“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” are the wise words of author Neale Donald Walsch (who also happens to be the author of Mindvalley’s Awaken the Species Quest) — and that’s a place called the discomfort zone.
When you challenge yourself and do something new, you stand to gain a great deal from it. Awesome moments and authentic connections — a.k.a magic — happen beyond your bubble of comfort.
But if the discomfort zone is like Alice’s magical Wonderland, why do so many of us go out of our way to steer clear of it? And what causes it?
Here’s why discomfort is such a big deal and how you can use it as your rocket fuel for your greater good.
Oh, Hello, Discomfort
If comfort is Alice’s perception of the world — orderly, stable, and safe — before she falls down the rabbit hole, then discomfort is Wonderland — bound to challenge all that she knows of the “real” world.
What’s discomfort, really? Physical ailments aside, the kind of discomfort we’re highlighting here is the feeling you get when you’re out of your safe and controlled environment.
For instance, meditating brings discomfort for some people. And for others, it could be meeting up with people, eating alone, setting boundaries, focusing on a task at hand, acknowledging a problem, divorce, and the list can go on and on.
Sure, no one likes being put in situations where they feel exposed and uncomfortable. They’d much prefer to stay in their own bubble.
All human behavior is driven by one thing: the desire to escape discomfort. Even wanting something is uncomfortable. Thus, everything we do is a reaction to that sensation.— Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life
So when something comes up and causes us discomfort, we often find ourselves seeking an escape from reality. This is when our distractions come in.
The Triggers We Seek to Escape
The uncomfortable truth is this: distractions are an unhealthy escape from reality.
These escapes can come in the form of scrolling through our social media feeds, spending more time at work, binging on Netflix, spacing out to a mental image of you on a beach… and in some hard-core cases, drinking or taking drugs.
According to Nir, there are four factors that create internal triggers that we so desperately seek to escape.
Many of us, it seems, don’t enjoy spending our time in our own heads.
In fact, a study published by the journal, Science, found “most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”
The participants were asked to sit in a room for only 15 minutes with no distractions except for a mild electric shock device. Sure enough, out of the 42 test subjects, 18 of them chose to give themselves at least one mild shock during their alone time.
(Is this why Alice threw herself down the rabbit hole? Maybe…)
2. Negativity bias
Have you ever found yourself fixating on an insult? Or dwelling on not making a bad first impression?
When we’re being criticized, we often feel a greater impact than when we receive a compliment. Bad news is usually more sensational than good. (And that’s probably why the media focuses on the doom and gloom over the sunshine and roses.)
This is negativity bias at its finest. “It appears to be a basic, pervasive fact of psychology that bad is stronger than good,” according to Nir.
It does give us an evolutionary advantage, though. “Good things are nice, but bad things can kill you,” Nir says, adding this is why we remember and pay attention to the bad stuff first.
This trigger is our tendency to keep thinking about bad situations, which can be caused by:
- Stressors, like getting fired
- A traumatic event
- Striving for perfection
- Low self-esteem
- Facing a stressful situation, like an exam
- Facing a fear
- Being reminded of a past mistake or failure
Nir explains, “if you’ve ever chewed on something in your mind that you did or someone did to you over and over again seemingly unable to stop thinking about it, you’ve experienced rumination.”
4. Hedonic adaptation
When we experience good things, like falling in love or getting a salary increase, we feel a boost in happiness. Over time, that feeling fades back to a baseline.
The same goes when we experience a loss or setback… and over time, that feeling of despair dissipates and we’re back at the baseline level.
This is known as hedonic adaptation — the tendency to return to our set points following major, positive and negative, life events.
Every desirable experience — passionate love, spiritual high, the pleasure of a new possession, the exhilaration of success — is transitory.— David Myers, author of The Pursuit of Happiness
By understanding which of the four factors (or all of them) trigger you, you can use it as a power that can be channeled to help you make things better.
Use Discomfort as Your Rocket Fuel
You now know your distractions aren’t the real problem, but your triggers are. So what can you do about it? Here are a few ways to use them to your advantage:
- Be Present: Being in the moment, mindfully, may allow you to see things from a broader perspective. Quite possibly, you may uncover some underlying beliefs and assumptions that contribute to your dissatisfaction with life. Plus, it can help lessen your mood disturbance and stress.
- Allow the Discomfort to Pass: Emotions typically come in waves — sometimes, you’re happy, and sometimes, you’re sad. It’s just part of being human. As you’re working on being in the moment, embrace any and all emotions that crop up.
- Build Resilience: Resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of threat,” according to the American Psychological Association. Your discomfort zone can give you a chance to train your brain to build emotional resilience.
And when you use discomfort to your advantage, it triggers a part of the brain to release dopamine, the happy chemical. The kicker here is that this part of the brain is activated only when you see or experience something completely new.
So when you find yourself in a state of discomfort, remember this: use it to motivate you, rather than letting it defeat you.
Exploring your discomfort zone is following the White Rabbit, listening to the Cheshire Cat, trusting the Caterpillar, eating the magic mushroom, and befriending the Mad Hatter. Scary, but it makes for a great story.
And if you need some help honing in on that power, you can find guidance and support from Nir Eyal in Mindvalley’s Be Focused and Indistractable Quest. If you’re a Mindvalley Member, it’s already available for you now in your account.