How Discomfort Helps Us Know Ourselves More Deeply
Last weekend, I watched the movie Lady Bird, and I felt a whole lot of feelings (which may or may not have included at least one instance of spontaneous surprise-sobbing). That’s not shocking, to be honest – not only am I a walking ball of feelings, but it’s also a movie packed with stories and themes that hit particularly close to home.
Being a young woman from California, who leaves home for the east coast.
Figuring out who you are, while high school is happening at you.
All the complexities of the mother/daughter relationship.
The desperation to belong.
The second it was over, I texted my mom and encouraged (read: harassed) her to watch it, too. I was dying to hear her thoughts and reactions.
Her response? “I loved it a lot, and felt a whole lot of discomfort while watching it, which I always find interesting.” Same, Mom. SAME.
So, let’s talk about discomfort.
Back in 2016, I remember seeing a post from Emily McDowell on my Instagram feed about making it one of her resolutions for the year, and I was fascinated! In her own words:
“‘Uncomfortable’ might sound like a weird choice, but here's what it means to me. I have a lot of habits that I want to change. Things that don't serve me, like mindlessly looking at Facebook and sleeping too late and skipping lunch and basically never exercising. But in order to make changes, I have to get uncomfortable, and I have to be willing to be OK with being uncomfortable. The stuff I do without thinking about it is easy. It's safe, even though it's not serving me. If I'm uncomfortable, if my brain is telling me UGH I HATE THIS PLEASE LET'S JUST GO BACK TO BED, it means I'm on the right track.”
Let’s face it: to be alive is to be uncomfortable.
Discomfort shows up in our lives constantly, for all kinds of reasons. There’s the kind we willingly opt into or put up with (like Emily) because we believe it will help us get where we want to go. There’s the kind that catches us off guard. There’s the kind that pops up and gets louder the further we get down a road we don’t want to be on. The list goes on and on.
I’m sure you know the feeling well! Is it clear in your mind? Can you picture how it feels?
Here are some other specific examples of things that might trigger discomfort, to help get your juices flowing. It could be:
A longtime situation you’re already in that may not feel totally right for you anymore, where the discomfort sneaks up on you slowly. Possibly a job, a relationship, or even a living situation.
Feeling trapped in a situation you suddenly don’t want to be in – like a tense conversation that keeps escalating, or hitting that, "I need to go home" wall after hours of being 'on' at an event.
The challenge of trying to change a longtime habit you know isn’t serving you.
Feeling a feeling you’re not sure how to process, or what to do with.
Taking a step outside your comfort zone toward something you want to achieve, accomplish, or attain.
Feeling caught off guard by something unexpected – like a surprise meeting with your boss, or a curveball from a friend or partner.
As I was coming up with these examples, I noticed they mostly fell into one of two categories:
There’s the kind of discomfort we choose, or opt into as a way of getting somewhere we want to be — like deciding to try spin class for the first time, or going on a first date.
And then there’s the kind that shows up as a red flag, or a warning that we might need to reassess, or exit the situation completely. Maybe our boundaries are being violated, we’re not safe somehow, or at the very least, we’ve ended up somewhere we don’t want to be.
The challenge is knowing when discomfort is an invitation to be brave and push through it, and when it’s a cue to run the other way.
Obviously the differences between the two will be easier to spot in some cases than others. But in general, knowing which is which takes practice – much like learning to understand and speak a new language takes practice. And in a lot of ways, that’s exactly what you’re doing! You’re learning the language of your intuition.
Like learning any new language, this process will take time. If you’re exploring this challenge for the first time, it will probably feel particularly clunky and foreign. But try not to let this discourage you! Instead of letting confusion and frustration get you down, see if you can focus on practicing and building just these two things:
Awareness, and curiosity.
Any time that nervous energy, or anxious butterflies, or pit in your stomach shows up: notice it, and get curious about it. That simple. What does it feel like? Where is it showing up? Have you felt this feeling before, and what has it meant?
The more you practice, the easier it will get to start noticing patterns. And once you can start to understand those patterns, the easier it becomes to hear what your intuition is trying to tell you in uncomfortable moments.
As we become more familiar with our own discomfort, we can access our intuition more easily, make decisions more confidently, and understand ourselves more deeply.
A challenge for you
As always, this is where I want to encourage you to turn these ideas into small-but-meaningful action you can implement right away!
Below are a few suggestions for how you can start nurturing that awareness and curiosity we talked about. These are great for anyone who wants to dip their toes into the world of reflection, self-work, and actively learning more about who they are, but isn’t quite sure where to start. Likewise, if you’re a natural at self-reflection but still get stuck sometimes, these can shake things loose and help you find your groove again.
Paying attention to discomfort is a great jumping-off point for tapping into your intuition. Here are a few small ways to get started:
Don’t be afraid to sit with the uncomfortable feelings that come up, but with a loose grip. Mentally clamping down on an idea and trying to force clarity is just going to lead to more confusion. Instead, summon patience and openness.
Similarly, rather than thinking of ‘resolution’ or a ‘solution’ as the end-goal when the discomfort shows up, try making ‘observation’ your primary goal instead. It takes some of the pressure off.
Remember that feelings are teachers, and no feeling is ‘wrong’. So instead of trying to bury discomfort or ‘fixing’ the negative emotions, see what you can learn from them. Can you start to untangle it, gently? Contemplate it, loosely? You might even want to write down what you think and feel in this process. Notice the contradictions. Feel the pull in each direction. Let yourself experience all of it, without judgment.
As you’re building that curiosity, remember to give yourself space. Try taking a (figurative) step back from the feelings, and coming back to them when you’re ready. It’s not a race.
What about you?
Which of these strategies resonates with you the most? Which on can you implement right now?