Nobody likes being uncomfortable, and we especially don’t like being psychologically uncomfortable. I often tell clients that if staying in our comfort zones all the time worked, I’d be all for it. But we all know on some level that this doesn’t work. For most of us, it’s generally easier to push ourselves out of our comfort zones physically, professionally, or financially than it is to do this psychologically.
Discomfort and addiction
This plays into a lot of the things people come to see me about. Drug and alcohol issues and addictions of all kinds are connected to this. The more people use a substance or behavior when they feel something uncomfortable (boredom, depression, anxiety, anger, loneliness, etc.) the less able to tolerate those feelings they become. We could say that the psychological muscle that deals with these feelings gets weaker and weaker the less it is used, and those feelings become more and more uncomfortable. For example, most of us experience some degree of stress related to our jobs. If every night after work, we have a few cocktails in order to feel less stress or anxiety, over time we have less and less ability to simply tolerate those normal feelings. The psychological muscle that tolerates normal stress becomes weak, flabby, and atrophied. When people get sober, over time they learn to sit with these feelings even though they aren't comfortable. The more they stay with the feelings, the less they avoid, the easier it becomes to tolerate the feelings.
Discomfort in marriages
In marriage and couples counseling, I see this play out with people who get into the habit of avoiding talking about difficult things with their partners or spouses. Often it is uncomfortable, but the more you force yourself to talk despite the discomfort, the less likely you are to become disconnected. If couples continue to avoid talking, over time it gets harder and harder to do so.
There’s a lot of talk in popular culture these days about constantly pushing oneself out of one’s comfort zone in every area of life. There's no question that those of us who are able to live our lives this way will experience tremendous growth and success. This is a great goal, but not realistic for most of us. But I like to help people focus on small, doable steps to move out of their comfort zones. Generally, people find when they do take these steps, things work out and their worst fears are never realized.
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