I climbed up the very thin twenty-four foot ladder, cautiously stepped onto the platform, and stood. Gazing out toward the vastness of the warehouse, I felt a sudden tremor and I froze. Is it about to collapse? Has the earth picked the worst possible time to quake? Is this structure so frail that it actually moves with my thudding heartbeat?! The last thought that occurred to me in this split-second experience was, “what am I doing and why am I doing it?” This thought was more helpful than the others, snapping me back to my goal with the next: “Flying trapeze is on your bucket list, remember?”
I’ve practiced mitigating alarming thoughts like those above, and the vestigial bodily reactions that accompany them, because I want to do things. I wanted to try flying trapeze, but I’m afraid of heights. I wanted to travel as much as possible, but I was afraid of planes. I want to be a good leader, instructor, and facilitator, but I’m an introvert. These goals have one real hurdle to repeatedly jump – discomfort. It’s a worthy obstacle however, as it can lead to triumph!
To clarify, discomfort is not terror or lasting panic – that’s when we enter the neighborhood of trauma. The “discomfort zone”, also referred to as the “stretch”, “learning”, or “courage” zone, is the ideal zone for growth.
We all experience and navigate varying degrees of discomfort everyday, and we’re pretty good at it. What we aren’t necessarily good at is asking for more discomfort in order to grow mentally, emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually. So how do we navigate even more discomfort in order to get that dream job, go on that dream vacation, or realize that health goal?
I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to ignore a healthy fear of heights. I needed some tools to move through uncomfortable thoughts and sensations before deciding to jump. I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve experimented with tips provided by Navy Seals, psychologists, and business gurus who have researched how to be comfortable with discomfort. Here’s what I’ve found most helpful:
1. Know your boundaries. What is a stretch goal for you and what may venture into your alarm zone? If you’re not sure, try inching out of your comfort zone and recording how you feel using a 1 – 10 scale of discomfort. If it’s a 9 or 10, it might be time to try a smaller step.
2. Clarify your goals. Clarity is key to goal success, and there are tools out there that can help. Mind-mapping is a great and creative way to hone in on exactly what steps you’d like to take toward your goals. Tony Buzan’s The Mind Map Book has helped me wade through murky thoughts to clear priorities. Self-assessments (e.g. Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinder, and the Change Style Indicator) can also help point you down a path or toward a personal strength you may not have yet considered.Mind Map image Source
3. Reframe. Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, along with others who study neuroplasticity, has helped us learn that we are what we think. What you tell yourself is the biggest indicator of success or failure. We are all guilty of thoughts that hinder our own success, and the ability to recognize them and replace them with true and helpful thoughts can be transformative. Mindset image source
4. Move. We hear it a lot, but it bears repeating: movement in any form helps your brain in ways that can make the uncomfortable tolerable.
5. Practice self-compassion. Nobody’s perfect, therefore it’s essential to remind ourselves to be kind to ourselves (as we would to a friend). I’ve found Kristen Neff’s three elements of self-compassion particularly helpful reminders.
One last note about moving through discomfort toward growth: avoid comparing yourself to others and their boundaries, skills, or attributes. Comparison is a trap that we can all fall into, and it is simply not helpful.
If I hadn’t been able to move past the discomfort I felt on that trapeze platform, then I might not have grabbed the bar, jumped, and experienced the thrill of being caught in mid-air by someone else. I might not have felt a great sense of pride for a memory that will join others to expand my comfort zone for the next time I decide to jump, fly, or teach!
What helps you move through discomfort?