How avoiding the uncomfortable causes even more distress.
Have you ever avoided a certain situation or failed to take an action because you worried that the outcome would cause you to feel uncomfortable? Maybe you didn’t ask that cute girl you talked with at a coffee shop for her phone number because she might say no. Or perhaps you didn’t go after a raise or a promotion at work, not wanting to deal with potential feelings of rejection and heightened fears about inadequacy. After not taking action, did you regret not being more assertive and taking a risk that could have led to increased fulfillment and joy in your life? Perhaps you thought about what you would do if you had the opportunity for a do-over.
Pretty much all of us can pull up at least one memory about an experience in our lives when we didn’t act. In an attempt to avoid feeling uncomfortable, rather than take a risk and go after something new, we avoid a situation that could cause us to experience unwanted thoughts, feelings, memories and physical sensations, even when doing so keeps us stuck or even creates harm in the long-run. We think we’re remaining “safe” from discomfort as we fall into avoidant patterns and our lives become increasingly limited.
The Uncomfortable Comfort Zone
If all this sounds familiar, you are far from alone. I often encounter both therapy and coaching clients who struggle to take actions that have the potential to cause unwanted distress. This “experiential avoidance,” an acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) term, details the human tendency to avoid taking actions that bring up any discomfort. Rather than engaging in behaviors that could be rewarding and/or opportunities for self-discovery and growth, they remain in the same place, which is arguably even more uncomfortable, especially in the long-run.
This desire to avoid distress ends up being much like a fire in a room. It breeds thoughts, feelings and fears that fuel increased stress, worries and anxiety. The problem is that, much like a fire in a room, you’d escape it if you could; however, the fire is in the brain. Feeling like you have to live with this intense internal experience only creates more distress, which eventually breeds feelings of hopelessness and dissatisfaction in life. Looking for distractions from the chaos that has been created internally, many people seek distractions, such as food, sex, gambling, shopping, alcohol, drugs, etc., in yet another attempt to avoid the uncomfortable.
It’s Time To ACT
The good news is that there is another way of thinking, being and living that includes being more mindful, accepting and self-compassionate, which almost always leads to more joy. Rather than remain stuck in patterns of avoidance that keep you from growing and fully stepping into your life, there are exercises you can do to help gain the personal awareness and insight needed to begin taking healthy risks.
Think back to a time when you abandoned yourself and chose to avoid rather than engage in a situation. Make it a good one—one that you really regret and would love to do over. As you replay the memory, what is the dialogue inside your head? What stories have you created about this time in your life? Our minds are highly creative and love storylines so there’s probably at least few. As you get in touch with the script inside you head, allow yourself to really go back to the moment—into the feelings and story. What comes up for you? What thoughts, feelings and physical sensations arise? And, what were the consequences of you not taking action? Did you beat yourself up afterward? Perhaps engaging in experiential avoidance actually ended up causing you even more distress?
After completing this exercise in awareness, give yourself permission to explore a do-over. If you could go back in time, to that moment when you chose to not act, what would you do? Would you ask for that phone number? Would you have gone after the raise or promotion? As you visualize yourself taking a risk, how do you feel? As you rewrite the story, what comes up for you? And, what could have come out of you taking action in the moment? Maybe the goal was met. Or, maybe it wasn’t, yet you feel proud of yourself for leaning into a challenge and your confidence grows.
I also encourage you to think about a time when you freed yourself from your uncomfortable comfort zone and really did go after something you desired. What happened? How did everything turn out? What was the story you created about yourself afterward?
Expanding Awareness And Breaking Out Of The Comfort Zone
These types of exercises in awareness can help you develop insight into patterns of behavior that may not be serving your most authentic self. And, this awareness and new insights can bring light to the spaces and places in your life that are hungry for change. Lifehacker author Alan Henry offers some great, simple tips on breaking out of a comfort zone and taking action to create change in The Science Behind Breaking Out of Your Zone (and Why You Should).
If you’re still feeling really stuck and uncertain about leaning into rather than resisting a challenge, working with a coach on getting unstuck can also help. Often thinking patterns and behaviors become so engrained that it takes the help of someone with objectivity, skills and experience to help us see into blind spots, learn to know what we don’t know and take thoughtful actions and healthy risks that can truly change our lives.