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Why the fear of discomfort might be holding you back

We've all been taught that comforting ourselves and others is an important skill to master. But what happens when we use comfort as a way to avoid the uncomfortable?

WRITER
Oct 9, 2021 UPDATED

Sometimes, the efforts we make to comfort ourselves can actually make things worse.

Wait—what? Haven’t we been taught that comforting ourselves and others is an important skill to master? Of course, and it is. But too much comfort can have unintended consequences, much like an “overdose”. 

Comfort or anesthesia?

In her early research, professor Brene Brown illuminated the scale of modern comfort-seeking behaviors: “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.” 

What Brown is pointing to here is our collective knee jerk response to discomfort is often consumption: We spend exorbitant amounts of money on products we hope will ease our stress, we can fall into a trap of trying to eat our emotions, we consume both prescription and illegal substances in attempts to escape difficult thoughts and feelings.

This preoccupation with maintaining a steady state of comfort and contentment at best temporarily soothes, and at worst ruins lives.

Let’s set the tone for exploring this topic by ditching the terms “good” or “bad” to describe behaviors that fit your definition of self-comfort. Instead, let’s view behavior through a more objective lens, replacing those terms with “workable” or “unworkable.” 

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a therapist sitting in a yellow chair facing a client sitting in a blue chair next to a plant.

Workable vs. unworkable

One of the primary tenets of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is the concept of workability. A response is considered “workable” if the behavior brings you closer to the type of person you want to be and the type of life you want to live. Conversely, an approach is unworkable if the behavior takes you further away from the people and things that matter most to you. 

This framing allows us to look beyond the surface behavior so we can observe and focus on the most important aspect—the “why” behind the behavior.

I’ll share a personal example to illustrate the point. Despite being a mental health professional, it took me longer than I care to admit to focusing on the function or purpose of a behavior—and not whether it was “good” or “bad.” 

When I first began working with clients over a decade ago, I would often unintentionally gear therapeutic interventions around avoiding distressing emotions. 

For example, I would allow clients to switch topics when they became uncomfortable. I would also avoid addressing incomplete homework for the shame-prone client. And, I would carefully word client interactions to avoid anything that could be interpreted as uncomfortable. 

This preoccupation with maintaining a steady state of comfort and contentment at best temporarily soothes, and at worst ruins lives.

I would default to these comfort-oriented strategies and other “healthy coping mechanisms” despite getting inconsistent results. 

Eventually, I realized I was just enabling the very behaviors that those clients came to me for help. Worse still, I came to understand that my response was an unintentional disservice to them. 

Comfort at any cost

So why do we insist on being comfortable, despite the cost? 

Undoubtedly, it is at least in part due to how culture has shaped our perceptions. We live in a society that reinforces the idea that if you are anything but happy, something is wrong with you. 

The term toxic positivity has emerged in recent years to describe the insistence that we find a way to be cheerful, despite what we may naturally feel about a situation. 

The potent combination of these messages about how we are supposed to feel, and the temptation of widely available resources to help us achieve optimal comfort levels, creates a unique challenge. 

For example, many Americans increasingly rely on modern services to avoid leaving their home. There are mobile apps to help shop for your clothes, get groceries, walk your dogs, mow your lawn, and organize your pantry, just to name a few. 

Technology, specifically cell phones, has also contributed to this. For example, before cell phones, if you wanted to break up with someone, you had to have the conversation in-person or over the phone. Now, you can avoid the entire awkward, uncomfortable experience by just sending a text.  

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a woman with brown hair wearing a white shirt holding a colorful bouquet of flowers.

Workable comfort 

Is engaging in this behavior “good” or “bad”? 

From the standpoint of the behavioral model, that’s not the right question. The relevant question is whether or not they are “workable”.

Getting your groceries delivered rather than going to the store may be workable if it’s in the service of something more valuable to you, like spending time with your children. It may not be workable, however, if you are diagnosed with agoraphobia and the behavior provides a way to avoid triggering those uncomfortable emotions. 

The behavior is considered unworkable because, in this context, avoiding discomfort is likely to narrow one’s sense of autonomy and reinforce fears.

Similarly, breaking up with someone over text may also be workable if it prevents a violent reaction from the person you are breaking up with. Yet, it’s not workable if you are simply doing it over text because you don’t want to have a difficult conversation in person.

We live in a society that reinforces the idea that if you are anything but happy, something is wrong with you. 

One way to know whether we have overdosed on comfort is when doing so only provides momentary relief, while exacerbating problems in the long term. 

Another way is to look at the people or situations you avoid. 

Where you find avoidance, you will find behaviors geared toward infusing the situation with a dose of comfort. Comfort-seeking behaviors, when used workably and with self-awareness, can enrich one's life.

The key is noticing why you choose to seek comfort and when. Does this comfort leave you feeling drained, guilty, or regretful? Or do you feel rejuvenated and in alignment with your personal values? 

These questions matter if you wish to be connected to something deeper than the pursuit of ever-lasting physical or emotional comfort.

Article originally published Aug 30, 2021. Updated Oct 9, 2021.

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