. The cozy blankets and lounging potential seemed irresistible, but I decided against it and worked at my stand-up desk. Here’s why…

So many products and technologies today aim to increase our comfort. No, I’m not about to complain about indoor plumbing, washing machines, and microwaves (I’m not crazy). But I will suggest that these and other amazing innovations have confused us. When everything is geared to be more comfortable and easier, we begin to think that we need that in all areas of our lives. But comfort has a downside, or rather, discomfort has a counterintuitive upside!

How to Reach 100% Slappability

You know the cliche of how spoiled children turn into terrible, entitled people? There’s a very good reason for that which isn’t completely their fault—their comfort zones are underdeveloped! When your comfort zone is a tiny sphere (think of the cat who only drinks milk), it means you’re going to be uncomfortable in more situations than people expect.

When you throw a tantrum about the salmon being too dry near a person who is thankful they are eating salmon and not spam, well, it looks bad. Studies show that people with small comfort zones are very slappable when they complain. They simply haven’t experienced enough discomfort in their lives, and thus can’t handle the slightest imperfection.

We’ve all heard about how it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. Meanwhile, we all secretly think, “Cool, but I’d rather be comfortable. Hand me that snuggie.” When choosing between comfort and discomfort, comfort is preferred, but only if there aren’t other consequences to consider. It’s obviously better to bathe in warm water than cold mayonnaise, since the latter is useless, uncomfortable, and weird.

Why then, do so many people suggest stepping outside of comfort? There must be something about it that benefits us.

Temporary Discomfort Increases Your Long-Term Comfort Zone

Bingo! The more discomfort you introduce into your life, the more your comfort zone will expand. This is a whole lot more valuable than any cozy night on the couch.

The whole point of expanding your comfort zone is to be more comfortable in more situations. In a strange twist, those people who are the least comfortable now, have the best chance at being the most comfortable later (and vice versa). Even better, the comfort zone expansion you gain from experiencing discomfort can last a long time!

Examples:

  • The shy person who uncomfortably socializes becomes more comfortable in social situations.
  • The sedentary person who uncomfortably exercises becomes more comfortable with using their body and moving around.
  • The person who travels becomes more comfortable with different foods, cultures, lifestyles, and people.
  • The person who speaks publicly becomes more comfortable in the spotlight.
  • The lonely guy who fears rejection but forces himself to speak to women becomes more comfortable with rejection.

Actions that lie outside of our comfort zone can provide some of life’s greatest (and most exciting) benefits. Those who cling to their comfort zone like cat hair to a sweater are training themselves to only be comfortable in very specific scenarios. It’s actually incredibly risky to your well-being to seek out comfort too aggressively. It will make you hypersensitive to discomfort.

When You’re Comfortable Being Uncomfortable, It Brings Opportunity

Life offers us so many opportunities, but those opportunities lie in so many different scenarios, most of which are likely to involve discomfort. Just think about a typical job promotion—the fact that you’re moving to a better position implies that you’re assuming new or more responsibilities. I have the opportunity to travel all next year, but part of that plan involves not having a permanent home (not exactly a comforting thought!).

Another example: A Vietnamese publisher interested in translating and publishing two of my books asked if I would be willing to go on a Vietnamese TV show to talk about and promote the books. That is a really cool opportunity, but it’s also well outside my comfort zone—it’s in a country I’ve never been to and I’m not very confident in my public speaking skills. But what if I did it? What if I went towards the discomfort? The next time I got a similar offer, I would be more comfortable to take it because I’ve done it before! This could then directly or indirectly lead to more opportunities down the road.

But we can’t just say, “seek discomfort” and call it good. There are specific types of discomfort and specific situations in which it’s helpful and not harmful to be uncomfortable. Here’s how to know when discomfort is the right move.

When to Embrace Discomfort

1. When it feels safe. Any attempt to increase your comfort zone must be done with caution. A first-time juggler shouldn’t start with chainsaws. This is important because you want to encourage yourself to keep stepping out of your comfort zone. If you step out and immediately get hurt, it will only be more difficult to do it again (“I knew I should have stayed in!”).

Safety in this case is defined by your existing mental fortitude and your experience in the area. If you can handle your journey into discomfort going poorly, such an experience will expand your comfort zone even further. Think about how James Bond seems comfortable in the most frightening scenarios imaginable. He’s been through it before and always comes out okay (probably because they want to keep making Bond movies).

Mini habits are so great because they feel safe, always being just a step or two outside your comfort zone. It’s like camping in your front yard before you go camping in the wilderness—you will experience many of the same conditions and feelings, but knowing that you’re only a few steps from home helps you to stay calm and feel safe as you expand your comfort zone.

In the example above, you’re literally expanding your comfort zone from living/sleeping inside your house to living/sleeping inside and just outside your house. Once you’re comfortable there, you might just want to camp in the woods! Before you know it, you’ll befriend the local wolves and crawl on all fours.

2. When it’s repeatable. Discomfort is most useful when the situation can be repeated, because subsequent repetitions will be more and more comfortable. Exercise is a great example, as you can exercise multiple times a week, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. 

If you have an opportunity to scald your skin, I recommend that you pass. You might learn a valuable lesson from it and even become tougher through the experience, but since it’s not something you’d ever want to repeat (ouch!), the overall growth potential is weak.

That said, one-time ventures into discomfort can be helpful. Some say that a single skydiving session changed their perspective. But real progress probably came afterwards, with what they did with their perspective. For example, maybe they used skydiving as a symbolic springboard to face their fears. Exposing yourself to your fears (in a safe environment) is a valuable, growth-inducing form of discomfort.

3. When there’s a clear benefit. Exercise is uncomfortable, but it improves your health and body. Travel is uncomfortable, but it improves your confidence, competence, and perspective of the world. Cold showers are uncomfortable, but they bring increased discipline and even health benefits.

Generally speaking, the benefits from discomfort entail making you stronger in some way—physically, mentally, emotionally, etc. If you intentionally and strategically expose yourself to difficulty, you will find it less difficult simply because that’s how our bodies and brains work. This is what makes human beings naturally resilient.

If discomfort and pain affected us the same way every time, we would have every reason to avoid them at all times. But since we get stronger from exposure to certain things, it’s often in our best interest to experience temporary discomfort for a longer-term gain in comfort.

This applies to the small things as well. Consider the comfort difference between sitting down, lying down, or standing to work. Consider the difference between taking your suitcase up the stairs and riding the escalator. These small decisions of discomfort can really add up to shape you into a more powerful, more resilient, and happier person. Why? Because you’re always looking to expand your definition of “comfortable.”

Note: I must clarify that this article is not to glorify hardship. People around the world experience some terrible things that humans should never have to experience. What I am talking about, however, is the beneficial type discomfort we can choose to strategically introduce into our lives.

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