Get discomfortable

a young woman in dark hair sits on a couch. To the left of frame, we can see the shoulder of her counsellor who wears a checked jacket.

Firstly, let me start by acknowledging that ‘discomfortable’ isn’t a real word.

But it wasn’t me who made it up either.

I first heard the word ‘discomfortable’ used by a very clever guy – psychologist, behavioural ethicist, academic and author, Professor Brock Bastian – but where it originates, I have no idea. By the way, if you haven’t read Brock’s book ‘The Other Side of Happiness’, it is one I would recommend getting familiar with.

Why am I so enamoured with this word?

In a world where I am constantly being reminded to be more mindful, more grateful, and more resilient, the notion of facing into and exploring discomfort, rather than away from it, really resonates with me. And as a small business owner, the word ‘discomfortable’ resonates with me as it feels like an appropriate way to describe a fair proportion of my working week.

I am not for a moment saying that I don’t believe being mindful or expressing gratitude has its place – quite the contrary. I am taking a partial swipe at the notion that I simply need to take a breath or think positively in order to flourish, thrive, or just survive in this increasingly complex world. There is no such universal panacea; to believe there is equates to denying reality.

I am not by nature a Negative Nancy (apologies to all those Nancys out there), but I question the benefit of always ‘looking for the good’ in crappy situations that we encounter. And to all you pathological pessimists out there, I am not having a go at you either. I know that you are always right when things go wrong, that science tells us that you in fact have a more accurate view of the world, and you’re more likely to win the ‘how many jellybeans in this jar’ competition, even if it means you aren’t always fun at barbecues.

I just believe there is more to be gained by accepting, facing into and exploring what makes us feel so stressed, fearful, frustrated, annoyed, regretful etc. in situations, than painting over the pain with positive platitudes.

In defence of negative emotions

While there is quite a bit of research to support that a realistically optimistic outlook can be a protective factor when it comes to our mental health, there is also a lot of contemporary research telling us to lean into discomfort and that engaging with negative affect is where we develop real resilience and ‘grow’.

Negative emotions are typically the most informative. They are a window into our sense of purpose, meaning, values and tell us when ‘something isn’t quite right’. They help to focus our attention on areas we need to remedy, better understand, or even accept as one of the inevitable speed bumps we all experience as part of life.

Feeling down, stressed, frustrated or worried, doesn’t equate to a lack resilience or indicate that there is something innately wrong with you. In our modern world of hypersensitivity to anything that doesn’t feel right, it is all too easy to forget that it is not only okay, but completely normal to not be ‘okay’ all the time. While mental ill-health doesn’t discriminate and shouldn’t be taken lightly, we need to be cautious that we don’t start assigning diagnostic labels to normal and inevitable emotional up and downs of life.

Here’s a story to illustrate what I mean.

The other day one of my dear friends told me about his daughter’s soccer team and how one of the girls fractured her wrist and was visibly and vocally distraught on the court. It was quite a shock for the girls, and some were a bit tentative playing afterwards. A small number were still a bit jittery after the game – completely understandable.

I would say after a somewhat distressing situation like this, as a parent you would be safe from scorn if you swung by the local ice cream shop on the way home and bought all the girls a chocolate sundae (which is what my friend did). Not all parents had the same reaction though. One even went to the trouble of organising a ‘psychological trauma debriefing’ session for the girls on the premise that if she didn’t, they would likely develop Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD).

It is a parent’s job to care and support; both parents in this situation were no doubt very well-intended. However when it comes to supporting people’s mental health and wellbeing, positive intentions do not always equate to positive outcomes. The fact is, mandatory trauma counselling is absolutely not the answer in this type of situation. Nor is a quick mindfulness session, chanting positive affirmations or a rapid entry into a gratitude journal.

The reality? It’s completely normal, expected and evolutionarily adaptive to feel a bit jittery after seeing someone get injured. Denying the reality of this, distracting oneself from the reality of life, or trying to find a misguided mechanism to distinguish uncomfortable emotions doesn’t do anyone any favours.

As we navigate life, we will all encounter things we don’t expect, and experience situations we wish we hadn’t. It is normal to feel a little rattled but it doesn’t mean we suddenly meet or are at risk of meeting the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, nor does it mean we lack ‘resilience’.

Emotions in the workplace

In many modern workplaces, resilience has become a somewhat diabolical notion that people should just learn to be more tolerant of intolerable situations. I’d argue that this is a fast track to failure. It’s counterproductive to innovation, and in many situations it’s about as effective as putting a band aid on a tumour.

Resilience isn’t just some universal construct. If we feel we need to be more resilient, what does this actually mean? I would suggest that being resilient is more about how we lean into discomfort and get curious about what is causing or contributing to our emotional state, rather than just lamenting on how it feels wrong, unfair or unjust. Doing this allows us to take action and address the underlying issues.

In practice here’s what this looks like.

  • Am I stressed out because I don’t have the technical skills to work on some parts of my business?
  • Am I frustrated because I can’t get my new staff member to listen to or follow through on instructions?
  • Am I suffering because my personal values are at odds with the new direction my company is taking?
  • Am I losing sleep and getting short with employees because I simply can’t manage my unrealistic workload?

Considering these questions is just the first part. It might not feel like it at the time, but within every crisis, challenge, or discomfortable situation we encounter there will be things we can do and learn, actions we can take.  Don’t just steel yourself and be more ‘resilient’. Get curious. Is it a skills gap, an unhealthy thinking pattern, a cumbersome work process, and what can you do about it?  Being aware of what’s going on is important, but actual action is where the real payoff is.

If you have a sense of dread about tackling another day of running your business, don’t just suck it up. Ask yourself why you feel like this and what you can do to address the situation. If all else fails, what can you do to pivot your offering, change your business model so it actually works for you, delegate to staff, or ask for help from business mentors or mental health professionals? Can you create a business plan that reminds you why you started your business in the first place, where it’s going and how to get there? What is the worst-case scenario, and can you survive it? As to the latter, my guess is probably yes. Perhaps draw back on learnings from Seneca, the stoic philosopher, and accept that we typically suffer more in imagination than we do in reality.

In my 20-year career as a psychologist, I have been privileged to work with thousands of people and hundreds of organisations of all shapes and sizes. Everyone is different, yet there are similarities across them all. The most remarkable people I have worked with have all had a way of voluntarily seeking out opportunities to get discomfortable, accepting adversity that comes their way, learning from it and cracking on. The most positive and successful organisations are always the ones that push their boundaries, avoid complacency and actively look for points of discomfort as an opportunity to innovate, pivot and improve.

Discomfort in action

In a world that is rapidly becoming more complex, challenging and uncertain, I’d encourage everyone to hit pause on their positive affirmations and perhaps seek out opportunities to get voluntarily discomfortable. At a bare minimum, be a little more open, accepting and curious when discomfort enters your life. And, if the shit really hits the fan, reflect on Seneca’s words – ‘To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden’.

Life is hard, and it’s okay to not be okay. But remember, if you’re not okay and it’s been going on for too long, impacting your health, sleep, relationships or self-esteem, don’t just suck it up or find a way to reframe it for your gratitude journal or twist it into some kind of false positive narrative. Do something about it.

There is no shame in seeking support. Quite the opposite, seeking assistance is a sign of strength and healthy problem-solving behaviour.  Awareness without action is futile.

There are many great mental health supports and resources for small business owners. Ahead for business and Black Dog Institute are some of my favourite.