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Insoluble Problems   

Learning to become more comfortable with discomfort. 

Sometimes of course, a problem is, for the time being, insoluble. Sometimes things occur in life that we can’t have an answer to or assurance of immediately. How do we synthesize positive expectation when we can’t know how something will turn out? Then we need to be able to put the problem to one side (to compartmentalise) so that we can get on with our lives without anxiety. If we can’t think something nice about a situation, then once we’ve thought it through as far as possible to solution, we need to stop thinking about it at all for now. The problem is…we can’t do that if we feel like we MUST know, because when we tell ourselves we MUST have an answer, the emotional brain supplies a feeling that says we MUST have an answer and we are then compelled to obsess in an effort to know the unknowable and control the uncontrollable.

So we need to get comfortable with the idea that there are some problems we just can’t solve immediately and some things we can’t know, and certain things we simply cannot control. This is never pleasant because we are creatures who like certainty, but we know that’s not always possible. Raging against this fact can cause all kinds of problems…particularly obsessive ones. The way out is to learn to accept that some things cannot be guaranteed, known or changed. Uncertainty is a fact of life. We either meet that fact courageously or we suffer at the hands of ourselves by raging against the “way things are”….. …..


 This means getting comfortable with discomfort.

Even a bed of nails can be quite comfortable if you distribute your weight properly.

Getting comfortable with discomfort is possibly the most important skill a person can learn in life. In some ways we have spent our whole lives learning how to do it well. Think about it. How many things were once uncomfortable for you which you now accept without difficulty? As children we get bored if we are not entertained every minute of every day. As you have grown up you have probably learned to value/make use of your “quiet time”. What child welcomes being asked to clean their room? (If your children do then you are a very lucky parent.) And yet…as you have grown you have learned to appreciate that vacuuming can be therapeutic. Exercise…it CAN be uncomfortable can’t it? Have you learned to welcome exercise and feel good about doing it anyway? Vegetables? Do you now eat foods you once disliked? What else that may be considered essentially uncomfortable have you learned to accept as comfortable in your life? Work (HAVING to be somewhere when you might prefer to kick back for the day in the sunshine) perhaps? Having children (screaming, mess making.) in your house? Beurocracy? …Taxes?.

We could go on…..the point is though…..not everything in life is naturally “comfortable” is it? You have a natural ability to desensitise yourself to discomfort. You have been doing it your whole life and you are reasonably expert in the art of being comfortable with discomfort. Consider: Do people live “happy” lives DESPITE having to work, look after children, pay taxes, eat brussel sprouts, go jogging, and fill out forms? Yes…of course…..many people do. In fact, studies have shown that many people who live disadvantaged lives are just as likely to feel “happy” with their lives as those apparently advantaged by wealth etc. Apparently, people synthesize happiness when they are happy with their circumstances, regardless of what their circumstances are (If you can’t be with the one you love then love the one you’re with.). We all know that there are many disadvantaged/disabled people who lead amazing lives. If we know people do it, then it must be possible.

So the assumption that the presence of discomfort in our lives means we cannot be happy is fundamentally flawed…..

Wouldn’t you agree?

What happens though if you don’t get okay with the everyday discomforts of life? Stress…. is what happens. Raging…. is what happens. Feeling trapped/cheated/angry at life…. is what happens. We resent the kids, hate our boss, get angry in traffic, eat too much, drink too much, manage our money badly, feel irritated, impatient, irrational, emotional, out of control.

We’re certainly not happy when we’re not okay with discomfort. We’ll be even more deeply unhappy if we believe that life SHOUL D be consistently comfortable, because now we feel cheated too. If we’re expecting life to be completely comfortable in every moment we will be constantly disappointed when life does not meet our expectations. We’ll look at everyone else and say “Well they seem happy….why am I having such a hard time?” (They’re okay incidentally because they are good at being comfortable with discomfort…not because they don’t have any.). Feeling constantly disappointed that life isn’t meeting ones expectations feels very much like something is “wrong”. The “wrong” feeling is read by the emotional mind as a threat, and as you know being threatened creates anxiety. In fact it’s clearly a cognitive mistake to believe that life SHOULD or MUST be comfortable at all times, because everyone knows that the two things you can be sure of in life are death and taxes (to mention but only two), and neither are intrinsically comfortable; though interestingly we can get comfortable with both. So a key component of happiness is this:

To be happy it is not necessary to have a life free from discomfort. To expect life to be free from discomfort is the surest way to stay unhappy. True happiness in life is created by accepting discomfort as an inevitable part of life and learning to be comfortable in its presence.

Now of course, I know you probably know this. Like I said already, you’re an expert in being comfortable with discomfort. The thing is though, nowhere is this understanding more important than when it comes to dealing with the discomfort of negative feelings or the discomfort of being plagued with negative thoughts.

In a worldwide survey approximately 80% of the worlds population said that they experience disturbing thoughts sometimes. What is particularly interesting about this study is that the results are the same across cultures. It doesn’t matter where you ask the question or who you ask, 80% of us say we are sometimes troubled by negative and disturbing thoughts. So it seems that negative thoughts are simply part of being human and owning a brain. So you can stop being alarmed that you had a wicked or unpleasant thought now ok? It doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means you have a brain. Largely, we’ve just dealt with thoughts and how to not “buy in” to them. Though we can’t necessarily immediately stop negative thoughts happening, we can clearly learn to relate to them as a by product of having a brain and stop becoming emotionally aroused by them whilst continuing to practice critical thinking (thinking clearly).

It should by now be clear to you that the same is also true for feelings…..everybody has difficult and uncomfortable feelings to deal with sometimes. The trick is to get comfortable with them. I guarantee you that you will have negative feelings to deal with in life…..but you can become so expert in dealing with them that, like eating sprouts and paying your taxes (you know I really don’t like sprouts), they will cease to be a problem. Here’s how….

Sitting With Discomfort

We live in a culture that tells us that bad feelings are wrong. Furthermore we live in a culture that tells us that there is something “wrong” with us if we have negative feelings (There’s that “should” again....i.e You “SHOULD” feel great or there is something wrong with you). You can blame the media for this. You are constantly bombarded with images and ideals of perfect actors leading perfect lives. Consequently when we have negative feelings we freak out and believe that we must be in some way “damaged”. Let’s bust that myth right now. Below are the figures. They are a little depressing in themselves, but when we understand why so many people are unwell, we needn’t worry that we have to be a part of those statistics. The fact is, it is partly our cultural lack of understanding about negative feelings, namely that we MUST not feel negative feelings that is causing and maintaining our sense of alarm. Our cultural belief that negative feelings are “wrong” is actually causing high alarm in those that feel them, and you know what happens when we get alarmed right?

What you resist persists…..

Consider that feelings are like messengers. If we are “open” to receiving the message then the messenger can deliver the message and leave. If however, the messenger arrives and the door is bolted shut, then the messenger has a problem. Now the messenger starts knocking on the door.

“Go away.” we shout.

“I can’t” say’s the messenger, “I am charged with the duty to deliver this message to you”

We peer through the curtains and see that the messenger is carrying a big black box and we’re quite sure there’s something nasty inside.

“I’m not leaving until you open the door.” shouts the messenger, and the knocking gets louder.

“Look…just bugger off will you?. I’m not opening the door….I don’t want to know what’s in the package….just leave me alone and stop worrying me will you.”

Time passes. Then everything is quiet for a while. It seems the messenger has left. We hope he won’t return. Some time later though, there’s a knock at the door….Now we’re wondering…”What’s in the box?” That messenger is pretty persistent. It must be important…..but it looks so menacing. No…opening the door is simply not an option.

“Look, just go away. I don’t want what you have in the box..”

By this time we’re sure that the box contains something unthinkably awful. Our alarm is growing. The messenger is still knocking. A stand-off ensues. We are trapped in our own home by this awful messenger. We can’t go out because we’d have to deal with the message. We are going stir crazy staring at the four walls. We have convinced ourselves that receiving the package is simply not an option, and so we resign ourselves to our fate…alarmed, trapped, frightened. Hopelessness follows.

Then one day, a letter arrives. In the letter are just a few words. It reads:

Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the decision that something else is more important than fear.

We are startled by the simplicity of this message. Oh? Well, perhaps we’ve never really thought of it that way. What could be in the box that’s so awful that it’s worse than being trapped in this house? Is that fear of what’s in the box really more important than freedom? More time passes. It takes a while. Peering out of the window, the box still looks pretty menacing but we consider…the box…..these four walls…the box….four walls? In a moment of madness (for this is how receiving the package feels), courage and resignation we stride up to the door and wrench it open.

“Okay, okay……give me the damn box.” At that very moment we’re expecting the end of the world…….The messenger hands the box over without a word, turns and leaves. Wow. That’s weird? We were expecting some kind of confrontation…….but nothing……so matter of fact…..

With trembling hands and trepidation we pull open the string tied around the dark menacing box and a puff of dust shoots out of the top and rains down all over us. We watch in horror as the dust falls all around us…..and then there is a moment of surrender….bracing ourselves for the very first time…...and then…..we feel it…..we REALLY feel it……..First there is a pang of awfulness……we know why we didn’t want the box…….but this lasts only a moment, and then suddenly, acceptance. We know not from where this acceptance comes, but it is a sweetness all of its own……a deep soothing sweetness…..a relief like none we’ve known before…..and then a stillness……..a quiet soothing stillness……

Suddenly….there’s nobody knocking on the door….the house is quiet again….the door is open…..the sun is shining in.  There’s silence. And, just an empty box on the table…… no sign even of the dust…which it seems has magically vanished ……

"Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain." Kahlil Gibran

So this begins to paint things in a slightly different light doesn’t it? We know that our experience is relative and subjective. When you can actually welcome difficult feelings as a part of life, then your subjective experience of them becomes something to be embraced rather than something to be rejected or avoided. Why would we welcome them? Well, if we can recognise that we’ve learned from other difficulty and eventually overcome it, we can reason that the same will happen again…which in fact it does when we work with it instead of against it. Actually, difficulty helps us to grow. When we are challenged, we are asked to become more than we were. That means creating new perspectives and acquiring new skills. In other words we have to expand our understanding in order to be able to overcome the obstacles facing us. When we welcome this as a fact of life, then we can see that there is something in it for us to welcome difficulty. It doesn’t necessarily make difficulty comfortable, but it does help us to get more comfortable with the discomfort. Thus we avoid raging against “what is”. 

Practical information on "how to get comfortable with discomfort" is available here.

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Copyright John Crawford 2003-2012