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What We Resist Persists: Embracing Discomfort as a Path to Growth and Resilience

Updated: May 2, 2023

Discomfort is an unavoidable part of life. It comes in many forms, from physical pain to emotional challenges. Our natural instinct is often to avoid or suppress these uncomfortable feelings, but the truth is that avoiding discomfort can actually make it worse. The popular quote "what we resist persists" highlights this fact, and underscores the importance of embracing discomfort in order to overcome it.

Why We Resist Discomfort

There are a number of reasons why we instinctively resist discomfort. One of the most basic is our evolutionary instinct to avoid pain and danger. Our brains are wired to seek out pleasure and avoid pain, which helped our ancestors survive in a hostile world. However, this instinct can be counterproductive in modern society, where discomfort is often a necessary part of personal growth and progress.

In addition to our evolutionary instincts, we are also conditioned by social and cultural norms to avoid discomfort. We are taught from an early age to seek comfort and security, and to avoid situations that may be challenging or risky. This conditioning can be difficult to overcome, but it is essential if we want to grow and thrive.

When we avoid discomfort, we limit ourselves to what is familiar and comfortable, and our world becomes smaller. We may miss out on new experiences, relationships, and opportunities for personal growth. Our focus may become narrow and self-centered as we seek to protect ourselves from discomfort, which can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection.

For example, perhaps you don't like crowds so you stop going to street fairs. You don't like airplanes so you stop traveling. You don't like the music in grocery stores so you get food delivered. These little changes can build up over time and before long you are isolated and stuck in a rut from which it seems impossible to escape.

You can begin to counteract this shrinking effect by leaning in to discomfort rather than avoiding it altogether.

"What We Resist Persists"

Avoidance doesn't work. The quote "what we resist persists" is a powerful reminder of the futility of trying to avoid discomfort. When we resist uncomfortable feelings or situations, we reinforce them in our minds and make them more difficult to overcome. This is because our resistance to discomfort creates a cycle of negative thoughts and emotions, which can make it harder to break free. You are essentially burning a negativity path (or several) in your brain when you focus on those negative thoughts.

But why does this happen? Psychologists believe that our brains process negative experiences differently than positive experiences. Negative experiences are often more deeply ingrained in our memories, and our brains are wired to focus on them more intensely. This is why resisting discomfort can actually make it worse – we are giving those negative experiences more power and attention.

The Neuroscience of Negativity Bias

The phenomenon of negativity bias is a well-studied aspect of human psychology. It refers to the tendency for our brains to focus more on negative experiences than positive experiences. This bias is thought to have evolutionary roots, as it helped our ancestors to survive in dangerous environments. However, in modern society, this bias can be counterproductive, leading us to overestimate the negative aspects of a situation and underestimate the positive aspects.

Studies have shown that negativity bias can be observed at the neural level. When we encounter negative stimuli, such as images of threatening animals or words associated with pain, our brains show a stronger response than when we encounter positive stimuli, such as images of food or words associated with pleasure. This suggests that our brains are wired to prioritize negative information over positive information.

Countering Negativity Bias

Fortunately, there are strategies that can help counteract negativity bias. One such strategy is to consciously focus on positive experiences and emotions. This can be done through practices such as gratitude journaling, where we write down things we are grateful for each day. By focusing on positive experiences, we can train our brains to become more attuned to the positive aspects of a situation, and reduce our tendency to focus on negative experiences.

Another strategy is to challenge our negative thoughts and beliefs. Often, negative thoughts can be based on inaccurate or distorted beliefs about ourselves or the world around us. By examining these beliefs and questioning their validity, we can develop a more balanced and realistic perspective. This can help us to reduce the impact of negative experiences and emotions, and build resilience in the face of discomfort.

Finally, seeking social support can also be an effective way to counteract negativity bias. By connecting with others and sharing our experiences and emotions, we can gain a more balanced perspective on our challenges and struggles. This can help us to feel more supported and less isolated, which can reduce the impact of negative experiences and emotions.

The Benefits of Embracing Discomfort

While embracing discomfort may be challenging, it can also bring a number of benefits. For one, discomfort is often a necessary part of personal growth. When we face our fears and challenges, we build resilience and develop new skills and abilities. We also gain a sense of accomplishment and confidence that can help us tackle future challenges.

In addition to these personal benefits, embracing discomfort can also be beneficial for our relationships and communities. When we are willing to be vulnerable and take risks, we create opportunities for deeper connections and more meaningful interactions. We also become better equipped to handle conflict and challenges in our relationships, which can lead to stronger and more fulfilling connections.

How to Lean In to Discomfort

Embracing discomfort can be a difficult and daunting task. However, there are a number of strategies and techniques that can help us lean in to discomfort and overcome our resistance.

1. Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of staying present and aware of our thoughts and feelings. By practicing mindfulness, we can learn to tolerate discomfort without becoming overwhelmed. This can help us develop a more accepting and non-judgmental attitude toward uncomfortable feelings and situations.

2. Setting Goals and Taking Risks

Setting achievable goals and taking calculated risks can help us build confidence and overcome our fears. By breaking down larger goals into smaller, manageable steps, we can make progress and build momentum. Taking risks can also help us develop a growth mindset, where we see challenges as opportunities for learning and development.

A friend and colleague, Patrick Casale, likes to encourage people with this mantra, "Doubt Yourself and Do It Anyway". Sound advice!

3. Seeking Support

Connecting with others who share our struggles and challenges can provide us with strength and encouragement. Support can come from friends, family, or even professional therapists or coaches. By sharing our experiences and vulnerabilities with others, we can feel less alone and more supported in our journey toward embracing discomfort.

4. Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy can also be a valuable tool for leaning into discomfort. A trained therapist can help us explore the roots of our resistance to discomfort, and develop strategies for overcoming it. Therapy can provide a safe space for us to work through our fears and challenges, and can help us build resilience and confidence in the face of discomfort.

The Importance of Embracing Discomfort in Today's World

Whether it's adapting to new technology, navigating social and political tensions, or facing personal and professional challenges, we are constantly confronted with discomfort. However, many people today are retreating into their comfort zones, avoiding discomfort and limiting their worldviews and experiences. This can lead to a lack of empathy, understanding, and connection with others, and can contribute to social and cultural divisions.

Embracing discomfort, on the other hand, can help us expand our horizons, challenge our assumptions, and connect with people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. It can also help us develop the resilience and adaptability needed to thrive in today's world. By embracing discomfort, we can become more open-minded, compassionate, and engaged members of our communities.

The Role of Discomfort in Personal and Professional Development

Discomfort is an essential component of personal and professional development. In order to grow and improve, we must be willing to confront our weaknesses, take risks, and embrace new challenges. Discomfort can be a catalyst for growth, pushing us out of our comfort zones and into new and unfamiliar territory.

In the professional world, discomfort can be particularly important for career success. Taking on new and challenging projects, seeking feedback, and pushing ourselves to develop new skills and abilities can help us advance in our careers and achieve our goals. Embracing discomfort can also help us become more adaptable and resilient in the face of change and uncertainty.

Last Thoughts

The art of leaning in to discomfort is a powerful tool for personal growth and resilience. By embracing discomfort rather than avoiding it, we can overcome our fears and challenges, build resilience and confidence, and create deeper and more meaningful relationships. While it may be difficult at first, the rewards of leaning in to discomfort are well worth the effort.

So next time you feel yourself resisting discomfort, remember the quote "what we resist persists", and try leaning in instead. You may be surprised at what you discover.

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