Learning to Be Uncomfortable

stormy skies-rooftop

It is always striking to me how quickly my mind seeks to avoid uncomfortable sensations and situations. For example, when I start to feel cold: I reach for a sweatshirt or gloves; when I feel hunger starting in my belly: I start to think about food and how I will get it, or what my next meal will be; if I feel awkward in a social setting: I question leaving that setting or the healthfulness of my relationships with the people around me. I don’t know about you, but the more I am aware of these tendencies, the more I kind of feel like a big baby when it comes to my behavior and reactions to my environment. It is like I am intolerant of anything less than being full, warm, and perfectly loved! I am constantly seeking pleasant sensations and trying to avoid painful ones. Allowing both types of experiences and being present for both, however, is often much more empowering of a practice. As Sharon Salzberg writes in her book, Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “When we make the courageous choice to be still, rather than running away, we have the chance to establish a relationship with what is.”

Another thought that this brings up is this idea of mental unrest. I was recently at a dharma talk where this was explained as the mind’s tendency to be dissatisfied. The speaker described this feeling as a low-grade, almost ever present rub of discomfort. It is like the mind is always a little bit uneasy and looking for greener pastures. There is always a little something that is not quite right according to the mind and, if given the chance, it seems like that is what is fixated on (in psychology this is often called our inherent, “negativity bias”). Going back to the sensory world for a moment, I am noticing these phenomena more and more as I reengage in the work world doing some part-time farming work and part-time baking/prep-cooking. For me, the farming work and environment is perhaps the most lucid example of the mind feeling discomfort and trying to avoid unpleasant sensations. Take the temperature for example. As I am learning, April and May in Wisconsin is a flurry of unpredictable weather patterns. Especially when you are doing farming work in the great outdoors, you are at the mercy of the off and on rain and hugely fluctuating temperatures.  Also, despite my best intentions at dressing in layers and warmly, there are always opportunities to feel cold on the farm: there is the wind blowing in your face as you are harvesting greens outside, the rain soaking your clothing as you carry bins of produce from the field, and of course the numbing cold of the wash water used for salad mix and cut spinach and in which you must repeatedly and patiently dunk your hands in order to clean these delicate greens to be ready to sell. I find that my brain screams the loudest with discomfort during this last task. At some point, inevitaby, my fingers lose dexterity and my digits become like clumsy blocks fumbling with the opening of plastic bags and tools and door handles. If the need arises to go to use the restroom, I end up struggling immensely with the seemingly simple demands of things like pants zippers and buttons. Yes, there is patience to be learned, humility, and the acceptance of being uncomfortable.

I do not think that I am good at being uncomfortable, yet. But, I am supremely grateful that I am starting to have the ability to at least name the sensations that I am experiencing. With naming and recognition, I find there is a certain empowering awareness that then allows me to make more of a conscious choice in how I will react to these feelings: I can acknowledge the physical or emotional discomfort and attempt to just be with it in the moment instead of reacting on instinct, fleeing the situation or stimulus, or expressing my immediate discontent. I also gain the choice to avoid sensations that are particularly unpleasant or upsetting, but in a much more calm and calculated (less reactive) manner. As described in a skills workbook for Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) (titled: The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook), learning distress tolerance can enhance one’s ability to deal with difficult emotions and circumstances. To reiterate this concept simply: It is important to be able to tolerate distress in a variety of settings. For particularly hard emotions/sensations, the advice given is to follow a progression of: distracting oneself, finding ways to relax, and then engaging in positive coping practices. One idea therein being that distraction gives us a place to implicitly process events and feelings that may be too powerful to tackle head-on. This also gives us the chance to come down from the agitation and sympathetic arousal that such feelings can elicit so that we may make more constructive and responsible choices (i.e., positive coping). I would like to think that I am becoming more aware of these instances in which I am uncomfortable so that I may engage in more constructive ways of experiencing those particular sensations and emotions. It is good to learn that it is okay to be uncomfortable.

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. LuAnne Holder
    May 01, 2016 @ 23:39:25

    I am working on a poem right now on this very topic. So glad to see others contemplating this challenge. I appreciate your insights.

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  2. Leda
    May 02, 2016 @ 15:11:41

    Yes, of course that would be great! I really enjoyed your poem and am looking forward to reading some of your other posts. Thanks for getting in touch and for your thoughtful words!

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  3. Aunt Linda
    May 02, 2016 @ 16:09:31

    Life is uncomfortable. It’s called anxiety and it can be healthy for us when we learn to grow, forgive and move on. Thanks and blessings, Aunt Linda

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    • Leda
      May 02, 2016 @ 16:42:25

      I appreciate your response Linda, however I think we are talking about two different things. I do not believe that I am talking about anxiety. I am speaking more about physical sensations of discomfort or emotional states of unrest that tend towards dissatisfaction or unease of the mind with a particular situation. I believe that there are many ways that people can deal with these sensations and emotions in a healthful manner. Of course it all depends on the severity of the situation and which practices resonate and are healthy for that particular person.

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