December 28 - Becoming More Comfortable with Discomfort

It is difficult to find someone who doesn’t have something that he or she would like to change. Whether it is an addictive habit, a frequent but unpleasant mood, or a substance that seems to have taken control of an individual’s will power, the process of changing is the same. People ask me all the time, “How do I create a new habit when the old one is so powerful?” or “What is something I can do to make sure my new goal will be achieved?” While there is no one, sure-fire answer to either of these questions, there is a distinction we can all develop that will go a long way in helping us to achieve our goal.

It is to understand the amazing process of learning!

Moving away from an addictive habit or substance almost always means learning a new one. We must eventually have a behavior/habit/goal on which to focus, rather than only having one that we are trying “not” to do. If we wanted to ensure arriving in Europe, for example, it would not do us much good to take a plane to “not Texas.” We must have a direction, something that we wish to learn to do, on which we keep our eyes focused and our brains engaged.

Let’s just say we wanted to stop smoking. Instead of focusing on “not smoking,” we might want to learn to breathe deeply and frequently, to relax naturally, and to exercise in a new and fun way. On the other hand, trying to “not smoke” will just keep us thinking about cigarettes!

Learning almost always involves being uncomfortable for a little while as we perfect new ways of doing things. It only comes naturally after a lot of practice. Do you remember how we all were taught to write? We painstakingly had to print rows and rows of the letter “a” and then rows and rows of the letter “b”. I can still remember looking up at my teacher and thinking I would never learn how to do it. My arms just ached with boredom and fatigue.

I had the same kind of feeling during the first few years that I was learning to play tennis; I hit the ball tentatively and erratically. I would often swing and connect with air instead of a ball! I spent hours at the backboard, hoping to learn to hit a two-handed backhand, while silently praying that no one was watching. I wanted to play…I didn’t want to practice.

As an adult, when I hurt my right shoulder, I tried to play tennis with my left hand. I was all lopsided and could not even run correctly. Whenever others happened to walk by, I wanted to hide my head in embarrassment. “I really know how to play quite well with my right hand,” I wanted to shout out to them. I was still very uncomfortable with my discomfort. It saddens me now how often in the past that I have reduced my joy of learning as a result of thinking, “I should already know how to do this.”

I, and perhaps you, have spent almost a lifetime learning how to avoid anger…or a sad feeling…or loneliness; I used many addictive habits/substances to cover up these emotions. Why do I expect that learning how to welcome these feelings into my life in a healthy way in order to move away from the addictive habit would be any easier than it was learning to hit a tennis ball?

Learning takes time. It takes acknowledgement that we do not know how to do something. It takes practice, lots of it. It takes courage. It takes being okay with others knowing we don’t know how to do it. It requires a short period of discomfort while we become familiar with the new way. If we can become more comfortable with our discomfort when we do not know how to do something, we are much more likely to continue the learning process long enough to eventually know how to do that which we are trying to learn. Now if you can make it through that sentence, you can make it through any learning process!!

Remind yourself that while the discomfort is necessary, it is only temporary… soon you will discover that you have learned the new behavior, and the discomfort has vanished. However, if you run from the discomfort, you sentence yourself to a lifetime of not knowing, a lifetime of inevitable discomfort.

Try to begin to see discomfort in a new way, a more realistic way; it is actually an indication that rather than being stuck in an old pattern of behavior, you are actually fully engaged in the dynamic process of learning! Congratulate yourself! You deserve it!

How can you remind yourself today that it is okay to “not know” so that you can open yourself up to the enjoyment and satisfaction of learning new distinctions? Can you remember some situations when you allowed yourself to be uncomfortable while you were learning so that you could become proficient at something new? Aren’t you glad you did? Will you try to remember this the next time there is something you want to learn how to do? What do you want to learn to do instead of continuing any of your addictive behaviors? How can you include fun in the process?

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