Think about the most common problems we deal with in our lives – from laziness to lack of exercise to unhealthy diets to procrastination, and so on.
In most cases, problems like these are not caused not by a physical ailment, but by a weakness of the mind – a weakness that urges us to avoid discomfort.
Discomfort is a form of pain, but it isn’t a deep pain – it’s a shallow one. It’s the feeling you get when you’ve stepped outside of your comfort zone. The idea of exercising in many people’s minds, for example, brings discomfort – so they don’t do it. Eating green vegetables brings discomfort too. So does meditating, or focusing on a difficult task, or saying no to others. Of course, these are just examples, because different people find discomfort in different things, but you get the general idea.
The bottom line is most of us don’t want to be uncomfortable. So we run from discomfort constantly. The problem with this is that, by running from discomfort, we are constrained to partake in only the activities and opportunities within our comfort zones. And since our comfort zones are relativity small, we miss out on most of life’s greatest and healthiest experiences, and we get stuck in a debilitating cycle.
Let’s use diet and exercise as an example…
- First, we become unhealthy because eating healthy food and exercising feels uncomfortable, so we opt for comfort food and mindless TV watching instead.
- But then, being unhealthy is also uncomfortable, so we seek to distract ourselves from the reality of our unhealthy bodies by eating more unhealthy food and watching more unhealthy entertainment and going to the mall to shop for things we don’t really want or need. And our discomfort just gets worse.
Amazingly, the simple act of accepting a little discomfort every day, and taking it one small step at a time, can solve most of our common problems, and make our minds happier, healthier and stronger in the long run.
Now, let me give you some examples of how I’ve experienced this in my own life…
Strengthening the Mind… One Small, Hard Step at a Time
Years ago, when I was incredibly focused on weight lifting and physical strength training, I gradually learned that you can’t be truly committed to any goal if you have a weak mind that’s unwilling to be uncomfortable. To combat this, I wrote two simple questions on two different post-it notes and stuck one on my bathroom mirror and the other inside my gym locker:
- How many workouts have you missed because your mind, not your body, told you that you were too tired?
- How many workout reps have you skipped because your mind, not your body, said, “Nine reps is enough. Don’t worry about the tenth”?
To this day, the answer to both questions is probably hundreds for most people, including myself. Weakness of the mind is a real dream killer, and the only way to fix this weakness is daily practice.
Far too often we think that mental strength is all about how we respond to extreme circumstances. How did she perform on stage during that nationally televised event? Did he bounce back after his business associate betrayed him and bankrupt their company? Can she keep her life together even after suffering from a major, debilitating bodily injury?
There’s no doubt that extreme circumstances test our bravery, determination and mental strength, but what about common, daily circumstances?
Just like every muscle in the body, the mind needs to be exercised to gain strength. It needs to be worked consistently to grow and develop over time. If you haven’t pushed yourself in hundreds of little ways over time, of course you’ll crumble on the one day that things get really challenging.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Choose to go to the gym when it would be more comfortable to sleep in. Choose to do the tenth rep when it would be more comfortable to quit at nine. Choose to create something special when it would be more comfortable to consume something mediocre. Choose to raise your hand and ask that extra question when it would be more comfortable to stay silent. Prove to yourself, in hundreds of little ways, that you have the guts to get in the ring and wrestle with life.
Mental strength is built through lots of small, daily victories. It’s the individual choices we make day-to-day that build our “mental strength” muscles. We all want this kind of strength, but we can’t think our way to it. If you want it, you have to do something about it ritualistically. It’s your positive daily rituals that prove your mental fortitude in the long run.
The bottom line is that when things get difficult for most people, they find something more comfortable to do. When things get difficult for mentally strong people, they find a way to stay on track with their positive daily rituals. (Angel and I build positive, life-changing rituals with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of Getting Back to Happy.)
How to Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
The idea of building up enough mental strength to be OK with discomfort may sound daunting, but it’s really not. It’s relatively easy when you take it one step at a time. This is a discovery Angel and I made many moons ago when we were trying to dig ourselves out of a hole and get our lives back on track.
We started to accept a little more discomfort by trying to live with less physical possessions and less debt, but we hated the feeling of not being able to buy things when we wanted them. At first, it was truly uncomfortable to resist that forceful urge. Our minds resisted, tried to run from this discomfort, and tried to make up all kinds of excuses for buying stuff we didn’t need.
But we learned to be one with the discomfort, and stay the course, by spending just a little less every week. When we did, gradually, spending less got easier and easier. Our world didn’t end – it just got better. We were a little uncomfortable for a while, and then we weren’t anymore.
Then I watched this same process transpire with my daily workout regimen. I didn’t want to lift weights because it was too hard. My mind made up a bazillion excuses. I found ways to avoid the gym. But then I caught myself, and gradually gave in to the discomfort, a little bit at a time, and it wasn’t as hard as I imagined. I lifted weights, and grew to love it. Then Angel saw my progress, and she started working out too.
Angel and I repeated this process for improving our diet, reducing our alcohol consumption, conquering procrastination, working through adversity, and more.
Getting comfortable with discomfort – and gradually building up our mental strength in the process – has easily been the biggest key to our long-term happiness and success.
If you can learn to get comfortable with discomfort, your life will be filled with fewer limits and a lot more opportunities.
Here are some tips to get you started:
- As discussed above, try embracing discomfort in small doses by building positive daily rituals to support your goals. If you’re averse to exercise, for example, take a 5-minute walk to the end of the block and back every morning before breakfast. Don’t overthink it – just put on your walking shoes and go. You probably won’t like it much at first, and that’s OK. You don’t have to like it to feel good about getting it done. Believe it or not, before I started with weights, this is how I started working out at the very beginning. And now I love it.
- Pay attention to your tendency to avoid discomfort. What tasks, goals, or issues have you been avoiding simply because they make you feel a little uncomfortable? What good ideas have you been rejecting? What problems do you have that stem directly from an unwillingness to accept some discomfort? What have you allowed your mind to make excuses about? Become aware of your mind’s weakness with discomfort, and see if you can start taking small steps forward, one by one. (Angel and I discuss this further in the “Adversity” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
- Focus on the full extent of your emotions when you’re feeling uncomfortable. Are you angry, or scared, or worried, or sad? Instead of ignoring those emotions, face them. Embrace them, accept them, sit with them. For example, if you catch yourself procrastinating with a difficult task, eliminate the distractions, sit with the task, and don’t shift to something else. Just be there with that uncomfortable feeling of dealing with the difficult task in front of you. How does it feel? Are you in deep pain? Or are you really OK? Take a deep breath. And then take the next smallest step.
- Set yourself up with tiny discomfort challenges. Simply do slightly uncomfortable things at regular intervals: Say hello to strangers. Be sensitive and tell someone how much they mean to you. Say no to people when you know you should. Get to the gym. Eat kale. Skip the Starbucks. Etc.
Follow the tips above and you will gradually learn that discomfort can be a very good thing – when you’re uncomfortable, you’re trying new things, you’re learning, you’re expanding, you’re becoming more than you ever were before. Discomfort, in most cases, is a sign that you – mind and body alike – are growing stronger… and growing closer to becoming the person you always dreamed you could be.
How have you been avoiding (necessary) discomfort in your life? What’s the next smallest step you need to take to make progress? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts with us. We would love to hear from YOU.
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Photo by: Jordan Sanchez