By Jeremy Godwin
What is emotional discomfort? How do you deal with it? And, more importantly, should you deal with it? That’s what I’m talking about this week on… Let’s Talk About Mental Health — the weekly podcast about looking after your mental health, with simple ideas you can put into practice immediately.
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This podcast episode was originally released on 22 May, 2022.
Hello and welcome to Episode 132, and thanks so much for joining me!
I’m Jeremy Godwin and I talk about looking after your mental health. I spent most of the 2010’s dealing with severe anxiety and depression, after a breakdown in late 2011, and that led me to want to learn more about my mental health… so I went back to school and studied psychology and sociology, and now I share simple tips for how to improve your mental wellbeing, from someone who actually understands what it’s like to go through mental health challenges. Each episode I look at how to improve one specific aspect of your wellbeing.
This episode is all about discomfort and I’ll be talking about what discomfort is (and what it isn’t), why learning to live with discomfort matters, and how to use discomfort to help you to grow. So, let’s talk!
Very quickly before I begin, I’m happy to announce that my transcripts are now also available in Italian (as well as English and Spanish). Someone reached out to me asking if it was something we could work on together and so from Episode 130 onwards you can now read my work in Italian… so ciao tutti and welcome! Alright, let’s get into today’s topic…
So I usually begin by introducing the topic then diving into definitions, which I will get to in a bit, but I’m going to start a little differently today by sharing a very personal and recent story about discomfort for a few minutes.
I had an experience last week that made me feel so much emotional discomfort it wasn’t even funny, and I’m going to share it here because — even though doing so fills me with discomfort and dread — I’m committed to being open about the ongoing ups and downs that we all face from time to time (myself included) as we go through our own healing journeys.
This goes out on May 22nd (2022) and so two weekends ago it was Mother’s Day here in Australia (and many other countries). Anyone who follows me on Instagram probably knows a bit of what I’m about to discuss, but I’m also going to talk about what happened after that post.
So, Mother’s Day hit me like a ton of bricks this year emotionally and I was not even remotely prepared for it. For a bit of background, my mother and I had been estranged for seven and a half years until mid 2020 when her health declined and a family member asked me to talk with her. I agreed, because it seemed like the right thing to do with the world on fire thanks to the pandemic plus I was dealing with my grief at the loss of our cat around the same time and that shifted my perspective on a lot of things.
Unfortunately, my mother is even more of a nasty and mean-spirited person than ever and, as time progressed, it became harder and harder to continue to expose myself to her toxic behaviour. So, in December 2021, I made the decision to stop talking to her again. It wasn’t easy, but it was the best choice I could make for the sake of my mental health.
That means that this year was the first Mother’s Day since that happened and I suddenly found myself becoming really emotional, especially seeing all the lovely messages people were posting on social media about how great their mother is. For those of us who have parents who aren’t great, we often have to navigate these types of days in a thoughtful way because they can be triggering — I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who has a great relationship with a parent, but it can be tough to see sometimes.
Anyway on the Monday (which was Sunday still in North & South America) it seemed to be even harder to see these types of messages online and I was an emotional mess. Plus I had just rewatched Heartstopper on Netflix (which is fantastic, by the way) and all the positive, supportive parents in that just seemed to remind me that I didn’t ever have that from either parent and I ended up feeling really emotional. Usually I’m fine, but to be honest my feelings on all of that are more something I’ve suppressed than actually dealt with. So, I channelled my pain into a post on Insta which was focused on helping others, and I mentioned that I had a session with my therapist booked in for that afternoon.
So that’s where the discomfort comes in, because when I started to tell her what I was feeling I began to break down and I ended up having to switch the camera off on our Zoom call, which is something I have never done before. I was dealing with so much discomfort because we were digging into the ‘why’ behind my emotions and I found myself on the verge of completely breaking down in tears… and then, suddenly, I just couldn’t bring myself to let someone else see it because I felt like I needed all of my energy to protect myself and stop it from flooding out. I fought really hard against letting it out, and later I told my therapist that it had felt like I was on the edge of a waterfall trying to hold back a tidal wave of emotions, and it just felt like too much to even consider letting that out.
It took me a few days to kind-of recover from that (not helped by the fact that I then caught a head cold) and I still have a lot of work to do to tackle the source of those feelings, and frankly I feel pretty tender about the whole thing (but apparently my answer to that is to tell the whole internet about it and make myself experience even more discomfort!).
Here’s the point of all this: healing is difficult work. Letting things out comes with discomfort. Growth and change are not comfortable. But the alternative is worse, because the alternative is to carry this stuff around with you for the rest of your life and let it eat away at your soul and destroy your happiness. The alternative to some discomfort is to stay safe, but that safety isn’t really safe… all it is is denial. When it comes to mental health, we probably all want to feel better but that requires us doing some uncomfortable work sometimes. I talked about courage in Episode 130 and sometimes I forget to listen to my own advice, but today I’m reminding myself that courage is the thing that helps to push us forward — and it will inevitably come with some discomfort, because if it doesn’t then you’re probably not digging deep enough!
So, let’s get into some definitions and let’s talk about…
What is discomfort?
And the word ‘discomfort’ describes the sensation of feeling uneasy, anxious, or embarrassed (plus it can also describe the sensation of feeling physically uncomfortable).
In an emotional sense, ‘discomfort’ is that thing we feel when something is pushing us out of our comfort zone and challenging us in ways that might feel awkward or even confronting.
Now, before I go any further, let me be very clear and say that there is an enormous difference between discomfort and distress; one makes you feel uneasy, the other makes you feel unsafe. Comfort is a funny old thing, in that it goes hand-in-hand with our need for safety and security, however it can also hold us back from challenging ourselves so that we can grow. Growth is a good thing and it requires you to push yourself out of your comfort zone and into the learning zone, but if you push too far (or if someone else pushes you too far) then you end up in the terror zone, which isn’t a particularly helpful place to be because then all of our self-protection instincts kick in. Think of it this way: if you want to start running but you’ve never run a day in your life, then maybe trying out for the Olympics might be a stretch too far at the beginning; instead, you build up your skills and ability little by little over time until you feel more comfortable. That means pushing yourself to do things that make you feel discomfort (like running even when your legs say “What are you doing to us?”) but you don’t want to go too hard or you will end up in distress.
When we feel confronted or challenged, we can often react with emotional responses like fear, insecurity, resistance, withdrawal, denial and even outright hostility (whether that’s towards someone else or even towards yourself), but those reactions aren’t necessarily a bad thing; they’re simply showing you that you have some strong feelings, and strong feelings are a sign that something needs your attention. Which, funnily enough, brings me to the next part of today’s topic…
Why learning to live with discomfort matters
And it matters because if you want to grow, then you have to accept that growth involves discomfort. I’m going to trot out two clichés now that hold a massive amount of truth (and are ones I say a fair bit in my work). First, if nothing changes then nothing changes. And second, ships aren’t built to just stay safe in the harbour. Look, I wish there were some magic pill you could pop or a simple exercise you could do that would make all the icky stuff just evaporate, but there isn’t. The only way through it is through it, and that means it’s probably going to be a bit uncomfortable sometimes. Sure, you can stay safe in your little bubble and never push yourself to do or be anything other than what you are right now, but I’m going to guess that you’re listening to this podcast because you want to do and be more than what you are right now. If you’ve ever wanted to change your circumstances for the better, then you’re going to need to learn how to make friends with a bit of emotional discomfort. That’s the thing that often blocks many of us from pushing ourselves beyond where we’re at now, because even if we’re not happy with our lives today they still feel familiar… and familiar equals safe, as far as our brains our concerned. Uncertainty is fairly confronting to the human brain, because our instinct is usually that we just want to be able to keep ourselves safe and warm in a familiar setting (and I covered uncertainty back in Episode 25, although it’s from the start of the pandemic so it’s pretty clear in it what type of uncertainty I was talking about!).
Let me give you a slightly-random example of what I’m talking about here in terms of the discomfort that usually comes with change. If you’ve ever worked in the corporate sector then you probably would have seen how poorly people respond to change — any change, even if it means they’ll be better off — because we try to control our reality by sticking with what we know. People in many workplaces often become incredibly protective of their work environment, both physically and generally in the sense of how things are done, and it can lead to some very interesting reactions if and when change becomes necessary (which, let’s face it, is inevitable in any business; circumstances change and the business must either adapt or fall behind). I once had to tell my team that we were moving to a different part of the floor we worked on, and even though it wasn’t my choice in my mind I thought it was a great thing because we were finally getting window seats, but from the way most of them responded you would think I had told them they needed to sacrifice everything they held near and dear! They were fine eventually, by the way, but the point I’m making here is that emotional discomfort is one of those things that might not necessarily make sense on paper (especially if we’re feeling that way about something that is good for us) but it’s a natural reaction to being pushed out of our comfort zone.
When you think about your emotional wellbeing, it’s probably fair to say that we all experience a mix of the good, the bad and the outright challenging depending on where we’re at in our lives and what’s going on at any given time. The emotions that make us feel a bit uncomfortable are the ones that highlight where we have an opportunity to learn more about who we are as a person (and who we are not), and that is what then shows us where we can grow. Learning how to do that can take a lot of work and it also requires you to be honest with yourself about any capacity for resistance and self sabotage you might have (and I covered self sabotage back in Episode 126).
So how do you do all of that? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of today’s episode and let’s talk about…
How to use discomfort to help you to grow
OK, let’s begin with one that I talk about a lot and it is cultivate your self awareness — and the reason why I suggest this so often is that in order to move forward in life you have to know yourself… and I mean really know yourself, as in the good and the not-so-good. We can so often build up a story in our minds of who we are but sometimes that involves suppressing parts of ourselves that make us feel uncomfortable… but those are the bits that have a lot to teach us about who we really are, so that we can learn how to be our most authentic self (and that matters because it’s one of the main ways that we find greater satisfaction in life). I covered self awareness back in Episode 62 and authenticity in Episode 55, so check those out for more. OK, my next point is…
Feel what you need to feel (without wallowing in it) — because your feelings are totally valid, however I will take this opportunity to highlight that feelings (and thoughts) are not facts, so you need to be able to find the balance between letting yourself feel your feelings without allowing them to completely take over (mainly because there are some feelings that can do more harm than good, like fear and insecurity). Feelings shouldn’t be avoided, however, and I say that because, somehow, we’ve ended up in a world where we all know that feelings are part and parcel of the human experience, yet at the same time we’re expected to just suck it up if we feel poorly. Which, quite frankly, is rubbish. I don’t think any of us should be purely driven by our feelings (because then we’d end up with a whole bunch of narcissistic, self-absorbed people walking around) but, at the same time, denying your feelings is a futile endeavour… denial does not help you and it doesn’t help anyone else, either. The best way to approach feelings is to be conscious about finding a balance between emotions and logic, because the decisions that you make in life should engage both your head and your heart in equal measure. I covered feelings back in Episode 28 and finding balance in Episode 49 if you’d like to explore those topics in more detail. OK, so speaking of feelings, my next point is…
Know that feeling discomfort is part of growth — and I’ve made this point a few times today, and I’m going to make it more specifically here primarily because I can say it all I like but unless you believe it then it probably won’t help one way or the other. I want you to think about all the skills that you’ve developed over time to get to the point in your life where you’re at now… you probably wouldn’t have been instantly great at anything you tried to do, but with time and effort and persistence you have been able to build your capability, even though it probably wasn’t easy to begin with. If you had just given up at the first sign of discomfort then you wouldn’t know what you know now or be able to do what you can do now… so, accept that if you want to grow then you need to suck up a bit of discomfort. I talked about persistence last week in Episode 131, so check that out for more on the whole ‘sticking with it’ thing. OK, next…
Name what sits underneath your discomfort — and this is about taking that self awareness thing I said before and expanding it even further. If you feel discomfort, don’t just go “oh, that doesn’t feel great” but instead dig deep to understand exactly what it is you’re feeling and, more importantly, why… because that gives you a clearer idea of what you need to focus on in order to move forward. My coach just did this with me the other day; I was talking about fear and instead of just letting me use that word she pushed me to dig deeper into what specifically sat underneath all of that and what type of fear it was; it turned out to be fear of rejection, which is its own very particular type of fear and so therefore something that you would handle differently to, say, fear of failure. If you need some help with this, I’ve included a link in the transcript to an article by a US counselling group called Eddins Counseling which explores tips for getting in touch with your feelings; find it at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes and that’s linked in the episode description on whatever platform you’re listening to me on (source: https://eddinscounseling.com/how-to-achieve-emotional-intelligence/). OK, next…
Know the difference between helpful and unhelpful emotions — because every emotion can actually be helpful, depending on the situation and the general circumstances… but knowing the difference between helpful versus unhelpful emotions enables you to channel your attention towards a more objective way of dealing with your emotions (regardless of whether they’re so-called ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ emotions). For example, fear can be helpful because it can actually drive us to want to do better, which is useful if you can learn to harness it in a healthy way, whereas more negative types of fear can be unhelpful, especially if it becomes overwhelming (because then you often end up having the fight, flight or freeze response which doesn’t actually serve any helpful purpose other than keeping you safe… great if you need protecting from being eaten by tigers, not so great if you need to make positive changes in your life but you’re feeling too uncomfortable). I talked about emotions back in Episode 57 and fear in Episode 10, so you might find those helpful to explore. OK, next…
Be honest with yourself about your comfort zone — and by this I simply mean to really be honest with yourself about what you’re settling for in life just because it’s comfortable. Just because something is familiar that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good or healthy for you. And speaking of, my next point is…
Challenge yourself — because if you want to grow then you need to challenge yourself to grow, and be willing to feel a bit uncomfortable while you do so. That could mean learning new skills, trying new things, meeting new people or putting yourself in unfamiliar situations like a social group or a night class. I’m going to roll out another cliché here: if you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you always got. If you’re not sure where to start with challenging yourself, then try my next point which is…
Identify your priorities and focus on them — because there are at least 50 million different things that you could possibly choose to do with your life, and so instead of just chucking everything at the wall and seeing what sticks you can start by becoming clear on what matters most to you in your life and then working from there. One of my main priorities in life is to do work that feels meaningful and where I can express myself creatively, and so that’s why I do what I do here on the podcast as well as in my weekly YouTube videos about mental health and in my writing. Don’t try to do everything; just do the things that genuinely matter most to you. OK, moving on, if you’re in the middle of dealing with discomfort then I highly recommend my next point which is…
Let it out — because when you carry those feelings around they will weigh you down. In the words of Tears for Fears: shout, shout, let it all out, these are the things I can do without. Honestly, you don’t need to carry the weight of discomfort around with you; get it out. Talk to someone you trust or journal to process your feelings. You could also get support by working with someone like a coach or a counsellor (which is my preferred approach because I like the more objective nature of that type of interaction). OK, so my next point is all about dealing with the discomfort that comes with confronting your discomfort and it is…
Take small steps — because you cannot go from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye; all things take time and instead of rushing yourself (which can set you up for failure), instead take things one step at a time so that you can learn to become more comfortable with discomfort little by little.
And having said all of that, there is one more thing I want to be very clear about which is that if your discomfort has progressed more into distress, seek support as soon as possible from an appropriate professional like a doctor or counsellor. I say this because emotional distress can very quickly spiral out of control and is often a hallmark of conditions like depression and anxiety, so please ensure that you get some help if you’re experiencing a high level of emotional distress.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to discomfort and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Life is not comfortable. Well, it can be, but when we’re comfortable we’re not challenging ourselves, and when we’re not challenging ourselves then we’re not growing. The whole point of life is to be the very best version of yourself possible and you do that by challenging yourself to grow a little each day. That’s going to come with a side order of discomfort every now and then, however instead of being a bad thing it’s actually a sign that we’re pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone and making choices that are going to help us to evolve.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:
“Comfort is the enemy of progress.”Unknown
Alright… that’s nearly it for this week.
Next week I’ll be talking about self control. If we were to just act on every single thought or impulse we have then the world would be a big old mess… however, the other end of that spectrum is not to go too far from being your true authentic self because then you deny yourself your own reality and that takes away from your life satisfaction. So how do you find the balance? And what actually is healthy self control? Well, next time I’ll be talking about what self control is (and what it isn’t), why self control matters, and how to develop a healthy sense of self control.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 29th of May, 2022.
If this episode helped you then I’d love it if you left a five-star review on the platform you’re listening to me on, or head over to my Instagram @ltamentalhealth and let me know. And if you’d like to support me and my work then I have a Patreon where I offer exclusive benefits for my supporters; you’ll find the link in the episode description, plus it’s linked on my website at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au (where you can also sign up for my free newsletter, where I share a quick dose of mental health inspiration every Thursday).
And I also have a YouTube channel where I publish new videos every Wednesday… so, if you’d like even more content about looking after your mental health, join me over there (and that’s linked in the episode description as well)!
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time!
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2022 Jeremy Godwin.
The information provided in this episode is for general awareness on the topic and does not constitute advice. You should consult a doctor and/or a mental health professional if you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing. You’ll find additional information on the Resources page of this website.