Society has led us to believe that discomfort means something wrong. In some cases, it does. If you touch a hot stove, it’s pretty fucking uncomfortable. That discomfort makes you remove your hand so that it doesn’t melt off. When you get a gut feeling that makes you uncomfortable as you’re walking down a dark alley, you run. We teach our kids that when someone is doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable, they need to get out of that situation. Fast.
So that’s why it’s so confusing when you learn that feeling uncomfortable is something that could mean that you’re on the right path.
Feeling uncomfortable makes you want to run.
Feeling uncomfortable makes you want to stop.
Feeling uncomfortable makes you want to hide.
But feeling uncomfortable often means that the thing that you’re running towards, hoping for, or aiming to achieve is JUST about to happen.
1. Discomfort means that your brain is growing.
Scientists used to think that adults’ brains stopped developing after they turned 30. It turns out that that’s not true. In the early part of your life, one of the ways in which your brain grows is by establishing neural pathways. These are the pathways that all signals travel through. These pathways transmit feelings like pain, hot and cold. They also help transmit signals that lead to emotions and memories.
Every time you experience something, it travels through a particular pathway. The more you experience that same exact thing, the more myelin, or insulation, is created around that pathway, making it easier for that signal to transmit. That means that when you do something repeatedly, you end up doing it more quickly, more efficiently, and more comfortably.
When you do something new, a completely new pathway is created. Or you branch off of an existing pathway. That feels weird. But that weird feeling is telling you that you just rewired your brain.
Every time you rewire your neural pathways, you create new brain cells. While your brain is growing, you’re not going to feel quite comfortable until you encourage the stimulus to travel up that new pathway over and over again.
2. Feeling uncomfortable means that you’re being more mindful.
Let’s say you always relive the same challenges. You feel like you’re always presented with difficult decisions, or maybe you’re always giving yourself fully to others, and then you always get fucked over in some way.
When you realize this, it can feel uncomfortable. You might think that you’re weak, that you’re unable to overcome these challenges, and that’s why they keep coming back into your life.
In truth, you’re really being more mindful. You’re more aware of what’s going on in your life. You’re more aware of your emotions. You’re more aware of the existence of challenges that can be overcome. And you can’t overcome a challenge without that awareness.
3. Feeling comfortable could actually be bad.
We’re bred to think that comfortable=good and uncomfortable=bad.
But what about when you’re stuck in an abusive relationship? You stay because it’s what you know. It’s comfortable. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good.
Sometimes, it takes some real awareness (see #2) to realize that the comfort we’re feeling isn’t actually doing us any favors. Moving on to doing something new, positive, and constructive (see #1) can make us feel uncomfortable even though it’s what’s best for us.
4. Feeling uncomfortable can mean that you have a higher emotional IQ.
You can go through life with everything rolling off of your back. You know those people—nothing ever seems to phase them, they’re so laid back that nothing seems to affect them.
But numbness doesn’t make you a better person. When you don’t feel your emotions fully, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re better equipped to do life or more mature or more capable. It doesn’t mean that you actually handle emotions better.
Emotional intelligence involves recognizing your emotions (and those of other people), being able to label them accurately, and use those emotions to influence your thoughts and behaviors and ultimately achieve your goals. Feeling uncomfortable can help you improve your emotional intelligence.
5. Feeling uncomfortable helps you manage stress.
Face it: your life is going to be filled with new experiences. You can’t get around this fact. You can stay in your comfort zone for as long as you possibly can, but you never know when something is going to change.
Maybe your spouse will get the most amazing job ever, but it will mean that you have to move away from your hometown. Maybe you’ll experience a more unfortunate event, like the death of a loved one. Maybe your car will break down on the middle of your much-needed vacation, forcing you to cut it short and come up with an alternative way to get home.
If you’re not used to feeling uncomfortable, even the most reasonable life events, like getting a new job, starting a new school, having a baby or detouring around traffic on your way to work can bring about intense anxiety.
When you consistently push yourself out of your comfort zone, you’re more equipped to handle stressful situations that are bound to be uncomfortable.
6. Feeling uncomfortable is safer.
You’ve got this adulting thing. Your routine is smooth. You go to work every day, take time to exercise, eat healthy foods, and relax in front of the TV every night. You take a couple of vacations to the same places every spring and summer, and you’re content.
You’re comfortable. And you’re missing out.
When you’re this comfortable, if you don’t extend yourself, you might never do anything different. That can actually become dangerous. When you’re deeply entrenched in your comfort zone year after year, you can end up in a mid-life crisis, stuck in a rut, divorced or worse.
7. Feeling uncomfortable helps you make friends.
Unless you’re 4 years old, making friends isn’t always easy. It can be hard to break into an established clique. It can be challenging to open up to a stranger. Making connections with other people can feel uncomfortable. If you never push past that discomfort, you might never make friends.
Michael Ellsberg, the author of The Power of Eye Contact, invented something called Eye Gazing Parties. At these singles events, couples are not allowed to speak. Instead, they stare into each other’s eyes for two minutes. Doing this is much more intense than engaging in the usual small talk. It’s also much more uncomfortable.
Does it stand true that the more uncomfortable you are, the deeper the connection is that you will make with others? Perhaps. People who go through trying experiences together usually end up making strong, lifelong friendships.
8. Feeling uncomfortable puts you in the land of opportunity.
When nothing changes and when you’re afraid to venture out of your safe place, you don’t even see the opportunities that are presented to you. When you look at the world with a desire to get a little uncomfortable every once in a while, you see every opportunity as a possibility. Even challenges become opportunities.
9. Feeling uncomfortable keeps you healthy.
Many people divert themselves from discomfort with unhealthy behaviors. They may take drugs, abuse alcohol, maintain unhealthy relationships or even withdraw from life just to get away from that awful, nagging, irritating feeling of discomfort.
If you make peace with feeling uncomfortable, you’re less likely to use damaging behaviors to distract yourself from unease. Instead of shying away from discomfort, sitting with it will help you explore yourself more deeply, resulting in a more profound sense of self. You’re also more likely to develop healthy ways to cope if you can handle at least some discomfort.
10. Feeling uncomfortable makes you more likely to succeed.
If you freak out and become utterly discouraged when you make a mistake, you might not be willing to try again. The discomfort of failure may prevent you from even attempting to succeed.
The most successful people in the world aren’t perfect. They make mistakes all the time. That’s what helps them determine what does work. Figuring out exactly what works helps you succeed at almost everything in life.
Finding fulfillment, connection, health, calm and success in your life might just entail stepping outside of your comfort zone once a day, once a week, or even once a month. That might make all the difference.