Being Comfortable with Discomfort
Comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort. – Peter McWilliams
In December 2022, Tim and I began slow travelling the world. Since then, we’ve encountered nine countries, 19 cities, eight languages, seven currencies, and more than a dozen culinary and cultural changes.
Neither of us speaks a language other than English, and someone asked me recently how we manage to get by.
While there are English speakers in much of the world, apps like Google Translate, and (when all else fails) hand gestures, by far, the biggest factor that enables us to get by is our ability to be comfortable with discomfort.
When we first started our journey, this wasn’t the case. And when we first started, we were uncomfortable a lot.
When you consider that every time we move to a new location, we must learn how to communicate, pay for things, navigate our new surroundings, locate and operate things in our new accommodation, figure out what’s what in stores and restaurants, and all sorts of other things you do without thinking when you’re in familiar surroundings, even now, we are uncomfortable more than we’re comfortable.
The thing is, we’ve become so accustomed to the discomfort, that it no longer feels uncomfortable. Now it feels like the natural experience of being somewhere new. We not only expect it; we look forward to it.
The more we travel, the better our checklists and processes are for adapting. Of course, it’s impossible to anticipate and prepare for every unknown.
There was a wonderful (and by wonderful, I mean extremely unpleasant) experience early on where we boarded a public bus in a country where there was little information available online to help us prepare. We knew we could pay the driver directly in the local currency, but we had no idea how much the fare would be.
The driver held out his hand as we boarded, and I put a random amount of money in it. He looked at it and said something we didn’t understand, so I gave him more money. He shoved the money away and started yelling. I looked back and saw the passengers on the full bus looking at us, most of them glaring, because we were holding things up.
I grew red hot with embarrassment and started sweating. The driver continued yelling, refusing to move the bus, or offer any guidance to help us. This went on for a very long moment or two, until a merciful soul from the middle of the bus shouted, “Give him two of the red bills!” We did and slinked to the back of the bus.
I remember thinking, “That was awful. The driver was so mean. I’m sure everyone on the bus is thinking, ‘Stupid Americans.’ We’ve thrown off the timing of the entire route for the rest of day.” I continued sweating, my jaw was clinched, my head hurt, and my vision was a little fuzzy.
And then a funny thing happened. I shrugged my shoulders and said to Tim, “Oh well! We did the best could with what we knew. We’re on. We’re safe. We’ll probably never see any of these people again. And who cares if we do?”
Immediately, my vision came into focus, my jaw and head relaxed, and my body temperature lowered.
The reason that unpleasant experience was wonderful is because it reminded me that discomfort is just a feeling. I won’t die from discomfort. I might turn red, sweat, clench my jaw, get a headache, and have a hard time focusing. But it won’t kill me.
It also reminded me that my feelings are a direct result of what I’m thinking, my thoughts are just sentences in my brain, and I’m the only thinker in there.
If this sounds repetitive to other messages you’ve received from me, good. Repetition is the mother of learning.
Your feelings come from your thoughts. You get to choose your thoughts. Every moment of every day, you’re choosing, whether deliberately or not.
To choose thoughts deliberately, it’s helpful to understand that the thoughts you choose must be believable to you, even if only a little.
It’s also helpful to choose ahead of time some go-to thoughts that you can quickly pull out when needed.
When we experience discomfort during our travels, some of my go-to thoughts are:
- I’m safe.*
- Everything is figureoutable.*
- We’re getting smarter all the time.
- It’s an adventure.
(* The first two are favorite go-to thoughts of mine for just about every uncomfortable situation in my life.)
I also like to use a process that helps me notice what I’m feeling and then direct it to my mind. For example:
- I feel embarrassed, and I’m embarrassed because I think….
- I feel afraid, and I’m afraid because I think….
- I feel angry, and I’m angry because I think….
When you pinpoint what you’re feeling and become aware of the thoughts generating the feeling, you’re in a position to decide if you want to keep thinking that way (saying those sentences), or if you would like to try on some other thoughts to feel differently.
The more you practice deliberate thinking, the easier it gets and the faster you’ll be able to it.
Feel free to share this message with anyone who might benefit from it, and schedule time with me for more personalized help.
The more you practice tolerating discomfort, the more confidence you’ll gain in your ability to accept new challenges. – Amy Morin
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