Getting to Wholeheartedness through Discomfort?

Today I listened to a presentation by Dr. Brene Brown at Emerging Women 2015.  Of the many things she said that I enjoyed, the one that continues to hum at the back of my mind was in reference to the research she did for her latest book, Rising Strong.  

Photo Credit: johnhain via pixabay

Photo Credit: johnhain via pixaby

Her research revealed that the women & men who bounced back most quickly from difficulty, were also the ones best able to tolerate discomfort. She noted a direct correlation between our capacity to be present for our own discomfort and our ability to live a wholehearted life.

It’s worth taking a pause and letting that sink in.

I should say here, I haven’t yet read Rising Strong. Nor do I know the further insights and nuances to her research beyond what I heard in her presentation. But I know why this resonates for me. It’s because it affirms what I’ve experienced first hand and what I’ve witnessed in countless others. 

I’ve spent the majority of my adult years trying to learn how be present for my difficulties rather than pushing them away. It’s a work in progress, a practice, not an arrival. But here’s what I’ve noticed.

Life is filled with all kinds of discomfort. From the routine, everyday discomforts like getting stuck in rush hour traffic, to the big, take your breath away discomforts like a best friend’s cancer diagnosis. Developing the skill to be present for ourselves and others in the face of discomfort is one of the most beneficial pursuits of this lifetime.

Tolerating discomfort doesn’t mean a white-knuckled, worry-ridden state of being. It is instead, the ability to hold a compassionate presence in the face of difficulty without resisting, avoiding or closing our hearts. 

It isn’t voluntarily subjecting yourself to harmful situations. It’s facing squarely what you’re feeling, thinking and experiencing without disguising or denying the truth and at the same time, being willing to act positively on your own behalf. It means being present and honest in the midst of challenges instead of running from them.

It doesn’t mean there’s glory in self-created crisis or drama. But when crisis arrives on your doorstep, you don’t run away.

This can be one of the hardest skills to develop. I’m practicing and yet, I miss the mark a lot. And that’s exactly the way it works.

Avoidance is natural – an inborn reflex. When you accidentally put your hand on a hot stove, the natural, self-protective response is to pull away. 

But that same reflex can stop us from being present for some of the most profound experiences life has to offer. Like those precious moments sitting with a friend during her final days and hours of life or opening yourself to the grounding presence of a dear friend while you walk through your own deep grief. 

And that wily act of avoidance can can take so many forms. It can be the distraction of staying constantly busy, obsessively cleaning, drugs, alcohol, food, TV. You name it, there’s a way to use almost anything to avoid our own or others difficult feelings and experiences. 

Yet, the pathway to build the skill is right there in the “problem.” We can learn to be present for those moments if we take advantage of the traffic jams when they come along. Every day we get countless opportunities – most of them mild inconveniences – to deepen our skill at being with discomfort. This is our learning ground.

This is when we get a chance to engage all our senses, breathe, notice what’s happening internally and externally. If we’re really watching, we see how the experience is changing all the time. Even as discomfort rises, it begins to fall away. Or as our agenda is interrupted – some inconvenience thwarts our plans – some glimmer of beauty or grace or intuition appears. 

As we bring presence and awareness to the difficult moment, we get to see we’re not stuck with this immovable, uncomfortable situation forever. This moment will pass, it will change, it will give rise to something different.

When we pay attention, we notice that it’s not black or white, either/or, good or bad.

A full life includes it all. Beauty right there in the pain. 

And eventually we realize that if we run from the pain, we miss the beauty, the wonder, the love, that inevitably shows up in the midst of it all.

I hope you decide to give it a try. It’s worth the effort.

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  1. Kate O'Neill October 11, 2015 at 3:32 pm #

    What a great and helpful post, Kelly. It perfectly reflected and expanded upon a thought that visited me yesterday: “it hurts AND it’s ok”. Thank you, my friend!

    • Kelly October 14, 2015 at 6:13 am #

      Thanks so much Kate! It’s great when that kind of synchronicity shows up, isn’t it?!

  2. Rhona November 4, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

    I love this. I definitely want to avoid the discomfort at times, but often find that in the long run, avoidance can lengthen and strengthen discomfort!

    Feeling the uncomfortable emotion helps it move on through. Which is what you’ve been saying all along, Kelly!

    Thanks! 🙂

    • Kelly November 5, 2015 at 3:08 pm #

      Thanks Rhona! I’ve experienced what you describe as well – how avoidance can lengthen & strengthen the discomfort. It can be hard to lean in, but so worth it!

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