Around the Campfire with Laurie: Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
My feet were dangling off the chair lift as I contemplated how far the ground was below my skis. I wondered if I stayed on the chairlift, could I just circle around and get off safely at the bottom? I was in Junior High school and it was my first-time skiing. I felt awkward, scared, and uncomfortable. I wasn’t even at the top of the lift and I was contemplating giving up. Years later, I still vividly remember the color of the walls in the room where I was seeing my first client as part of my field work while working towards my Master’s in Social Work. I can recall a vast number of details of what the woman sitting across from me was saying and the struggles she was facing. In my head however, I was thinking, “wow, this woman has some significant concerns, she should see someone for help.” The light bulb went off and I realized that I was that “someone” and I was not sure that I was ready. Feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and uncomfortable, I wondered if I should give up. Fast forward to this very morning. I had an opportunity to go to a shared workspace in NYC called, The Wing, to spend the morning working and possibly networking too. I had never been to The Wing. I wondered if I could make phone calls while working, if they had coffee, if I find a workspace that felt comfortable, and if the people would be friendly. I thought about going to a Starbucks where I knew the layout or staying in the hotel room I was in, as I was already comfortable there. Forcing myself to press the buttons on the elevator that would bring me to The Wing workspace, I felt nervous, self-conscious, and uncomfortable. I thought about giving up.
None of the above examples, all spanning the four decades of my life, felt good or comfortable. All of the uncomfortable feelings caused me to question myself and what I was doing. In all three moments, I thought about surrendering to the fear and discomfort and giving up. In all three cases, thankfully, I didn’t give up. I got off the ski lift and skied down the mountain. I connected with my client and gave her the support she needed. I checked in at the workspace, had a great coffee, was super productive, and even ran into an Echo Lake Alum! In all examples I had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to do something positive. While skiing, or working with a client, or finding a lovely shared workspace, seem like minor accomplishments in the grand scheme of life, I think that each uncomfortable experience that you face helps you become a little more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Not to mention that this practice of feeling uncomfortable in the relatively less impactful moments is the practice you need to face the bigger and more impactful uncomfortable moments, like your first summer at camp, going off to college, starting a new job, or moving to a new place.
Now, I am not saying that feeling uncomfortable feels good. It is uncomfortable, after all. I am also not saying that feeling uncomfortable ever goes away. At every stage in our lives, from childhood to adulthood, there are moments, big and small, that will make you feel uncomfortable. I think one of the most important skills that we each need to develop as children, teenagers, and adults, is finding a way to be comfortable, feeling uncomfortable. If you do not develop the skill of being comfortable while feeling uncomfortable, then you are, and will stay, stuck. You can not move forward, try new things, meet new people, or grow as a person if you are stuck. The way to get unstuck is to find ways to be comfortable while feeling uncomfortable.
Let’s start with taking smart risks and knowing where your supports are. When I was sitting on the chairlift for the first time, feeling uncomfortable, I knew that many, many, many people go skiing every day and that I took many runs on the bunny hill and knew the basics. I knew that the group instructor was there with guidance and support too. I knew it was a safe risk, I knew what my supports were, and I knew I would never be able to enjoy skiing if I didn’t get off the chairlift and get down that mountain. When I was looking into the eyes of my very first client as a therapist, feeling uncomfortable, I remembered that this was what I was in school to do. I knew I took classes, wrote papers, and reacted thoughtfully to my clients concerns. I knew that my Social Work supervisor was going to review the session with me and was there for guidance and support too. I knew that it was a safe risk, I knew what my supports were, and I knew I would never be able to be a therapist if I didn’t have a first client. This morning when I was stepping into the shared workspace, feeling uncomfortable, I knew that many people before me had walked into the space and figured it out. I knew I had my computer, my phone, and that I could network with people easily. I knew that I had to believe in myself and that however self-conscious I felt, I could face the unknown, believe in who I was, and try this new way of working. I knew that it was a safe risk, I knew what my supports were (in this case, myself!), and I knew I would never be able to enjoy this fantastic place to work if I didn’t face the unknown of going there for the first time.
Whether we are talking about children, teenagers, or adults, we live in a world where instead of finding ways to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable, or trusting our support systems in situation where we are uncomfortable, we see the very feeling of being uncomfortable as “bad” and a thing to avoid. The more we avoid the thing or feeling that makes us uncomfortable the more anxious we become about the uncomfortable feeling. Avoiding the uncomfortable feeling gets in the way of doing the things we want to do, growing as individuals, connecting with others, and truly living the lives we want to live. Ironically, avoiding the uncomfortable feeling does not make us less uncomfortable, but actually makes us anxious. When there is an avoidance of feeling uncomfortable we unconsciously begin to doubt our abilities and become insecure in ourselves. That grows our anxiety and not only makes us anxious about being uncomfortable but makes us anxious about other things too. The anxiety brings more self-doubt and the self-doubt makes us uncomfortable. It is a vicious circle of feeling uncomfortable, avoidance, self-doubt, anxiety, and back to feeling uncomfortable. It keeps us stuck. It keeps us insecure. It keeps us anxious.
The interesting thing is that the antidote for the anxiety, self-doubt, and being stuck is to find comfort in feeling uncomfortable. We have to learn for ourselves that feeling uncomfortable is not harmful, but actually helpful to our growth. We have to allow those around us to feel uncomfortable and not rescue them from that feeling. We have to model that we can feel uncomfortable and get through that feeling by facing it. When feeling uncomfortable in a situation, remind yourself of the preparation you’ve had for that situation, know your support systems, and believe in a positive outcome. Only by finding a level of comfort in the uncomfortable can we push forward in a positive way and embrace life to the fullest.
It starts with the small moments of feeling uncomfortable that on the surface seem like, “what’s the big deal, just don’t feel uncomfortable,” when you avoid the thing that makes you uncomfortable. The problem is that avoiding the smaller moments of feeling uncomfortable not only prevents you from doing the things you want to do but creates a pattern of avoiding and being anxious about feeling uncomfortable. If you don’t get comfortable with being uncomfortable in the smaller moments in life then the bigger moments, the ones that truly matter for us to grow and live life to the fullest, will feel impossible. The good news is, we can get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. We just need to practice. Get on that chairlift, believe in the preparation you get in your education and training, trust in who you are, and try new things. Embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable and teach yourself what you need in those uncomfortable moments to feel that fear, and do that thing anyway. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. You can do it. I can do it. Imagine all the things we can do, both small and big, when we are comfortable with the uncomfortable. We’ve got this. Hey, sorry, I gotta run. I’ve got something uncomfortable that I have to get comfortable with.
Warm and Fuzzy Hugs,