The Fear of Discomfort
I have a small poodle named Bella. She is scared of most things, and I do mean most things—the wrinkle of a grocery bag, the sound of her collar tag clanging against her food bowl, men—all these and more send her into a fit of shivers. Though the clinking of dishware doesn’t send me into fight-or-flight mode, I can relate to this pup saturated like a soggy sponge with fear and anxiety.
I went to Norway for a week in June, and we kayaked. I had never kayaked before, and I have an unreasonably high-level fear of drowning, so I tend to avoid being present in open bodies of water, especially in something as flimsy and capsize-inviting as a kayak. But, I was in Norway—when else would I have the chance to kayak in a fjord?
So I let the instructor suit me up in a life vest. I crouched into my kayak on the dock as he pushed me back into the water, admitting to him, “I’m a little nervous,” with a small laugh that communicated my nerves way more than my statement did. My friend, Chelsey, had already pushed off into the water and was smiling. Granted, the water was calm, probably the calmest fjord waters we had encountered so far—the water like a mirror reflecting the cliff faces that stretched up and up into low-hanging clouds. I had no reason to be nervous, but hello I am ever-anxious Poodle-brain me, so I was nervous anyways.
As I floated in the water next to the dock, I asked low-key panic questions to Chelsey and our instructor, “What if it flips? Will I get stuck inside and drown?!” The instructor, an Eminem-looking Scandinavian, invited me to wiggle back and forth in my kayak to see just how sturdy and not-going-to-flip the kayak was. Timidly, I rocked back and forth, the instructor inviting me to rock the boat even more, trusting that the kayak would keep me afloat.
Scandinavian Eminem was right. With each rock back and forth, the kayak brought me back to neutral, effectively not tipping me over.
Toward the end of our three-hour paddle around the waterfall-adorned fjord, a car-carrying ferry came trolling through the thin pass, its wake stirring the otherwise-calm waters. The waves came, pulling my kayak high up over them, and I struggled to stay calm (read: I did not stay calm) as my kayak rose up and over those towering waves, imagining that surely this is the moment I would capsize and get stuck in the kayak and drown and RIP me in a Norwegian fjord.
But the kayak did the job it was built for and stayed right-side up, floating over those waves faithfully while I panic-yelled at Chelsey to not leave me. If anything, it would have been mildly uncomfortable had my kayak actually capsized—I know how to swim, I was wearing a life vest, and there’s no way I'd get stuck inside the kayak so COOL IT OKAY; this was far from the life-or-death situation Fear had convinced me it was.
You see, Fear and I are frenemies; I don’t love when we hang out, but I’m so familiar with his presence that it’s easier to let him stick around than to say, “Yo, scram!”
If you’ll recall from my kayak panic, I have a very visceral, fight-or-flight reaction to discomfort. In other words, discomfort freaks me the eff out. This fear of discomfort is largely why I am not a runner; I hate being sweaty and feeling like I may go into cardiac arrest at any moment.
I realize that I am not alone, both in my deep aversion to running and in my fear of discomfort. “No, no, you keep your comfort, I’ll pass,” I doubt you would say if given the choice between smooth sailing and rough, Dunkirk-style seas where all you want to do is get across the English Channel but seriously though can those Germans stop bombing your boats for like, 5 seconds?!
I didn’t even realize that a) I had an aversion to discomfort and that b) this aversion to discomfort was Fear’s doings until quite recently. I was just subconsciously choosing the comfortable route over the uncomfortable one most of the time without regard to the motivations for these decisions. But last week I took a spin class, and halfway through, with sweat coming off me at the rate of a light rain shower, I was this close to convincing myself I was about to pass out and die and helloooo panic attack, when I realized, WAIT A MINUTE.
I’m uncomfortable with being uncomfortable.
Fear—that little jerk!—has convinced me that I am incapable of handling discomfort, whether physically, emotionally, relationally, creatively, spiritually, what-have-you. Like, say goodbye to your friends and family now, because you will die from this discomfort.
The worst part? I often believe Fear. Oof.
Fear would be a total hit at costume parties because he is a GENIUS at dressing up—self-doubt, ambition, aversion to discomfort, the incessant need to please others. Hello, Fear, my old friend, I see you under your disguises.
In the wider context of world powers, we’re definitely all just a bunch of scared poodles frantically clinging to anything that can provide for us a sense of security—nationalism, capitalism, socialism, all the isms—and we do shady things for money and we try to align ourselves with powerful people and we take selfies with people on reality TV and feel important because of it. And then if we happen to be one of those powerful people who gets to make all the big, world-shaping decisions, we sometimes do awful things, like start unnecessary wars. Think about it: the guys behind these wars and civil strife share one thing: they’re terrified of what might happen if they lose power.
Hello, Fear, my dear old friend, I see you on that world stage.
But let’s focus on Fear’s attempts to convince us that discomfort should be avoided at all costs.
Because here’s the rub: it’s through discomfort that real growth, real change, real ANYTHING can happen. This is highly unfortunate given how unpleasant discomfort is.
I don’t think the opposite of Fear is bravery or courage or whatever. I think it’s trust: trust in your God, trust in yourself. Because courage is doing the thing despite Fear, not in place of Fear. Trust, on the other hand, is leaning into a power higher than your own—it’s a surrender, a letting go. I am no good, very, very bad at this, in case you were wondering what mastery level I’m at in Surrender 101.
This is the hardest part, because it takes an awful lot of courage to look at discomfort in light of what it can teach you. Because I’d much rather complain and wallow, thank you very much. But it’s in my discomfort that the real miracles have happened; this is distressing because it means that if I want any real growth, any real change in my life, I have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The goal is to not let Fear dictate our decisions, unless that decision is to jump out of an airplane sans parachute; I’m not advocating placing yourself in mortal peril to prove your comfort with discomfort. The goal is to not let Fear convince us to choose comfort over discomfort, easy over difficult, the same over change. Because the voice of Fear is like Donald Trump—unreasonable, manipulative, and definitely not qualified to make big decisions.
I won’t say I’m setting out to conquer my Fear, because them’s fightin’ words, and aggression also freaks me out. But I’d like to at least come to an agreement with Fear, something resembling a truce, like living with a roommate that you low-key loathe but you’re going to set some ground rules to at least live together amicably. I’d like a diplomatic relationship with Fear, the ability to say, “Oh, yes, I see, you think it will be the end of the world if I do [insert mildly-risky action here]. Thank you for sharing your concerns,” but then I do not listen to Fear’s aforementioned concerns.
So how do we learn to listen to Fear less, especially when it’s so loud and Trump-ish? We start small. As author Anne Lamott writes, “...you start with where you are, and you flail around for a while, and if you keep doing it, every day you get closer to something good.”
So you go to that BBQ where you only-sort-of-barely know one person there. You call your sister and tell her you’re sorry for being so insufferable when you had lunch together the other day, even if the apology wounds your ego. You share that poem you wrote with the public instead of keeping it hidden in your notebook BECAUSE WHAT IF PEOPLE HAVE OPINIONS AND THOSE OPINIONS ARE HARSH?! You share the poem anyways. You become a runner even though you hate running (haha NOT!).
Slowly, slowly, small decision by small decision, you realize that discomfort won’t kill you, and that Fear is mostly just a liar trying to keep you in the safe zone—the zone where a whole lot of life is missed out on. And then when the big decisions come, the ones that shake and shape your life, you’ll be listening to the voice of Trust rather than Fear.
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