Behavior change involves repeatedly doing something outside our comfort zone. In fact, one might argue that this is almost the definition of behavior change. So, why does it seem that we are able to do the given behavior so easily at the outset, and yet have such trouble sticking to it in the long run? In my experience, both personally as well as working with many other clients, there is one primary culprit: discomfort. Today, I’d like to shed a little light on this.
It seems to me that discomfort gets a bad rap. We tend to be very disinterested in it, and so rather than experience the discomfort, we much prefer to return to our previous behaviors. And who can blame us? Why would we do something that feels uncomfortable? Especially when we could simply return to a comfortable, steady, routine behavior…?
Oftentimes, we get to a certain point in behavior change (typically about 3-4 weeks in) when the novelty and excitement of (and therefore, the motivation for) doing the new behavior wears off. Let’s face it- it’s only really EXCITING to try and track your macros, or do squat jumps, or plan your meals for so long. When that novelty wears off, we are left with something that’s not comfortable, and now it’s not even really exciting either. This is often where the really hard work comes into play, because we’re no longer fueled by our “novelty motivation.”
It’s at this point then, that it becomes critically important to acknowledge what we GAIN by living with the discomfort. Why continue to experience it? Well, because it is in the discomfort that we GROW. Physical, mental, emotional… each of these types of discomfort can teach us an important lesson. Let’s take physical discomfort- muscle soreness for example, is a sure sign of a good workout where you really challenged your body (to a certain point, of course). How about slight hunger just before a meal… a clear signal that your body is ready to be fueled again. How about mental or emotional discomfort? Maybe it’s sitting quietly with yourself while you think about where your life is headed. Are you walking the right path for you and what you want for your life? Maybe it’s thinking about the behaviors and habits you have that you’re not so proud of (we all have them:). These thoughts and feelings can absolutely be uncomfortable. The problem though, is that without experiencing this discomfort and acknowledging these things, we don’t allow ourselves to be challenged to grow and change direction when need be.
Let’s take an example from my own life. As many of you know, Ray and I were all set to move to South Carolina in August of this year so I could start my postdoc position. It was an incredible opportunity to work with some really high-powered researchers, and I knew it was the logical next step for my career. So, a year prior, I began searching for postdoc positions, and in a whirlwind of applications, interviews, acceptances and rejections, I ended up accepting the position at USC. Not ever really stopping to consider whether this was what I truly wanted, I moved full steam ahead on making plans to move. Then something happened… I took some time away from work and the lab. The dreaded DOWNTIME. Duh Duh DUH… I started reflecting on my life, and questioning whether moving was what I really wanted. Talk about uncomfortable! I remember sitting in my teal safe chair:) and letting my mind wander. I thought to myself, “What if we didn’t move…?” Whoa, Chrissy, take that thought and shove it somewhere it will NEVER come out again. EVER. Too uncomfortable. Then it surfaced again, this time with tears. Each time, I’d push it away. It was uncomfortable to think about. The thought of changing ALL our plans, telling EVERYONE we weren’t going to be moving, letting people down, admitting it wasn’t what I wanted or that I had CHANGED MY MIND. I could literally feel my anxiety rise as I considered all these factors. Ray could tell I was stressing… Like usual, he said to me, “Uh oh, do we need to get out the pink binder?” (That’s the binder full of all my therapy skills, and the answer was yes, we did). I can tell you with nearly 100% certainty that had this been a couple years ago, I would have absolutely ignored these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and moved across the country. But months of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) classes when I was struggling with ED have provided me with MANY skills to regulate emotions and tolerate distress. So, I tolerated the distress as best I could. I talked to Ray and my closest family and friends. Together, Ray and I made the decision to stay put, and, by and large, we haven’t looked back.
I used to completely AVOID discomfort. Awkward situations (hello dating!), new experiences (speaking at Ignite Fort Collins and stumbling over my words), social situations where I didn’t know a single person, putting myself out there (oh, you want me to write a blog about my disordered eating?), trying new physical activities (become a powerlifter?), training for competitions… I could go on and on and on. But what I have come to realize (and will no doubt continue to practice for the rest of my life) is that there are bigger reason for putting yourself in uncomfortable, challenging situations. It’s bigger than simply going on an awkward first date or putting on a singlet to squat in front of a hundred people. We do it because it builds our belief in ourselves. Every time we try something new, something uncomfortable, we grow. We gain a bit of confidence simply in the act of participating. Do I always win when I compete? Ha… Have you SEEN Kimberly Walford deadlift? Are my articles always well received by everyone? No. Am I pretty much always proud of myself after doing it, even when it doesn’t go well? Yep. Do these experiences help me grow and push myself so that the next time around I am even better at whatever it may be? Absolutely.
So, this week, I challenge you to a healthy dose of discomfort. Brainstorm a list of five potentially uncomfortable things you might do this week. Then see what happens when you do one (or more!) of them… Here’s a little secret: at the very least, awkward and uncomfortable situations make for great stories:).