Discomfort.

A recent discomforting experience showed my progress in the journey to be a better person.

I was returning a room key to a friend whose room I stayed in during the break. I received a very honest feedback from a friend about leaving his room in rather a messy condition. At that very moment I could feel my ears reddening; my field of vision blurring; my mental balance trembling. I think I stood numb for a few seconds. Or perhaps time slowed down as I sensed a peculiar sensation swelling up within, waiting to consume me.

But I did not lose to it completely. I managed to still have a tiny bit of conscious focus. I could notice in my friend’s eyes that it was not comfortable at all for him to tell me so.

You may want to say “Of course it is not comfortable to say it.” That was what I thought too, and that is just a thought that anyone can imagine. The value of the real experience comes from the noticing of what was going on: his tone, my body, his words, my response, his eyes. The whole scene became ingrained in my psyche.

The first thing I said was “Thank you for letting me know.” I could tell that I meant it; I was honest. Then I apologized and asked if I could do anything to help – now that was basic courtesy, the default contrived response I would usually say. As you can imagine, it was awkward.

Yet that moment was very inspiring for me. I surprised myself at how I responded to the situation, given my deep-seated fear of confrontation. Was my heart still racing fast? Of course. Emotion is darn powerful, and being with it, let alone making use of it, is hard. But I was more in control of myself, more observing, more honest. Celebrate the progress!

On the way back, I had an interesting conversation with myself. Part of me still yelled “This sucks. Go away lousy feeling!”. The more optimistic and practical me eagerly told the panicking voice “Use this not so good feeling to make sure you do better the next time.” So far so good: very typical of me, right?

But there was a new voice. It simply said: “This is discomfort. Feel it.” And I was tasting the sensation for real. Was it shame? Or guilt? I don’t know. I don’t want to and don’t have to name it that way. It was a particular sensation, and I remembered its texture. That was enough. I was experiencing “it” more deeply, touching its contour, sensing what it was doing to myself internally. It was very similar to the itchy sensation of a mosquito bite. The next time you get bitten, pause. Don’t scratch. Feel the itch. I bet you will realize that it is not that itchy after all. In fact, it feels quite interesting. Then after playing with the sensation enough you can even hi-five yourself “I did not scratch!” (I did. Silly? And fun).

What I learned was that many of us tend to perceive these discomforting experiences, whether they be physical or psychological, as something dreadful we want to avoid head-on. We want them to go away as soon as possible. We want to get distracted from the pain, hoping that it will go away when we come back. In other words, we see discomfort as enemy.

My experience taught me that discomfort was first and foremost a sensation. Remember the advice our moms gave when we had a toothache? “Just ignore it.” Not a very helpful advice: how can I ignore something painful? Paradoxically, the only way to let go of those sensations is to pay full attention to it. Not what we think “it” is.

Now that I have experienced discomfort fully and become more familiar with what it really is, I fear it less. I can choose to see it in a different light. What do I want to come out of such discomfort? A better me. This is not even about optimism; I just don’t want to be stupid with myself. So I choose to see it as an opportunity for growth.

It helps to be realistic too: I cannot expect to reap all the reward without paying the price. Our life experiences ebb and flow like waves. Without trough there can be no crest; without discomfort there can be no growth. On the other extreme, I also do not want to repeat the mistakes someone else has made. That is real stupidity. But getting advice helps but only so much. No one learns to cook just by  reading cookbooks.

It still sucks harddd when someone else tells me I am wrong, or he is displeased with me, but it’s a lot less now. How is that possible? I am not that courageous; I am still very afraid of discomfort. What helps me is that over time I become more and more committed to my own growth. Because growth feels (mostly) good! More importantly, at the end of the day, the only person who can go with me through all the joys and hardships, who celebrate my pleasure and grieve my pain, is myself. With that commitment comes the understanding that discomfort is an indispensable part of the journey. It presents a golden window of opportunity, a state of vulnerability that allows me to change, for better or for worse. If I want to dress on a new shirt, I need to take off my current one and be naked for a while right?

And how much I learn depends less on what is going on outside and more on what is happening inside my head. If you have ever tried teaching anything, you will find that it is very hard to teach if the student does not want to learn. When I put my mind into anything, I learn. Others can dismiss this trivial story of leaving-the-room-in-a-mess, but I can’t. Such opportunity is so rare, so good that I cannot waste.

I’ve been telling myself that I am becoming more aware and resilient. That is a nice positive thought, and I want it to be substantial. Now I had a glimpse of my progress, I am much more confident to throw myself in more challenging situations now. I will probably crumble, which should be fun.

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