…all the things we do to ward off discomfort create far more suffering than the original discomfort ever did or could. We create suffering by avoiding discomfort. But we have to practice being in contact with our body sensations, emotions, feelings and die-hard habitual patterns over and over again with another person to know how we are creating more suffering and guess where a great place is to practice? Psychotherapy!
I remember at some point along my personal growth journey I was pretty cantankerous about feeling uncomfortable feelings. I have bouts, now and again, when I push discomfort away with all my might but usually they are just old habits that die hard not because I can’t or don’t want to know what I am feeling inside. But for other people, there is a real “no way” when it comes to discomfort. Our culture thrives on all of us investing in the “Just say no to discomfort” so it can sell us all more stuff.
When I write blog articles, my intention, that I hope comes across to you, the reader, is that you feel a sense of “hey we are all in this together” and that you feel a new possibility in relationship to yourself and with other people. And maybe a wee bit of cheer-leading to stretch and try stuff that might be a little uncomfortable. But I also hope you are compelled to say hello to parts of yourself that say “I don’t want to stretch” with kindness and curiosity.
This uncomfortable feelings business comes up a lot in therapy. I was in a training this weekend with master couples therapists Terry Real and Richard Schwartz and watched them work with a couple and one of the questions that came up for each partner is “why in the heck would I want to feel this?” in their own ways. I see it in my therapy room all the time.
There are some themes as to how and why we avoid discomfort;
1. Fear of sensations in the body: For some people their histories fundamentally have left a strong aversion to any sort of body sensations and since emotions produce sensations inside the body there is a strong avoidance in all the ways we can avoid (addictive behaviors, numbing out in all its various ways, distracting oneself with other dramas or entertainment or people etc). The work is a body centered work to first even be able to notice how emotions move through the body like electrical currents. We learn that sensations and emotions are natural, informative, don’t need to be acted out, may need some soothing so they don’t take over and they can be treated with kindness and respect.
2. Wish to be taken care of: Often there can be this very innocent often very very young part of ourselves that wants someone else to swoop in and make us feel better. We want mommy and not just any mommy but the perfect mommy. Someone always there, readily available, that can read our minds without us having to speak, who has no needs of their own and whose giving is endless. That part can pop up and be quite demanding and entitled, manipulative, sarcastic, caretaking all with the hopes, usually very unconscious, that someone will take the perfect mommy role on and fix all our anxiety, depression and problems for us. We do this a lot with our romantic partners. It is such an innocent longing that needs kindness not will power or punishment to unhook it.
3. Never learned how: Look if you are over the age of 35 or from particular parts of the country patriarchy rules the day and the tenants of patriarchy are to “man up” not feel your own needs and vulnerabilities, not need too much in relationships, be competitive and successful and not admit to mistakes. Terry Real, this weekend, had a couple great sound bites. “Patriarchy does not breed intimacy.” And ever so kindly and compassionately to the man he was working with Terry said, “You are such a good man. I see that. And I see how painful it was for you to be told to “man up” whenever you felt something when you were a young boy. You are feeling the consequences of that right now. Can you replace “man up” with “gentle up” inside?” It does take practice and skill to learn to feel the totality of your lived experience. We don’t because we think something bad will happen. But remember this, if you don’tremember anything else from this article, all the things we do to ward off discomfort create far more suffering than the original discomfort ever did or could. We create suffering by avoiding discomfort. Can I say it again, like this:
WE CREATE SUFFERING BY AVOIDING DISCOMFORT.
But we have to practice being in contact with our body sensations, emotions, feelings and die-hard habitual patterns over and over again to know how we are creating more suffering and guess where a great place is to practice? Psychotherapy!
4. The culture is selling it: I get a little bit frustrated with some of the new age personal growth movement that is advocating positive feelings at the expense of negative feelings. I think the way to sustained gratitude is to throw nothing of our experience out, to throw no one person out of our heart and to make friends with all the “icky” stuff we do first rather than try to find some kind of punitive behavior modification plan to stop doing that “bad” thing. What I find is when we meet each discomfort and even each part of our self that wants to run from discomfort our mindset shifts like melting butter. By fundamentally turning towards our WHOLE experience, good or bad, naughty or nice, rage filled, lust filled, sinner or saint with kindness and curiosity our psyches suddenly become flexible again, our hearts open and we find our way to gratitude without foisting it upon ourselves through will power alone. A good therapist is giving you that experience inside the therapy room, turning towards your whole lived experience with openness and from them you learn how to do it for yourself.
So what is the point of feeling discomfort then if we have all these good ways to not? Aside from the greater suffering we create when we avoid discomfort we also gain something too – we gain a sense of aliveness and meaning in our every breathed moment of being alive. But usually people aren’t motivated to feel or know about their inner life and how to navigate it until life gives them a run for their money figuratively and literally. I wasn’t interested in personal growth naturally. I had some bad stuff happen and then I had no way I could avoid discomfort. What I and most of the clients I have worked with, though, have found on the other side of big and small personal crisis is the deep sense of aliveness and meaning. This sense that “wow, I am really living my life, it isn’t living me. I can find a sense of well being even in the midst of relationship or financial hardships because I know how to ride the waves of discomfort without pushing any thing out of my experience, I know how to connect with my community from an adult place and really take in support as it is available, I can be kind, curious open and trusting of the process of life while also taking responsible action.”
I also don’t want to Pollyanna-out on anyone here. There are some pretty wickedly painful things that happen that make this hard to do and we get tried, boy do we get tried, but staying open and connected to ourselves and to others even in these moments is what brings deep meaning to life. I am a fan of investing in how to navigate discomfort well because in there is riches beyond compare. Psychotherapy is one vehicle for your investment and there are many others. Here is my cheerleading: give stretching a try and if not send a kind loving hello from me to the part that says “no”.