“Comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort.” (Peter McWilliams)
One common theme that I’m seeing with human beings in general, especially today, is the avoidance of discomfort. Our society has placed such a negative connotation with the idea of breaking out of your comfort zone into an area of discomfort and I think that this is partly because we are addicted to being comfortable as well as addicted to convenience.
Through my own experience, my life takes on so much meaning when I break out of my comfort zone and dive into uncomfortable situations. I think that this is partly the reason because I am exploring the domain of the unexplored and acquiring new information and experiences that I have never had before. Also, since I am very growth oriented, I get an extremely positive feedback loop when I do put myself into situations that force me to adapt and grow.
From the perspective of biology and survival, we can understand where this addiction to comfort comes from. Every organism on the planet runs away from pain and towards please, including human beings. The reason for this is simply a matter of energy conservation and survival.
Pain is universally avoided in the world when it comes to every organism because pain is not an advantage when it comes to the goal of surviving.
Pleasure is universally sought out by every organism on the planet because pleasure creates a positive feedback loop in the overall context. It is essentially a way to embrace survival and increase the chances of survival success.
This way of living has its advantages at one level of physical and psychological evolution, but, as human beings, we are beyond that level of existence if we want to thrive and become fulfilled. We need to transcend these two forces in life — pain and pleasure — and take on a much more nuanced approach to how we should deal with both pain and pleasure. If we want to thrive in the modern world then we must consciously pick and choose the context in which we should either move towards or away from pleasure as well as pain.
Why is discomfort viewed so negatively today?
There are many reasons why discomfort is viewed in a negative light today, but I think the core root of the problem is the belief that discomfort exclusively brings pain and suffering.
This belief is a false perception of reality because it only shows half of the equation. Discomfort does indeed bring pain and suffering in the beginning stages but it also brings with it new experiences, new opportunities, a source of meaning, and a positive emotion feedback loop.
Let me explain the process of discomfort through a simple equation:
Discomfort (Initial & temporary pain) + Time (Exposure to discomfort) + Experience (The repeated exposure to discomfort) = Personal Growth
Now, why is this equation so important? This equation essentially takes you through the whole process of what it is like to break out of your comfort zone, go through discomfort, and come out of the other side as a stronger and more competent individual.
This is the missing piece that most people who have a negative view of discomfort need to understand: It is absolutely worth it to go through that initial discomfort and pain. The reason for this is because the process of growing stronger is so powerful and liberating that it creates way more meaning to the madness then just sticking in your comfort zone will ever provide. The meaning of being uncomfortable and growing overshadows the temporary comfort of being comfortable.
The Comfort Paradox
There is a tricky paradox that comes with the idea of wanting to become comfortable all the time: Chronic comfort eventually leads to chronic suffering.
What do we mean by this? Well, you would think that seeking and engaging in comfort all the time would bring the most positive feedback loop within one’s life, right? Wrong.
The addiction to comfort and always wanting to engage in it is the quickest path to becoming a miserable individual who lacks any sense of meaning or fullness within their lives. The reason for this is because comfort does not bring growth and all human beings NEED growth in order to get to a meaningful place within their lives. Personal growth is a human Need with a capital ‘N’ and there is no way around it.
The other side of this paradox when it comes to understanding comfort and discomfort is this: The conscious and consistent application of discomfort to one’s life brings the most meaning and fulfillment into one’s life.
By consistently and consciously choosing when to be comfortable, we find ourselves exploring unexplored territory and therefore, learning new things and acting in new ways. Why does this work in terms of creating a meaningful life? As we mentioned above, because you grow as a result of moving past your zone of comfort.
We can therefore come to the conclusion that embracing discomfort leads to meaning which means that if you want to have a meaningful life then you must become uncomfortable.
One other interesting result of becoming uncomfortable is that your zone of comfort expands. You ironically become more comfortable with discomfort and as a result, become a more competent human being in all domains of life.
Clearing Up Contextual Confusions
There can be many ways of misinterpreting what I am saying here.
Firstly, when I talk about embracing discomfort, I clearly do not mean engaging in activities that produce harm to yourself or other individuals. My focus is on the consistent and conscious choosing of discomfort so that you grow stronger as a result; to ultimately become a healthier individual.
Secondly, I am not demonizing comfort. Comfort has a time and place and it is closely associated with things like recovery and rejuvenation. I am in full support of embracing comfort but only after consciously applying discomfort within one’s life. For example, I apply discomfort in the form of a hard workout but then I follow that discomfort up with a meditation practice or some form of recovery; a form of comfort. I do this because the cyclical nature of life is full of wisdom and to the degree that you follow that cyclical pattern is the degree to which you will thrive.
Thirdly, there is an inherent and healthy balance that needs to take place when it comes to the dynamic of both comfort and discomfort. If you become too uncomfortable, you break in some form whether mentally or physically. On the other hand, if you become too comfortable, you don’t grow. The power lies in striking this balance and constantly keeping your eye and awareness on how this dynamic is playing on in your own life.
How does this look in reality?
Below, I will provide some clear examples of how a healthy balance is achieved when it comes to the two forces of comfort and discomfort.
Exercising (Discomfort) followed by a light stretch or mediation practice (Comfort)
Taking a cold shower (Discomfort) followed by going for a walk (Comfort)
Working really hard at work (Discomfort) followed by getting a full night’s sleep (Comfort)
Learning a new concept (Discomfort) followed by relating this new concept to a concept that you already understand very well (Comfort)
These are just a few examples of how this cyclical play should look when it comes to the application of both discomfort and comfort. This concept can be applied to nearly everything whether it is getting better with women socially, improving your physical and mental health, learning a new skill, so on and so forth.
Look beyond the cultural standard of always wanting to seek and engage in comfort because that will lead you down a path that you really don’t consciously want. Society is geared towards your addiction to comfort and you can see that all around you in your environment.
“Become healthy by eating chocolate.”
“Create six pack abs in 3 minutes.”
“Buy this new car to feel fulfilled.”
“Use this drug to solve all of your problems.”
Our society is full of these “magic” solutions and “quick fixes” that will only lead you down a path of suffering.
The power lies in going against the societal assumptions and embracing discipline through the conscious application of discomfort and comfort to your life. Once you start to feel the meaning that comes with moving past your comfort zone, you’ll never want to go back to the life of exclusive comfort because you will understand how meaningful the uncomfortable path is.