Finding my edge: learning to be comfortable with discomfort

comfortable with discomfort
"Master your fear of discomfort, and you can master the universe." Leo Babauta

I spend a lot of my time working on feeling good. I work on my anxiety, make room for what I love, make sure I eat right and get enough sleep and exercise. And, as a result, my life is pretty good right now. I have time to do what I enjoy, I have an amazing relationship, close friendships, and I consider myself pretty darn lucky.

But I know I can do better than good. I have dreams and plans and ideas and someday I would like to make enough money to be able to replace a pair of shoes before they come apart at the seams. I know that I can make these things happen and that I can take my life from feeling pretty good to feeling pretty great. The only thing getting in my way is my fear of being uncomfortable. I don't see myself as ambitious in the traditional sense—wanting more money and power and possessions than the next person—but I do constantly yearn for more growth, more connection, and more experience. I'm learning that the only way for me to make those things happen is to do things that don't feel so good, to do things that I'm afraid of, and to keep stepping beyond what feels safe and comfortable.

I remember the first time I heard the term "the edge", during a yoga class at a hotel in Jamaica. I was trying out my first (and only) beach resort vacation and found that the yoga class was the only thing that made me feel truly engaged amidst all the eating, drinking, and lazing around (though the crocodile safari was pretty exciting). The instructor explained that in any yoga pose, you want to find the line between what's too easy and what's too hard. You want to find your edge and hang out in that space of challenge and discomfort. If you spend enough time there, the edge will shift and you'll find that you can go a little bit further, sink a little bit deeper.

I often do things that scare me, but I tend to curl up and hide between big adventures. When I came home from travelling South America by myself I felt stronger and more capable than ever before. By the end of ten months I had pushed myself so far and so deep that I felt like I could do anything. But within a few months I was already starting to avoid things because they seemed scary or hard. I was closing back up. Now, three years after my return, I feel anxious just thinking about how easily I approached strangers and adapted to uncomfortable situations (spending two months in a tiny, ramshackle house with a family of seven plus two enormous dogs comes to mind).

I want to feel that expansive sense of capacity again. I want to find my way back to my edge. 

I'm finding that there are so many opportunities to practice this, so many times when I want to say no, or give in to fear instead of curiosity. But it's during these times that I can strengthen my ability to feel discomfort and push my boundaries. Here are some of the places I'm learning to practice—see if you find anything on this list that you can work on:

Personal: Admitting I'm wrong, apologizing sincerely, listening when I feel like speaking, letting go of long-held beliefs.

Business: Talking to strangers, promoting myself, writing about my products, networking (the word itself makes me shudder!), public speaking, problem-solving, uncertainty about how things will turn out.

Creativity: Writing - not knowing what I'm going to say or how it's all going to come together but jumping in anyway. Drawing - pushing through even when I don't think it will turn out or I don't think I have the skill. Dancing - practising a tricky combination over and over and over again hoping that eventually it will click.

When I was learning Spanish I felt deeply uncomfortable about not being able to express myself. Thankfully I was living in places where people didn't speak any English so I had to push through despite my embarrassment. For my first two years of teaching workshops I felt sick before every single one and I'm only now starting to feel comfortable with them (which probably means it's time to start teaching something new!) Every time I cook a large meal for a group of people I feel stressed and exhausted and wonder if it's worth the effort. It always is, and every time I learn how to do it better and more efficiently (read: less frantically).

How do I deal with the discomfort that arises when I push myself to my edge? Well, sometimes I freak out and spiral into terror and despair and avoid scary things for awhile. But sometimes I just look the discomfort in the face and sit with it for awhile. I acknowledge what I'm feeling—"Yes my stomach is in knots and I may or may not throw up"—but I don't fight it. I don't try to make the feelings go away, I just send them whatever compassion I can.

When I was working at a restaurant in Argentina I felt anxious the entire time. According to my host my Spanish was terrible, and I had never waited tables before. Add in some heated drama between the owner and the chef, a love interest or two (or three), and a few really busy events, and it was a recipe for mega-stress. Every day when I was walking home I told myself, "Yes, you are stressed. And with good reason. This is really hard! But look at how far you've come and how far you have left to go. You're learning so much." I couldn't always keep it together but I did stick it out. And when I finally left and moved on to another city in another country I managed to collect a big group of friends really quickly and everyone told me that I spoke Spanish so well. I had expanded.

In Pema Chödrön's book Taking the Leap (which I mentioned in my latest books post) she says, "There is a formal practice for learning to stay with the energy of uncomfortable emotions—a practice for transmuting the poison of negative emotions into wisdom. It is similar to alchemy, the medieval technique of changing base metal into gold. You don't get rid of the base metal—it isn't thrown out and replaced by gold. Instead, the crude metal itself is the source of the precious gold."

The formal practice (paraphrased slightly):

  1. Acknowledge that you are freaking out.
  2. Feel it. Breathe and pay attention to how it feels in your body. Get to know the feeling really well.
  3. Get over it.

That last step, I think, only comes with years of training. To me, it's the second step that's the most important. When I encounter creative resistance it often feels like tension in my chest and a wave of heat washing over me. Sometimes realizing this makes the discomfort go away and sometimes it doesn't. What it does is helps me to find compassion for myself and what I'm experiencing. And it reminds me that it really is just a feeling—it doesn't mean that something terrible is happening. When I'm nauseous before a class it's not because someone is forcing me to do something horrible. Stopping and recognizing this helps give me strength to go through the discomfort and come out the other side, feeling exultant about what I accomplished.

In an effort to feel more confident and capable and to push my edge further, I'm making a list of things that scare me or make me uncomfortable. The plan is to go do some of these things, and to keep doing them regularly to keep me on my toes. I'll let you know how it goes.

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Do you lean into discomfort or run away from it? What happened the last time you found your edge? Leave a comment below!