The same instinct that helped us survive wild beasts for countless generations now makes us run away from uncomfortable situations. Human evolution is built on our ability to avoid danger – those who could outrun rabid megafauna created stronger offspring. Now, this danger-avoidance instinct has mutated. It’s still critical in keeping us alive but it also shows up when we enter an emotionally uncomfortable situation. Our brain can perceive social discomfort as a threat, so it prickles our fight or flight response and cues an emotional response that we too often enact without considering what’s best for us. So if you can learn to sit with discomfort, you can moderate your emotions and save yourself a lot of stress.
You’re worthy of reflection
We’re wired to avoid discomfort and everything about contemporary life is designed to help us do that. Since our grandparents were rattling along in leaded-petrol tin-box death traps, modern car interiors have become indistinguishable from the comfort of our living rooms. Supermarkets have replaced the necessity of toiling away in the paddock to grow our own food. Everywhere we go is climate controlled to avoid an overly sweaty brow or too many layers – convenience has replaced discomfort in nearly every aspect of our lives. It’s made us even more averse to discomfort and so we miss out on the chance to reflect on why we react the way we do in certain situations. I’m not anti-comfort but I am pro-self-reflection and emotional exploration. Socrates said, ‘an unexamined life is not worth living,’ and if we avoid discomfort we’re fleeing an opportunity to deepen our self-understanding.
Sit and save
Avoiding discomfort becomes problematic when it becomes an automatic response that we don’t question. Like when you see an acquaintance – maybe a frienemy – in the street and you’re in no mood to talk, especially not with them. You could stop and face them and ask them how they’ve been and what they’ve been up to but you don’t. You slightly slow your pace, think about pulling out your phone and pretending you have to take a call but it’s too late for that. You say hi, smile too big with your mouth and not at all with your eyes, throw out an attempt at a heartfelt, ‘hey how are you?’, and miss the mark, mumble something about running late to a thing and keep on walking so you don’t have to stand in the awkwardness of an idle conversation you wish to have no part in. But you dug yourself a hole. Next time you see them it’s probably going to be more awkward so you start dreading it. And now when you walk through that area you find you’re on edge in case you see them again and have to face more of the same awkwardness but more intense.
Avoidance can inhibit personal growth too because discomfort is one of the best catalysts for change. Discomfort is our brains telling us something’s wrong. Unfortunately, our emotional response to situations isn’t always appropriate and can be heavily (mis)informed by prior experience. Sometimes, the only difference between the right and wrong decision is a deep breath. Discomfort lets us know something’s wrong but if we don’t pause to sit with that feeling and examine it, we may have a stress response completely out of proportion to the situation. Or we might react in a way that appeases our ego in the short term but with some time and space, we’ll rue and regret. Like the time I got caught behind a nightmare driver doing 20 in a 50 zone. When they finally indicated to turn off and gave me an opportunity to pass, I narrowly avoided flipping off one of my best friends’ mum. Sitting with the discomfort of our emotions can save us a lot of stress and energy – and maybe some friendships – but it takes practice.
Avoiding discomfort can take plenty of different forms – people-pleasing and putting the needs of others well ahead of your own, being too afraid to speak up when your brain is telling you to scream, and even dissociation. There are some situations where it’s best to say nothing – to let it slide, but notice if you’re doing that all the time. Think about the last uncomfortable situation you found yourself in. What did you do? How did you handle yourself and the situation? Did you pause and reflect on the emotions you were experiencing? Were you active or passive? Did you just wait it out and tell yourself that it would pass soon enough? Or did you say something or do something to address the discomfort? We create countless excuses and reasons why we shouldn’t act – the most common is avoiding coming across as rude. In case you need to hear it, fuck being polite, especially if it’s emotional torture. Speaking up can take a lot of courage but it’s a worthy investment if it helps your mental health.
Finding the right words
Sometimes the best response to an uncomfortable situation is to walk away. You don’t need to say anything – simply walk away. If it’s at work or with family or friends, you can explain the situation to them later if you feel the need. It’s okay to do away with social niceties if you’re feeling uncomfortable. If you’re in a conversation that is making you uncomfortable and you want to tell them, aim for clear and direct without being confrontational – close enough is good enough too. Simply saying, ‘This is making me feel uncomfortable,’ will hopefully make them pause and think. It’s a statement about your feelings, which they can’t refute. If they’re unintentionally causing you discomfort, it gives them a moment to reflect and stop. It creates a break in the conversation and an opportunity for you to talk about the discomfort or, change the subject if you’d prefer. It’s easy to forget that people can’t read your mind and some people aren’t very good at reading expressions and they need a hand. I know it’s not always easy speaking up but if you can’t find the right words, expressing how they are making you feel is a great start.
Discomfort in action
Our emotions drive our actions but sometimes they lead us astray. Like Google Maps taking you off the highway and sending you down a switchback dirt road because its AI thought it was a shorter route. And now you have to sit with the discomfort of driving 40km/h dodging potholes while you dream of the highway. If you dream of having better em
otional control, one of the best skills you can learn is creating space between stimulus and response. Say you’re at work and you’ve spent ages on a presentation that you’re quite proud of and someone turns around and says they’re disappointed; that you’ve clearly rushed it and you could do better. Ouch. Your brain – your ego actually – will be shouting in protest. Screaming at you to tell them they’re wrong, anger, frustration or maybe sadness prickling at the ready, waiting for the go-ahead to unleash. If you can take a breath here and pause, reflect and gently question your emotions, you can choose the best response rather than following your emotions down the pot-holed backroad. You know how much work you put into the presentation and you know that the other person is under a bit of stress. Maybe the presentation was that bad but you’re confident that’s not it. It’s more likely they’re stressed or maybe even jealous. Whatever the reason, reacting defensively or with anger won’t help so you say, ‘thanks for your feedback, do you have time to take me through how I could improve it?’
Emotions create a false sense of urgency and demand you act on them immediately. ‘Quick, get in, we’re raging, there’s no time to explain but we’re really angry and we’re doing things about it right now, yeeeeeeehaaaaa!’ The more intense the situation, the stronger your emotional response and the more important it is to sit with that discomfort and question it. Honesty and resilience are crucial in equal parts here. Your brain may be telling you to act immediately – maybe it’s screaming at you to flee ASAP. Maybe it’s telling you to act on impulse. If you sit with the discomfort and question your emotions honestly, you can catch your ego when its trying to lead you astray and moderate your response. If you can acknowledge when you’re at fault or when you’re wrong even if your ego is screaming at you to argue the point, you’ll deescalate the situation and save yourself even more discomfort, stress and energy. The key is to create space for yourself to challenge your emotions.
How to create more space in the moment
If you’re quick on your feet, you may be able to create enough space to question your discomfort by taking a deep breath. If you need more time, you can say something that acknowledges you’ve heard the other person – ‘that’s interesting, I hear what you’re saying, that’s given me a bit to think about, hmm I hadn’t thought of that’. If you’re still feeling uncomfortable and you’re not sure how to proceed, you can always draw a line in the conversation and pick it up again later, ‘you’ve given me a lot to think about, do you mind if I take a moment to collect my thoughts and we can chat again later?’ Sometimes, walking away and doing nothing is the best option.
How to know when to listen to your emotions
Your emotions are like an unreliable narrator. Their read on a situation is biased, so understanding when to listen and when to challenge them is critical to dealing with challenging conversations and situations. You need to be comfortable admitting when you’re wrong, you need to be comfortable taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences, just as you need to trust yourself when you believe you’re being fair and respectful. If you’re in conflict with someone who has your best interests at heart and you know them to be reasonable and a good reader of situations, it might be a good idea to listen to them. Whereas if they are manipulative, narcissistic or regularly shirk responsibility, then question their criticisms. You won’t always get it right, but practice makes it easier.
Growing isn’t easy. Becoming a better person – more patient, aligning your actions with your values, being true to yourself – is difficult and it can be confronting. Each time you feel uncomfortable, aim to sit with it a little longer and remember, growth is rarely linear, there will be times you fail and that’s fine. When you’re challenging ingrained behaviours, forgiveness, self-love and understanding are critical in keeping you on the growth path. So often the right thing to do is the difficult thing to do. You can do it, I believe in you. You are not your emotions, you are what you decide to do with them.