Just as our body’s immune system is strengthened by exposure to germs, so to is our emotional and psychological growth dependent upon our willingness to face personal struggles. We often hear of “comfort zones”, what we feel willing or able to tolerate. My greatest personal growth has always arrived when I’ve been willing to stretch the boundaries of my comfort zone and step into something scary and new.
In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg offers a rallying cry for women and provides practical advice to “lean in” to achieve goals by arguing that gender bias is surmountable. Psychologists have their own jargon for this process referred to as leaning into the discomfort. I spent most of my life doing the complete opposite by avoiding the discomfort and masking it through my various addictions. What I failed to realize is that by trying to suppress emotions and discomfort through drugs and alcohol, I not only squashed the bad feelings but also dulled all that was good around me. All these addictions whether they are drugs and alcohol, shopping, gambling, eating, or even working to excess, leave us walking around in an anesthetized state.
The question that I frequently face is “how much leaning into the discomfort should I do?” Anyone who has attended a yoga class or an aerobics class has heard the instructor say push towards the discomfort, but don’t push too far. Learning how pliable my comfort zone is has been an ongoing process, and it certainly appears dependent on my mood and willingness. We forget that pain is a natural signal sent from our brain and that it is “telling us something”. Becoming attuned to that frequency can be simultaneously terrifying and rewarding. My therapist encourages me to learn to “sit with” the discomfort and not give it a power, but recognize it for what it can teach me. I’m also slowly learning how to be with other people who are facing their own hardships and learning how to not “fix” them, but simply “be with them” as they come to terms with discomfort in their lives. It’s been my experience that being present with someone else in discomfort is far more difficult than summoning all my resources to analyze, suggest, and jump into action.
When I sobered up over 16 years ago, I took up long distance running to get healthy, and develop a sense of commitment. It didn’t take long for me to use this new drug, “exercise”, as another means to dull the discomfort in my life. The more I ran, the more I ran “away from myself”. When I’m out on a 4-hour run every Sunday, I do manage to turn my mind off and distract myself from whatever is concerning me. Now that I’m actively trying to be mindful and learning to lean into the discomfort in my life, my running will need to evolve to incorporate that philosophy. The way I see it, I spent 16 years running away from myself, so now it’s time to run back towards my “true” self.
[I welcome your comments and suggestions below.]