Getting Comfortable With Discomfort
© 2022 Lane Wallace
Aviation for Women magazine, January/February issue, 2022
A couple of weeks ago, I signed up for tennis lessons. I was getting bored with my normal jogging/elliptical exercise routine. I was also looking for some Covid-safe social interaction, especially because my husband had just been sent to Saudi Arabia for six months. And I had a tennis racquet, thanks to my mother-in-law. So tennis seemed like an activity worth exploring.
By the time I came up with the idea and found a place offering fall lessons, however, I’d already missed the first week’s class. And as I drove toward the courts that first evening, I found myself fighting a surprisingly strong impulse to turn around and go home. Home was safe. Known. Comfortable. Going forward offered none of those things. I didn’t know any of the people in this class. I was the late new kid, trying something that I wasn’t going to be very good at, at least at the start. I felt, in fact, very much like my awkward 9-year-old self again, being dropped off for my first swimming, drama … fill in the blank … lessons. And it didn’t feel good.
When we’re kids, of course, we’re just learning everything. So even if it doesn’t feel comfortable to step into something new, we’re more used to it. But as we become adults and gain mastery of things we’ve been doing for a while, we get accustomed to feeling more comfortable in our environments and activities. And comfort is an amazingly seductive feeling. Whole collections of food, clothing and home goods are devoted to its appeal.
But as with many things that feel good—including sugar, wine, sunshine and yummy food—comfort requires a balancing act. In healthy doses, it allows us a place or space where we can de-stress, breathe out, relax into ourselves, and find renewal. But if we allow ourselves to sink too far into it, comfort can become a trap; a dangerous sedative that keeps us from making the kinds of choices that will lead to happier lives. Think about how many women you know whose career or personal decisions have been influenced by a reluctance to leave a place where they’ve become comfortable, even if they might be happier somewhere else.
Beyond that, the more out of practice we get with the discomfort inherent in exploring new territory, the less inclined we may be to do it. And that’s limiting on a much bigger level. In addition to depriving us of all kinds of rich and vivid experiences in the world—including those that might inspire new passion or energy in our lives—it can make us more fearful; less flexible and adaptable to life changes. It also keeps us from growing into the women we still might become, because growth very rarely happens in a comfort zone.
If we want to grow and learn new things, we have to venture into new territory. And the discomfort we feel as we step into the unknown is actually a powerful learning aid. When we don’t know exactly how to proceed, we pay more attention to what’s going on both inside and around us, so we’re more likely to gain insight. We’re also more open to new information that might alleviate the discomfort we’re feeling. And we’re exposed to all kinds of new information and experiences, because we’re somewhere we haven’t been before. So feeling uneasy is part of what makes us open to new learning, as well as a powerful motivator to do the work that growth requires.
All of that argues pretty strongly for trying to get more comfortable with times and feelings of discomfort in our lives. But there’s another reason, as well: it opens up more career options, and allows us to be more effective in those spaces.
As a woman, working in any male-dominated career field is a cross-cultural experience, akin to an American working in Africa or the Middle East. And that means it requires navigating through structures, norms, expectations, and unspoken rules that aren’t familiar to us. It takes extra effort to do that, and it’s not an inherently comfortable space to be in. So if we haven’t developed our ability to absorb and work through discomfort, we’re more likely to feel tense or defensive in those environments. And that makes it far more difficult for us to be effective or successful.
So how can we get more comfortable with discomfort? As my tennis lessons illustrate, it’s a lifelong effort. But three things help:
1) Work on developing a strong and grounded sense of yourself, motivated from within and at peace with who you are … and who you’re not. That’s no small feat. But the more comfortable we are with ourselves, the more margin we have for absorbing other kinds of discomfort, and the more bandwidth we have for observing, connecting, and navigating effectively in those spaces. It also helps us separate our sense of worth from what happens to us in uncomfortable environments, which makes them less scary. I certainly want to do my best at tennis, but who I am does not hang on how good or bad I end up being at it. That helps.
2) Remember what’s helpful about discomfort, and how important it is to learn to live with it. How we frame experiences or feelings has a big impact on how well we handle them. So when you feel uncomfortable, think about it as simply a sign that you’ve left a comfort zone for a growth zone. It also helps to think about the role discomfort plays in preparing us for learning important skills and insights, as well as what getting better at living with it will do for us: 1) Open up interesting careers and improve our chances of success at them. 2) Expand the places in the world we can go and enjoy. 3) Strengthen our resilience and prepare us to weather the inescapable changes in our lives with grace and laughter. 4) Lower our blood pressure and stress levels. 5) Allow us to grow and lead lives fueled by curiosity and passion instead of fear.
3) Practice. Like anything else, the more we practice making our way through uncomfortable situations, the easier it gets. It allows us to develop coping mechanisms, perspectives, and skills that help us navigate discomfort more easily. But it also builds our confidence in our ability to handle uncomfortable situations, which is every bit as important. So it’s worth thinking of low-stakes ways we can practice our discomfort coping skills … like tennis lessons, or going to social events where we don’t know anyone, or anything else that requires us to leave our comfort zones and try out something or someplace new.
Comfort is nice. But it’s not the most valuable commodity in the world. As my old boss at Flying used to say, “If we wanted to be comfortable, we wouldn’t fly airplanes. We’d sidle up to the bar and order a beer.” We fly, and take on the discomfort of exploring, learning, and trying new things, because we want what we get in exchange: not only more interesting experiences and lives, but also a happier and stronger version of ourselves that all those experiences allow us to become.