No one likes pain, discomfort or suffering. Why would we, anyway? Indeed, from the moment we set foot in our life journeys, we are taught to seek and find happiness and comfort. Any situation that would lead to the opposite is to be avoided or short lived. Such philosophy of life is in fact engrained in our DNA and human evolution. Our reptilian brain has served humanity well by protecting our ancestors from dangerous situations via “fight or flight” defense mechanisms. Without necessarily facing physical dangers like our ancestors did, generations after generations, we are being raised with our caretakers running to our fortunes, to minimize any pain or discomfort that might come our way. We have therefore been raised to believe that happiness and comfort are our ultimate goals, while discomfort or pain are situations to avoid in the service of better and happier lives. Add social media to the picture, and we are trapped to believe that “happily ever after” lives and relationships exist…
Paradoxically, such upbringing and culture are in fact in the disservice of better and happier lives. This is because fulfillment, growth and authenticity are often times within reach after journeying through discomfort, pain or suffering. If all our efforts are directed into avoiding those negative feelings or emotions, we might in fact deny ourselves the potential to live more fulfilled and authentic lives.
But why to open up to pain or discomfort as opposed to fighting, fleeing or avoiding them?
- First and foremost, it’s because sooner or later we will inevitably experience pain or suffering. This is despite how much we could work or try to avoid them. So if pain or discomfort are inevitable, we might as well learn how to cope with them. As LaRae Quy candidly puts it in her book, “The Secrets Of A Strong Mind”: “Shit happens. Life is hard. Pain is inevitable. Growth is optional.”
- Secondly and importantly, it’s because discomfort or painful situations are positioning us to break through our most limiting beliefs and areas of growth. While we wouldn’t wish harm to anyone including ourselves, pain or suffering are ironically or paradoxically potentially the biggest gifts of life, because it is during those moments that we draw closer to what and who matters the most to us. Being uncomfortable or in pain is hard and messy,…but only going through it is enabling us to break through.
Three pillars for successfully navigating pain or discomfort are:
- Self-awareness: it is the ability to know and understand our own feelings, emotions, behaviors – to capture and process what happens around and within us. Not surprisingly, in Aristotle’s words, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. Self-awareness is not knowing it all, or getting it right all the time. It is cultivating mindfulness such that we capture signals of information that help us understand ourselves and others in our environment.
- Self-compassion: it is the ability to show self-kindness even when we don’t like what we are seeing. In the book “When Things Fall Apart”, Pema Chodron talks about “the most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” Kristin Neff, a PhD researcher in self-compassion notes how self-compassion is as much about comforting and soothing ourselves as we would do with a best friend, as it is about protecting and providing for ourselves. Furthermore, self-compassion is motivating ourselves in kindness: “self-compassion motivates like a good coach, with kindness, support, and understanding, not harsh criticism.”
- Growth mindset: it is the ability to develop a mindset that as per Carol Dweck in her book “Mindset, The New Psychology Of Success” is “based on the belief that our basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts… With practice, training and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgement and literally to become more intelligent than we were before.” By opposition, a fixed mindset is based on the belief that intelligence and aptitudes are fixed, and nothing can change that. Growth mindset is what leads to continuous pursuit to learn from what happens and mistakes, to embrace challenges and to persevere when obstacles come our way.
Rejecting the idea of pain, discomfort or suffering as signs of defeat or failure allows us to break through our limitations, fake hopes or beliefs. So when pain or discomfort are coming your way, as opposed to fighting them, take courage in digging deeper by practicing self-awareness and self-compassion, and embracing the cold front – it is coming to grow us by design…