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How to Navigate Between Two Kinds of Discomfort for Chaos or Growth

There are two kinds of “uncomfortable.” The first might come up if you grew up in a chaotic and dysfunctional family like I did. That means you learned to put up with difficulty and discomfort. It could have been emotional, psychological, or physical discomfort. When our lives are like that, we come to accept that life is difficult and uncomfortable.

Then there’s a different kind of uncomfortable that has to do with changing your behavior and stretching yourself to go outside of your comfort zone. It’s uncomfortable to do that because it’s new. Using the metaphor of the well-worn groove from above – we have to leap out of our well-worn groove and carve a new one. That’s definitely not comfortable, and it's not easy. At least at first, it’s not.

Whether you stay with your old pattern or try on new behaviors discomfort persists. The thing about the old patterns is that that kind of discomfort is perpetual. In fact, it’s likely to get worse and create more chaos and drama in our lives. But when we form new patterns of behavior and have discomfort with that, that discomfort will eventually end. We’ll eventually become comfortable with the new behavior if we persist. Even better, there’s healing on the other side of that!

Our tolerance for discomfort in our lives may come from growing up in situations that were dysfunctional, chaotic, and potentially traumatic. So we learned to put up with being uncomfortable much of the time. We normalize discomfort. We come to think that’s just how life is. If we don’t know any difference, then we might have a high tolerance for dysfunction. 

We don't have to do that anymore. We get to decide for ourselves as grown adults what we prefer, and then we get to seek those things out. I know it's not quite as easy as deciding “This is what I prefer” and then seeking that out. Many of us don't know what we prefer if we’ve been people-pleasing or enmeshed with others and going by what they prefer. 

The process of determining what you prefer takes a while. For me personally, the way I determined what I liked and didn’t like was in the boundary-building process. I made educated guesses about what I thought I’d like and then set boundaries following that. Sometimes I was right, and sometimes I was wrong. But it was feedback. I figured out what was comfortable for me and what was uncomfortable for me. When something was comfortable, I kept doing it. When it was uncomfortable, I adjusted. Understanding the distinction between the two types of discomfort was really important in that process.

For example, one thing that really helped me to get good at boundaries was being in recovery for compulsive overeating and having a food plan. In the beginning, I’d say, “I don’t eat sugar” in situations where there was food being served. Inevitably, people would ask me all kinds of questions. I realized that made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want to go into detail about my food and eating. Then I started saying, “I don’t eat sweets” and there were more questions. Eventually, I landed on, “I have food issues”, and I found that people didn’t ask any questions. That felt comfortable.

I also used to offer explanations when I refused food, and there were more questions that made me uncomfortable. I finally landed on, “No thanks” with no explanation. If they pushed more, I’d just repeat myself, “No thanks.” That felt comfortable. It’s polite, and I don’t owe anyone an explanation about my food intake.

The second kind of uncomfortable comes along when we start to form new patterns of behavior. Like setting boundaries around my food and my discussions about my food. It was definitely uncomfortable at first. But my recovery was more important to me than putting up with some temporary discomfort. Knowing that my sanity and health are at stake if I compromise my food boundaries makes me care much less about offending others. They don’t have to live in my body, I do.

Here’s the key distinction between these two types of discomfort: on the other side the discomfort of the new behavior pattern is freedom and healing. If you allow yourself to go through the discomfort of learning to set boundaries, you’ll experience freedom like you’ve never had before.

We experience mental, emotional, and physical relief as we allow ourselves to be our true selves when we set boundaries and tell people the truth about what’s okay and not okay. 

When you're thinking about whether things make you uncomfortable or not, ask yourself this question:

Is this the bad kind of uncomfortable or the good kind of uncomfortable?

In other words, is this the discomfort of a long-standing dysfunctional pattern that will only get worse over time? Or is this the discomfort of trying something new that will become comfortable and lead to freedom?

You might also ask yourself this: What would happen if you persisted with this kind of discomfort?

If you continue to people-please and give in to what others want, or continue to focus more on others’ approval than your own, your resentment and exhaustion are likely to continue. But if you persist with the good kind of discomfort that comes with changed behavior, the long-term result is that change happens, you become comfortable with the new pattern, and you get the rewards of the new healthy behavior. 

What kind of life are you going to have if you continue with whichever form of discomfort you’re experiencing? Will it be to your detriment or your personal development?

You can choose to get outside your comfort zone with the kind of discomfort that is going to make you grow. You can choose to stop putting up with the kind of discomfort that prolongs your discomfort and leads to more chaos and drama

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