May 21, 2024



Embracing Discomfort: Discovering the Unexpected Journey to a Life of Purpose

5 min read

‍Photo by ElisaRiva on Pixabay

## Introduction

Life is filled with paradoxes, and one of them is that our greatest meaning often arises from our greatest pain. As psychologist Diana Hill explains, engaging in challenging yet meaningful activities can lead to a more fulfilling life. In this article, we will explore six strategies to help you lean into discomfort, cultivate resilience, and expand your flexibility. By embracing discomfort, you can unlock new levels of personal growth and find deeper meaning in your life.

The Coupling of Pain and Meaning

According to Steven Hayes, founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), “You hurt where you care.” This connection between pain and meaning is evident when we consider activities that are both uncomfortable and meaningful. Take a moment to reflect on the following list:

  • Saying no to people, projects, and activities when your plate is full
  • Resolving a conflict with a family member
  • Listening with an open mind to someone who has a different political view than yours
  • Waking up early to move your body, even when you are exhausted and it’s dark outside
  • Completing a challenging workout, race, or other physical task
  • Visiting a loved one in the hospital
  • Staying at an event when you feel socially anxious
  • Turning down a drink, food, or other substance at a social event when you know you have had enough
  • Traveling with young kids
  • Asking for time off from work to care for your mental health

These activities require us to step out of our comfort zones and face discomfort. By engaging in them, we demonstrate our commitment to what truly matters to us. A meaningful life is not a pain-free life, but rather one where we embrace discomfort as a means to grow and find purpose.

The Pleasure of Pain

Contrary to popular belief, experiencing pain can actually be pleasurable in its own right. Activities such as hot yoga, deep tissue massage, eating spicy food, and running long distances create contrast, provide a break from self-rumination, and socially signal strength and competence. Paul Bloom, author of “The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning,” suggests that these activities can be enjoyable because they offer a balance between pleasure and pain.

Additionally, pain plays a role in our brain’s dopamine balance. When pleasure centers are hyperstimulated with dopamine, we may experience dysphoria. Our brain seeks homeostasis by increasing pain to counterbalance excessive pleasure. Paradoxically, taking a “dopamine detox” and embracing pain can reset our brain to experience pleasure more fully.

Choosing Pain for Meaning

As a therapist, Diana Hill encourages her clients to choose pain in the service of what is most meaningful to them. This approach is rooted in exposure therapy, which involves moving toward discomfort to expand our “zone of flexibility.” By embracing pain and discomfort, we can live richer and fuller lives. Here are six strategies to help you expand your flexibility in the presence of discomfort:

1. Focus on the Power of Choice

Having a sense of agency and choice is a powerful psychological tool when it comes to dealing with pain. By choosing to experience pain instead of resisting it, we change our relationship with discomfort. Even when faced with activities that feel imposed upon us, we can shift our mindset to a “yes brain” approach. For example, attending a social event becomes a choice we make rather than a duty we are forced into. By choosing to take a step toward what is uncomfortable, especially when it aligns with our values, we empower ourselves to grow and find meaning.

2. Turn Up the Meaning Dial

When we are in pain, it’s easy to become consumed by it and lose sight of what’s important. Imagine having two dials: a pain dial and a meaning dial. Turning up the meaning dial automatically turns up the pain dial. Instead of trying to turn down the meaning dial to avoid discomfort, we can practice making space for discomfort while focusing on the benefits that align with our values. This shift in perspective can enhance our distress tolerance and resilience, allowing us to navigate discomfort with a sense of purpose.

3. Stay Grounded in the Present

The anticipation of pain often amplifies our discomfort. Our minds can create stories about the future that magnify our fears. However, by staying grounded in the present moment, we can free ourselves from these anticipatory anxieties. When entering an uncomfortable situation, focusing on the present moment and accepting the discomfort of that particular moment can alleviate unnecessary suffering. Rather than tolerating future pain, we learn to accept the discomfort of the present moment, making it more manageable.

4. Physicalize Your Discomfort

Worrying and ruminating are common ways we try to control pain. However, physicalizing discomfort can help us shift our focus away from our thoughts and into the sensations of our bodies. When faced with physical or emotional discomfort, try turning toward it in your body. Describe the discomfort’s shape, color, movement, or weight. By observing and befriending our discomfort, we give our minds a new focus and develop an observer-self that recognizes we are not defined by our pain. This practice can make pain less intimidating and more manageable.

5. Expand Your Perspective

When we are in discomfort, our attention tends to narrow, focusing solely on the negative stimuli or threats. However, expanding our perspective can help us gain a broader view of our experiences. By reflecting on past challenges that were meaningful and uncomfortable, we can remind ourselves of our capacity to grow and adapt. Additionally, recognizing that discomfort is a universal part of the human experience allows us to connect with others and find solace in our shared struggles. Building mastery, nurturing relationships, and learning new skills are uncomfortable for everyone, but they offer tremendous opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment.

6. Transcend Yourself

Choosing pain and discomfort can have a positive impact not only on ourselves but also on others. Acts of service, compassion, and standing up for justice often involve discomfort. By embracing pain in the service of compassion, we cultivate resilience and a courageous mind and heart. Our suffering is interconnected, and by turning toward the suffering of others with understanding and care, we contribute to a more compassionate world. Transcending ourselves in this way is a powerful gift we can give to both others and ourselves.

Embrace Discomfort and Find Freedom

In conclusion, embracing discomfort is a surprising path to a more meaningful life. By leaning into discomfort and engaging in challenging yet meaningful activities, we can cultivate resilience, expand our flexibility, and unlock new levels of personal growth. Remember, a meaningful life is not devoid of pain; rather, it is one where we embrace discomfort as a catalyst for personal transformation. Choose pain, expand your perspective, and transcend yourself to find greater freedom and fulfillment in your life.

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