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January 24, 2017

Why It’s Cool to be Uncomfortable

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I’ve been through a lot of changes: jumping career paths; having kids; raising them and sending them off on their own; reinventing my marriage; moving (again and again). What I remember most about all those changes is how much I resisted them.

A quick look at evolutionary biology makes it clear why I resisted so much: change is unsettling and frightening to animals; it’s a step into the unknown that can be deadly. Imagine being that prehistoric human who wandered off the proven safe path to the watering hole and got attacked by the tiger. In those days, straying from the tried and true could end in huge, not to mention irreversible, penalties.

What’s Needed for Change

Today we generally don’t pay such a high or permanent price for change, but that doesn’t make stepping into the unknown of a new job or new relationship any less scary. I resisted these changes by arguing against them, rationalizing them away, or just procrastinating.

My experience is that only two things will overcome my natural resistance to change: a compelling vision of how much better things could be, or extreme dissatisfaction with the way things are.

When our children – we have three – started moving out of the house, my wife and I had the chance to take stock of our relationship and how we wanted it to be going forward. It wasn’t a pretty picture: we both were dissatisfied with the way things were, and felt paralyzed by the thought of changing it. Yes, things could be better, but they weren't terrible and what if we shook things up and ended up getting divorced? That felt a whole lot worse than merely having an adequate relationship.

Vision is Important (But Not Enough)

What tipped the balance for me was seeing my friend Matt and his relationship with his wife. Here was a couple that enjoyed being with each other in a relationship that seemed like a lot more fun than mine. I remember thinking straight from “When Harry Met Sally,” “I’ll have what he’s having.”

That vision of what a marriage could be like pushed me over the edge to step past my resistance and make a change. The dissatisfaction I felt all those months beforehand was also essential to building up enough courage to step out of my comfort zone.

Without that push of dissatisfaction, the pull of vision would not have been enough. By itself the idea that I could have a marriage as much fun as Matt’s would also have been just an unattainable fantasy. It’s the combination of the two that was the magic formula.

Celebrating Dissatisfaction

I used to think one of the main goals in life was to minimize pain and dissatisfaction by creating a comfortable and satisfying life. So I spent a lot of time running away from discomfort, soothing myself with exercise, alcohol, or shopping when I felt uncomfortable, and judging my life to be failing when I felt pain. And while those things worked for a while (years, in some cases), they were just temporarily masking the underlying problem.

Today, while I still don't enjoy discomfort, I appreciate pain’s value to motivate me to change, just as I appreciate how my dreams give me direction for what I want to create next.

My Key Questions

To accelerate and smooth changes in my life today, I ask questions like:

  • “What pain am I trying to run away?”
  • “Am I using distractions like drink or exercise or sex to soothe any discomfort with the way my life currently is?”
  • “How could I stop soothing the pain away and instead combine it with a vision to create what I really want?”

Those questions reliably set me on the path to change. And so far I haven’t encountered any tigers down that path. Want to join me?

If you want to learn more about change and the Change Formula, check out Part 3 of the book, “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership.

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