The two types of discomfort

“Discomfort is the currency for achieving our goals and aspirations.”

I’ve heard a version of this quote from at least two of my teachers/mentors. I’ve experienced the truth of it in my own life, over and over again – and, still my brain wants to resist it.

I explain to every new client that they’re going to experience discomfort. It’s part of the process. They should expect, if not exactly welcome, it.

Because, change is uncomfortable. Our brains don’t like it.

But discomfort is part of the human experience, there’s no way to avoid it. We’re going to feel negative emotions roughly 50% of the time anyway, no matter what’s going on in our lives. It’s how we’re wired.

Yet, our natural human inclination is to resist it. We often interpret it as a sign that something has gone wrong.

I want to distinguish between the two kinds of discomfort, so we always know what kind we’re choosing.

The first kind, let’s call it Type 1, provides the fuel for our dreams, goals and aspirations, and leads to our growth and evolution.

The second kind, Type 2, does not. It keeps us stuck. Safe. Small. And frustrated.

Type 1 discomfort

Type 1 discomfort can be summed up as the willingness to take clumsy, imperfect action – and to ‘fail.’ And, importantly, to feel the negative emotions that arise when we stumble and get it wrong. Over and over again, until we achieve our aim.

It is the willingness to take consistent uncomfortable action, and either succeed or ‘learn’ from it, aka fail.

Type 1 pushes us out of our comfort zones. It often feels like shit! The kind of shit that makes us want to throw up, or curl up in a corner and hide, especially when we experience the ‘fails.’

Discomfort appears every time our brain (aka our inner voices) perceives that we’re risking failure, judgement, disappointment  conflict, rejection, shame. Our brain’s job to keep us safe (and alive), so it freaks out whenever any kind of acute psychological threat appears on the horizon.

It’s a completely normal part of our humanity that this happens – it’s simply our brain doing what it’s designed to do.

The problem arises when we listen to the inner voices that tell us we’re making a huge mistake and need to just stop already, and get back in our box (aka comfort zone.)

And when we act on those voices.

When we wrongly interpret our natural fear and self-doubt as a signal to STOP.

If we understood that our fear is supposed to be there, and that it has a positive intention (to keep us safe), we could behave differently.

We could reassure the scared parts of ourselves that we know what we’re doing, and how to keep ourselves safe now.

And if we knew, deep in our bones, that our worth is inherent, and not tied to our actions or ability to achieve goals, we would be less afraid. We would understand that no ‘failure’ can ever make us less worthy. It’s impossible.

This could change everything.

Because then, we could move forward with the uncomfortable actions that would lead to the fulfilment of our goals – and our growth.

If we truly understood that discomfort is the entry price we all must pay for our dreams, we would accept it as part of the deal.* While embracing it may be a step too far, acceptance would at least reduce our resistance.

And we’d realise that the achievement of our goals is not even the most important thing.

The most important thing is who we become in the pursuit of them.

It is about evolving into our Next Self.  The next version of who we are capable of being.

*Full disclosure: I’m still learning this too – and will always be. ‘Every next level of your life will require a different version of you.’ (Hat tip to Mr. DiCaprio!)

Type 2 discomfort

Type 2 discomfort is the frustration and lack of fulfilment we feel when we decide that our goals and dreams are just not possible for us. When we dismiss them before we even begin.

When we decide they’re too big, too scary, too out of reach. Too whatever.

So, instead of making small, imperfect progress towards what we want, we do nothing.

We continue to tolerate the status quo. We stay stuck. We ignore the call inside of us, the inner knowing that just won’t go away. The knowing that there is so much more for us to do. More for us to be.

Type 2 discomfort looks like listening to the voice of our inner critics when Type 1 discomfort shows up, interpreting it as a sign to STOP, and beating a hasty retreat back to Stuckville.

It looks like giving up on ourselves.

It happens when we don’t afford ourselves the compassion, grace and space for our humanity to be present. When we don’t allow for the discomfort of growth.

Instead, we move back to the relative safety of Type 2 Discomfort. We stay there. And we sprinkle self-judgement and self-criticism on top, for landing back there again. And that’s the worse kind of suffering.

Our comfort zone is so-called for a reason. It feels safe. And familiar. Our primitive brains love familiarity, and equate it with safety.

Familiarity and perceived safety are why we continue to tolerate relationships, careers, jobs and situations that are making us miserable. Or keeping us tolerating far less than we know we deserve and are capable of.

Choose your type – we’re going to be uncomfortable anyway

I’m going to be completely honest with you.

Type 1 discomfort can feel excruciatingly painful at times.

It can lead to push-back that triggers all of our deepest childhood wounds and fears around rejection and abandonment. It can activate the need for another layer of healing.

I’m talking recent, personal experience of setting some long overdue boundaries in my life, and the extreme discomfort it entailed. As gut-wrenchingly painful as it has been, I will choose being true to myself over my comfort every time.

We each have a different discomfort edge for different experiences in our lives. Yours won’t be the same as mine.

Regardless, I can promise you that Type 1 discomfort can, and often does, feel like hell-on-earth in the moment. There is some comfort in knowing it’s supposed to.

The bottom line is that we’re going to experience discomfort in our lives.

Only one type leads to our growth though.

So, if we’re going to be uncomfortable anyway – we might as well choose the kind that leads somewhere good. Agree?

Which type of discomfort are you choosing?

Important: If you’re currently choosing Type 2 because you’re afraid, confused, not ready, full of self-doubt, etc. That is okay too. Please do not judge or beat yourself up for it. You’re simply having a normal human response to self-doubt. That is all.

Just know you don’t have to stay there. You can move forward, when you’re ready, one baby step at a time.

We can tell ourselves the truth about the kind of discomfort we’re choosing, and why, with love and compassion.


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