• Amaya

Theme of the Week: Comfort is the Enemy

I met a hilarious guide this week, whose motto was, "There will be time for whining later." One of the things she advised during the reading was that, in order to grow as a person, it's necessary to do things that are uncomfortable. After thinking about it, I started to recognize that our favorite place on the "need for comfort" continuum has a huge effect on the relationship we have with ourselves and others.

Where do you stand on the Comfort Continuum? Are your issues with friends and family due to fundamental differences in the importance you place on feeling comfortable? In this post, I hope you'll learn some things about yourself and how to identify people similar to you as quickly as your first "date".

Numbing Behaviors

In my opinion, the comfort-discomfort issue shows itself most clearly when we look at just a few basic areas of life, numbing behaviors being the most obvious. By "numbing behaviors", I mean any action meant to numb the pain of life, such as the excessive use of things like :

  • Comfort foods

  • Television/Movies

  • Video games

  • Alcohol

  • Cigarettes

  • Prescription and non-prescription drugs

  • Shopping/Spending

  • Gambling

  • Working

  • Sex

  • Sleeping

  • Exercising

  • Religion

  • Caretaking/Volunteering

We all numb to some extent. People who are happier on the "discomfort" end of the Comfort Continuum numb less than those for whom comfort is more important. Addiction is a key indicator of a person who is heavily invested in comfort. In my opinion, what 12-step programs teach most effectively is how to increase one's tolerance for discomfort.

Unfortunately for those who enjoy being comfortable, numbing interferes with our ability to develop meaningful connections with the people in our lives, as Brené Brown explains in her two brilliant TED talks on vulnerability and shame. Our tolerance for discomfort is also directly related to our capacity to feel love and joy.

To find out if a person numbs more or less than you do, "first date" questions for a potential new friend or employee could focus on hobbies, what a person does in his or her spare time. A love of reality TV, red wine, and a separate closet just for shoes might indicate a person who numbs quite a lot. On the other hand, 8 mountains climbed, 24 countries backpacked, and a not-so-casual run-in with a nasty warlord during a recent trip to Africa might indicate a person that numbs rather less than you do.

Fitness Level "Kale is my comfort food," said no one, ever. Clearly, being healthy and fit requires a high tolerance for discomfort. The guy who sat across from me at lunch this week with only steamed chicken and vegetables on his plate is a man who believes discomfort is a necessary part of reaching his fitness goals. The woman at the gym this morning who loaded her leg press machine with 630 pounds is obviously not all that concerned with comfort.

I would like to argue that the reason people find certain leading men so attractive is that their physiques demonstrate a high tolerance for discomfort, and subconsciously, we recognize that discomfort is part of achieving success in life in general. It's the same reason Jessica Alba is on the cover of Maxim Magazine, and not, say, me. It takes a LOT of discomfort (not to mention a team of stylists, amazing lighting, and a little Photoshop) to look like that, especially after having two children.

Provided it hasn't itself become a numbing behavior, healthy eating and exercising regularly can be very uncomfortable, especially at first. So, what if you're overweight and want to get fit? First, consider that while there are many contributing factors, one of the reasons you're overweight may be because you like to be comfortable. Recognizing and accepting this can help you make goals that are more achievable for you. For example, how difficult would it be for you to get up at 4 am on a frosty November morning to go for a run? Maybe relocating your daily workout to a nice, warm pool would be easier to stick to? It's the same exercise - making it a little more pleasant for yourself doesn't make you any less dedicated to becoming healthy.

"First date" questions may not be necessary here, as a person's dedication to fitness tends to be readily visible. However, you may want to dive into the WHYs of a person's fitness choices. For example, if a person appears fit, tease out if it's a numbing behavior by asking how long and how often workouts are. Ask about food to determine if a superficial appearance of health is really masking an eating disorder. Finally, if you're a person who enjoys being comfortable, it may serve you well to recognize that while Brad Pitt in Fight Club certainly looks good, you are likely to have a happier long-term relationship with someone whose tolerance for discomfort is more similar to yours.

Career Success While being more comfortable with being less comfortable does show somewhat in educational achievement, there may be no place it shows more clearly than career success. And here's where I should define what I mean by success, because it's not just about making a ton of money. To me, success is about actively creating progressively more expertise, influence, and personal satisfaction in one's chosen field, which does typically come with more money (although maybe not a ton if you've chosen a career in a social-service field such as teaching), and often comes with leadership opportunities.

Business owners and executives know that being in charge is very hard. Barbara Stanny writes that among the seven key strategies of high-earning women are audacity, resilience, self-awareness, and non-attachment. I don't know about you, but these four key strategies read a lot like "high tolerance for discomfort" to me. In fact, many of the women interviewed for her book report that they feel at least a little bit terrified every day.

Sometimes, success requires us to recognize that our current field isn't a good fit for our personality or life goals. It takes a lot of courage (code for "willing to be uncomfortable") to do something new, particularly when that thing is what we do for a living.

"First date" questions could explore the why behind current and previous jobs, as well as goals for the future. Ask about actions being taken to achieve those goals. Judge the answers based on what you would have done in the same situation. Would you have taken a more or less comfortable approach?

But wait... Isn't this comfort thing just another way of saying "selfish and lazy"?

No. No no no. And if you think so, you're probably a person with a high tolerance for discomfort. You're the Usain Bolt of spiritual growth. I encourage you keep this in mind: we're all going to the same place. You've chosen to run, while others have chosen to walk. This is only a problem when you want to run WITH someone who wants to walk. In my opinion, it's best to run with people who want to run, and to let the rest walk without criticism of their choice. Can you encourage them to run? Let them know how exhilarating running is? Absolutely! Just don't expect them to change their minds about walking. It's just as good a way to get there as running, after all.

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