We tend to spend our lives in comfortable positions, and I don’t mean laying on the couch watching Netflix. When we stay complacent, we don’t push ourselves out of our comfort zones, and we don’t stretch ourselves to try new things in life or in our careers. But by becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, we can accomplish things that we previously found hard, or even impossible. Discomfort is a sign of progress!
I recently worked with a career coaching client who we’ll call Josh. Josh was looking for a new job in a different industry. He had severe anxiety around networking and “uncomfortable” didn’t even begin to describe it so I knew we were going to have to approach his networking strategy with baby steps. I tasked him to come up with a list of twenty people he already knew who he could talk about his job search with. It didn’t matter if they were in the industry he wanted to move to or not, they just had to be people he knew and who knew him. We had already worked on his personal brand messaging, and he had a list of questions to ask in order to make the conversations lucrative.
Once Josh had successful conversations with that first round of people (also known as his “champions” or friends, family, colleagues), he was able to get referrals to speak with other people he didn’t know but could possibly get him closer to his ideal job. Because speaking with strangers made him uncomfortable, it took a little while longer, but he was able to have successful conversations and build rapport with those individuals. All of that hard work paid off, and Josh ended up landing two interviews. This gave him external validation that this strategy worked.
Many people get a sickening feeling when they think about having to network, but networking doesn’t mean trying to meet as many people as possible. It’s about meeting well-connected people who are willing to refer you to other well-connected people. It’s also all about building relationships, not asking for a handout.
Defining the Difficult
Before we can tackle what makes us uncomfortable, we must first be able to identify it. You’ll likely feel it first in the form of your mood, whether it be anxiety, agitation or anger. Those moods can lead to behaviors such as procrastination, denial, avoidance or even physiological responses in the body such as a faster heartbeat, sweaty palms or shortness of breath. You may notice thoughts pop up such as “I can’t.”
At first, Josh said there was no way he could think of twenty people he knew to call about his job search. But we took a deeper look at that self-talk. I wasn’t asking Josh to list twenty people he knew that worked in the tech industry, just people he already knew that he could discuss his job search with. By starting with this group, you don’t have to sell yourself in any way. These people already know you!
We tell ourselves we can’t do things all of the time, but in order to get comfortable with the uncomfortable we need to identify the resistance and focus on yes, instead of no. Get really clear on what you are saying you can’t do and look for ways on how you can actually do it.
At JMA, our coaches teach our clients that our thoughts influence our moods which affect our behaviors which yield results. But you can enter that formula at any stage. Ask yourself:
- How am I really feeling about this situation?
- What is the name of this emotion? (Our list of 850+ words can help as a reference tool.)
- Should I accept this feeling?
- What is causing me to feel like this?
- What story am I telling myself about this situation?
- What are my beliefs around this situation?
- What if that belief isn’t true?
- What can I learn from this experience?
- How can I choose a different response the next time this challenge or a similar challenge arises?
Another scenario where it is essential for leaders to become comfortable with the uncomfortable is with crucial conversations. These are difficult conversations we must have in life at both work and home. We often shy away from them because we don’t want to make the other person angry. But there’s a real cost to not having that conversation, from losing a valuable employee to obstruction of professional development.
If someone doesn’t feel confident in their ability to engage in these conversations, I might suggest role playing so that they can practice. The more practice you have in uncomfortable situations will make you better the next time you encounter the same scenario. Constantly facing new difficult situations and learning from them will leave you stronger than you were before. At first, this can be incredibly hard but the more you stretch your limits, the easier it becomes.
I hear from clients all of the time that they tried something, and it didn’t work. For example, another client recently told me that she cannot have a conversation with her boss because he simply doesn’t listen. In this case we looked at my client’s belief that her boss doesn’t listen – and we also discussed her trepidation around approaching her boss. Through this, we identified several uncomfortable feelings, such as fear and resignation. She noted that she has tried talking with her boss in the past, and she didn’t feel like her position was considered, so therefore now she believes it would be a waste of time to try again down the line. But just because one conversation in the past didn’t go as planned doesn’t mean the next will be a complete failure. Look at the bigger picture. Maybe you didn’t get the raise you asked for, but your boss now knows that you are depleted or that you have boundaries or that you need additional resources. That’s data that you and your boss can use for future conversations.
When you tell yourself you “can’t” you are internalizing the issue. However, sometimes our brain does some trickery to make us think that something is “impossible” because of extenuating circumstances such as that boss who won’t listen. That’s an external factor and allows us to blame others. Just as we have internal and external motivators, which are two different types of motivators that give us the passion and the will to undertake some action, we also have internal and external justifications for not taking action.
How to Embrace Discomfort
When you put yourself in uncomfortable situations, you will build confidence. The best way to do that is to practice pushing yourself. Start with people and situations that are less risky so that you allow your confidence to build from there, and continue to stretch yourself to more challenging scenarios.
We can take a lesson in becoming comfortable in uncomfortable situations from our favorite athletes. During training, athletes do visualization exercises to help them envision their success whether it’s landing a jump or crossing the finish line first. The next time you are in an uncomfortable situation, envision yourself resolving it successfully and coming out a winner.
Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help you embrace discomfort because it allows you to remain calm in stressful situations. Being mindful helps you accept your experiences —including discomfort — rather than react to them with aversion and avoidance. Mindfulness changes the energy of the immediate environment, even if in subtle ways. A simple diaphragmatic breathing exercise or repeating a mantra over and over again (such as “I am okay “ or “I can do this”) can help you regain focus and control in trying times.
Leaning into uncomfortable feelings and new situations is the path to personal growth. And usually, the amount of discomfort appears larger in our minds than in reality. But it helps to have support. If you need help pushing outside your comfort zone to move your career forward, a coach can help.