Learn to Sit with Discomfort in Your Life

I have a confession to make: I do not believe you can feel happy 24/7, any more than you can feel anything every minute for your entire life. We are designed to feel a broad spectrum of emotions because, so far, they have kept us safe and helped perpetuate the human race.

We all know how something that feels bad can actually redound to your highest good in the future. But, being the hedonists I think we are designed to be, we naturally avoid pain and seek pleasure. What if sitting with discomfort helped us make peace with it—increased our frustration tolerance and our ability to accept life as it is?

As Albert Ellis used to say, it is a choice between short-term hedonism and long-term hedonism. If we forego the pleasure of the moment, we can reap greater benefits in the future. In today’s society, delaying gratification is not popular; however, when we learn to sit with what we don’t like, we can actually build emotional muscle and handle the next challenge with greater ease.

When we feel anxious, for example, our first inclination is often for relief, which usually consists of avoidance. We can distract ourselves with TV, video games, pornography, food, alcohol, drugs (including prescription psychotropics), gambling, and other things that may create new problems; or, we can do the last thing we instinctively gravitate toward: sit with the feeling. Yes, just allow it. Breathe into it. Can you feel the discomfort physically?  If so, notice its characteristics. Is your breathing shallow? Is your back tense? Do you feel a headache coming on? Is your jaw clenched? Are your shoulders hunched up? Is your abdomen tight? Breathe into whatever you notice.

Give yourself permission to feel your feelings. With practice, it may help you accept yourself and your reality. By resting in awareness, you stop fighting what is true for you now and open to the possibility that it is all OK. You can handle what you do not like.

Many intelligent and insightful souls—such as the Buddha, Ram Dass, and Eckhart Tolle—have encouraged us to be here now. That means being with whatever comes up. Your job is not to like everything, but to be aware and open. Luckily, this becomes easier when you remind yourself that everything passes—the pleasant and the unpleasant.

It is crucial to understand that the goal here is not to figure out why you are feeling what you are feeling, but to stay with the discomfort. You may even want to cultivate some curiosity about what you are feeling.

Granted, mindfulness practice is counter-intuitive, but when you are fully in the moment, you can relax into what is. Resisting your feelings often increases them and their power. No harm will come to you if you embrace your feelings, though it may be uncomfortable. In time, you may notice a feeling or sensation and, rather than avoid it, you can label and accept it. Another great benefit of this practice is that by gently and lovingly accepting where you are, you may become more compassionate with yourself and others.

Impermanence is the name of the game. Nothing lasts—good or bad. You may not care to remind yourself of that in the middle of an ice cream sundae (though it might make you more appreciative and increase your enjoyment), but it is helpful to remember when times are tough.

Once you allow yourself to be with what is true for you now, remember this quote from Haruki Murakami: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” By resisting the urge to rate your feelings—or yourself as bad for having them—you will begin to know the peace that comes from acceptance, and your discomfort will not morph into suffering.

Here is an exercise to help you on your path to emotional freedom:

  • Consciously stop yourself a few times a day to do an internal check.
  • What am I feeling now?
  • Can I allow this feeling, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, without trying to repress it or distract myself from it?
  • Stay with whatever comes up, especially if you don’t like it.
  • Try to label what you are experiencing. For example: tightness in the throat, muscle spasms in the low back, tension in the jaw, etc.
  • Name your emotions as if you were simply observing them—anxiety, sadness, anger, resentment, grief, etc.
  • Breathe into any area of discomfort, and keep drawing your breath there until you feel it relax.

You can immerse yourself in Buddhist thought by reading books by Pema Chodron, and listening to podcasts on iTunes, such as: “A Quiet Mind,” “The I.D. Project,” or interviews on Sounds True.

Reference:

  1. Murakami, H., & Gabriel, P. (2008). What I talk about when I talk about running: A memoir. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

© Copyright 2011 by By Nicole Urdang, MS, NCC, DHM, LMHC, therapist in Buffalo, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 13 comments
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  • Lucy

    Lucy

    August 31st, 2011 at 2:49 PM

    Let me be honest with you-When I read the title I was like “what?!” but after having read the entire article,I must say thank you because what you have discussed here is just wonderful and is something that can be a fix to a lot of common problems today.

  • Laura

    Laura

    August 31st, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    Hope I can accomplish some of this, need to badly!

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    September 1st, 2011 at 7:26 AM

    Thank you Lucy for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    Laura, I always find it helpful to stay with my breath when things feel overwhelming and remind myself that even if I don’t like something I can stand it. Those podcasts really are centering and grounding. Speaking of grounding, you may like the grounding techniques section on my website:
    http://holisticdivorce.wordpress.com/category/grounding-techniques/

    It’s like anything else, the more you practice, the easier it gets.
    Good luck!

  • anna

    anna

    September 1st, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    I dont think it is gonna be easy to hold on despite the pain or discomfort. but the reward for doing it is huge,I realize what is being said here. it is about gaining something within yourself dispute the discomfort and pain. teaching you to overcome your obstacles to achieve your target!

  • Russell T

    Russell T

    September 1st, 2011 at 1:20 PM

    I have come to appreciate the quiet times in life, even when it is not about musing on the things that make me happy. The way I have come to see it is that the time that I have to reflect on the sorrows and the down times, the more given I am to appreciate the good things in my life. So no, that down time and period of reflection does not have to be seen as a bad thing at all. There is always something good to come out of it.

  • M.V

    M.V

    September 1st, 2011 at 8:42 PM

    I just think pain,suffering and discomfort actually make us strongerThey give us a challenge to stand up against and can be a good form of exercise to become strong from within.Not saying that it is a pleasurable route but works well nevertheless.

  • clara p

    clara p

    September 2nd, 2011 at 8:21 AM

    the main reason why most of us are not able to do this-sitting with discomfort-is because we have never really spent any time with bad feelings,we’re scared of them and want to avoid them at all costs.so whenever we do encounter them, instead of facing them and growing in strength we run away like cowards. this is what is needed as the first step to be able to sit with discomfort.

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    September 2nd, 2011 at 12:09 PM

    Dear Anna, Russell, MV and Clara,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    I chose to write on this topic for the very reason you all responded to: it’s not an easy gig, but you will reap rewards. At the very least, practicing being with discomfort builds emotional muscle and resilience.

    At the end of the day, the dark thought or feeling might still be there, but your relationship to it (and to yourself) might have shifted.

    Peace.

  • Jaden

    Jaden

    September 2nd, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    When you confront the pain and force yourself to deal with it, don’t you think that this is a good thing? The other alternative is to let it fester inside of you and we all have had that experience. Eventually you are going to have to deal with it, so why not do it on your own terms and in your own time? And another thought that I had about this is that we are all such an instant gratification kind of society that we want everything cleaned up just like that. But life is not like that and we all know it. I think that is why so many people have issues with dealing with things head on.

  • Nancy A

    Nancy A

    September 12th, 2011 at 3:15 PM

    Accepting where you are is the best way to figure out where you want to be. By avoiding all of your cleverly designed, captivating distractions and letting your real emotions sink in I was able to realize that I’m not happy with where I currently am.

    I did the exercise here and I felt panicked as if I was missing a deadline. At first I wondered a simple question, “Why? But soon enough I realized found the answer, it was because I had so many goals set for my self to finish in the next five years and as of right now I haven’t done a think to complete them.

    This exercise has helped me realized that is time to start implementing my goals, so they can become I reality.

  • Mona

    Mona

    July 26th, 2012 at 9:06 PM

    Hi Nicole, I feel peace knowing that accepting and allowing life to unfold naturally will give me space to move through the pain and not suffer in resistance. Suffering is optional! Thank you,

  • Erin

    Erin

    November 23rd, 2012 at 4:53 AM

    This is a great article, because so often people think that once they begin working on themselves they will feel better instantly, and for 24/7.

    It is important to know that we have to feel both the good and bad feelings in order to fully feel, and be in the moment. And feeling all emotions can help people achieve the goals they are working towards.

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    November 23rd, 2012 at 8:20 AM

    Thank you Jaden, Nancy, Mona, and Erin for taking the time to comment and share your experiences.

    Wishing you peace.

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