Is Our Disdain For Discomfort Ruining Our Lives?

person holding cup while reading book
Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

Several years ago, I watched the movie People Like Us. Something about it just touched my heart. I never understood why this movie stayed with me over the years, but I think I finally figured it out.

It comes down to three small words in the script – lean into it.

In the movie, Sam (the main character played by hottie Chris Pine) tells his nephew six rules of life given to him by his father. It’s an emotionally charged scene and I remember the anticipation I felt watching it, hoping the rules would be super insightful:

Rule 1: If you like something because you think other people are going to like it, it’s a sure bet that no one will.

Rule 2: Most doors in the world are closed, so if you find one that you want to get into, you damn well better have an interesting knock.

Rule 3: Everything that you think is important isn’t. And everything that you think is unimportant is.

Rule 4: Don’t shit where you eat.

Rule 5: Lean into it.

Rule 6: Never sleep with someone who has more problems than you.

At the time, my socks weren’t exactly blown off by these rules. Some I had already learned the hard way, particularly #4 and #6. Others seemed a little overdone. But #5 intrigued me. Lean into it.

When his nephew asks what it means, Sam responds:

“It means that the outcome doesn’t matter. What matters is that you were there for it – whatever ‘it’ is, good or bad.”

Even after the explanation, I still didn’t really know what it was saying. I mean, it’s easy enough to understand, but it didn’t truly sink in…

…until now.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been uncomfortable with change. I was the kid who sat in the same seat at the dinner table or in the car. I was the girl with the same weekend bar hopping routine for several years. I could eat the same thing every day for months and be fine. I still make my parents read our childhood Christmas books every Christmas Eve. I love tradition. I love routines. They are my comfort zone.

We all have a comfort zone and for the most part, we prefer to stay within it. And why wouldn’t we? All-knowing Wikipedia describes it as a psychological state in which things feel familiar to a person and they are at ease and in control of their environment, experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress. Sounds comfy to me.

And it makes sense – our brains our pros at pattern recognition. We find the patterns – physical and emotional – that are familiar and safe for us and we nestle into that zone of comfort. We instinctively avoid any changes to those patterns… any discomfort, whether it be in the form of stress, anxiety, pain, fear, shame, vulnerability, disappointment, etc. Those things are all uncomfortable and therefore don’t belong in our zone. Think about it – even simple things like putting on a jacket or rolling over in bed are all just ways to undo discomfort.

And this discomfort dodging starts at a young age – we experience something uncomfortable then strategize how to never feel it again. Psychology calls it the development of the ego, aka the sense of self – it is a self that is determined to stay safe and comfortable. Someone laughs while you’re giving a book report in the 3rd grade, so you avoid public speaking for the rest of your life. You have bad acne as a teenager, so you never leave the house without makeup as an adult. Or in my case, you fail at love with the right kind of guy, so you start looking for love in the wrong kind of guy only to have those relationships fail as well, so you build a wall around your heart and just stop letting people in altogether. (Super smart strategy, I know.)

But what are we really doing to ourselves by avoiding feeling uncomfortable? Maybe discomfort – in all its forms – is as much a part of life as all the comforts. Maybe life outside our zone of familiarity isn’t all that bad. And by avoiding it, maybe we are resisting the entirety of the experience… leaning away from really living.

These thoughts have been bouncing around in my head as I sit here face-to-face with a lot of change in my life… with many of my patterns being rewritten.

Leaving my apartment and the routines and solitude I came to know and love.

Leaving my job and the consistent salary that came with it to pursue a dream.

Leaving my single life and attempting to let someone new into my heart.

With all these changes comes major fear of the unknown. Venturing outside our comfort zone is like venturing out into a foreign land. And for some reason we tend to assume that land is hostile territory. It’s like our brains freak out when a pattern we are familiar with all the sudden ceases.

What if I can’t make enough money to afford a place to live? What if everyone sees me fail? What if I get my heart broken? Or worse, what if I break his heart?

But if we’ve never been to this place outside our comfort zone, why do we assume it’s hostile? It’s just as possible that it’s paradise. It might start a new and better pattern.

We won’t know until we get there. And that’s the point – to be there. To experience it rather than avoid it.

Change is a part of life. Whether it is change we are pursuing, change we never expected, or change that was always inevitable, it is going to happen. And so is the discomfort that comes along with it. All we can really control is how we approach it.

I’ve decided to view the discomfort like a cold pool. You know it’s going to be uncomfortable at first, but you also know you will acclimate after a while. And there are two ways to approach a cold pool:

Hesitate in – slowly getting in, painstakingly feeling every moment of cold, dreading the next step further into it.

or

Embrace it – jumping in, knowing it might be rough for a second but trusting that you will quickly adjust.

I opt for option two.

I may not know where I’m going to live next, or what kind of income I’ll be able to bring in writing, or what will happen with the new man in my life. It is all an unknown to me. It is all scary to me. But I choose to embrace it. I choose to explore the foreign land. I choose to lean into the change; lean into the discomfort; lean into all of it.

I choose to forgo my comfort zone… and jump into life. TC mark

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