Flipping out when asked to wear a mask in a store or on a plane. Trigger warnings. Safe spaces in a university. Avoiding controversial topics. Banning books that have any semblance of a connection to CRT. Accidentally using the wrong verbiage. Trolling, blocking, or censoring people online. What do these things have in common?
Discomfort. We don’t like it. We avoid it.
Something makes us feel anxious, stressed, or uncertain and we can’t handle it. A book, mask, online troll, ideology, or a slight sensation of physical effort and fatigue makes us feel out of sorts, and we seek to eliminate that sensation as quickly as possible. Sometimes, we spiral out of control. We end up a “Karen” on social media. Or we lose our mind convinced that a mask is causing oxygen deprivation and carbon dioxide poisoning. (Hint: it doesn’t.) Some of us freak out, unleashing a barrage of hate online and in person, disguised as some act of self-righteousness. Others retreat, trying to cocoon themselves from anything, or anyone, who might invoke inner conflict.
The point isn’t to comment on whether some of the aforementioned threats or actions are legitimate or not. Some may very well be. But what I’m more concerned with is a trend I’ve noticed over the last few years. One that compelled me to write my new book, Do Hard Things. We’ve lost the ability to navigate our inner worlds, to sit with or navigate anything uncomfortable. We avoid, push away, or lash out because we don’t know how to handle discomfort. In fact, you may be experiencing that right now. At the mere mention of masks, CRT, or safe spaces, perhaps your mind jumped into “protect and defend” mode. Ready to label, discredit, and dismiss this very essay.
As a society, we’ve learned to react instead of respond. To flip out instead of coolly finding our way through. And the solutions offered, by all sides of the political spectrum, are sorely lacking. Half the world is telling us to put our head down, to get tough. They harken back to a day when men were manly, ignored their feelings, bulldozed through their problems, and acted like hard-asses. The other half pushes us to affirm and validate everything we feel. They tell us that avoidance is a legitimate end goal. That we should accommodate, so that we don’t have to face things that make us feel anxious. We’ve gone way off track. To understand why this is so important, let’s start with how we handle discomfort.
How would you handle having a hot probe placed on your wrist if you were unable to move it away? Chances are you might freak out a bit. When researchers placed average people into an fMRI machine to scan their brains while hot probes were resting on their wrists, they did just that. They rated the experience as intensely painful, and then their brain scans confirmed how their brains were reacting. They were freaking out.
When they replaced the average Joes with a group of meditation experts, the experience changed. The meditators still rated the hot probe as being just about as painful as the regular folk had rated it. But their reaction was entirely different. It started before they even felt discomfort. In anticipation of the heat, an area in the amygdala, the threat- and emotion-processing part of the brain, lit up in the novices. The meditators’ threat-detecting software remained unfazed. Before they even felt pain, both groups were preparing in drastically different ways. One was on high alert, readying for catastrophe. The other was aware but decided not to trigger the alarm.
When the probe hit the skin, the novices felt their pain grow. The meditators quickly adapted. It wasn’t that they were shutting off the pain, ignoring it, or pushing it away. They were actually activating the insula, a part of the brain linked to integrating the significance of the sensations one experiences. Meditation had taught them how to turn a nearly automatic reaction into a thoughtful response.
This capacity isn’t unique to meditators. You may understand it yourself. If you’ve ever taken up exercising after a long layoff, you’ve experienced the same phenomenon. The first hard workout you attempt, your brain is screaming at you to stop almost from the get-go. That inner alarm goes off early and often. At the first hint of fatigue, you start looking for ways to quit. It doesn’t matter that you have way more left in the tank. When you haven’t experienced the pain of working out in a while, your brain is trigger-happy. It interprets a slight bump in heart rate as a signal that you are in trouble. It sounds the alarm. As your fitness improves, that alarm gets quieter.
The same principle applies for any kind of discomfort, be it physical or psychological. Our alarm system is malleable. It can either go off at the slightest hint of fatigue or it can be taught to go off only when we are in real danger. When we haven’t experienced discomfort for a while, or when we’ve been told over and over that a mask or other item is dangerous and threatening, our brain listens. It turns the dial up.
How do we turn into our meditation experts, able to turn down our alarms and navigate discomfort?
1. Accept reality
2. Learn to listen
3. Embrace discomfort
4. Learn to respond, not react
When we resist or go into a situation with a kind of bravado or when we deny the reality that it’s normal to face doubts and insecurities, we are actually sabotaging our performance. We’ve created unrealistic expectations. Our brain gets the message that any doubts or thoughts of quitting are bad. They’re a sign that we aren’t ready. So, when they inevitably come, our brain sounds the alarm. If we truly believe they are a sign of weakness, then we default to avoidance and justification. We resist putting ourselves in any place or situation where we could come face-to-face with our own inferiority. And then we justify and excuse our actions instead of facing reality.
Contrary to the views of those who scream about society’s lack of masculinity, awareness and acceptance are necessary ingredients for taking on difficult tasks. It’s not weak to be aware of the reality you’re facing, even the messy parts. It’s a strength to acknowledge if you suffer from some form of mental health issue or that certain situations cause you anxiety. Accepting reality allows us to do something about it, to learn to deal with it. Acceptance means coming to terms with the reality of the situation and what you’re capable of. When there’s a mismatch between expectations and reality is when we run into problems. Whether that’s because of bravado or because we think we’re under dire threat, reality often differs from perception. Real toughness is facing reality with clear eyes, including the messy parts.
Learn to listen
I’ve spent over a dozen years working with some of the best endurance athletes on the planet who compete in events where it seems their sole goal is to handle as much pain and fatigue as they can take. That’s why it’s surprising to hear that everyone I talked to, from Olympians to record holders, all looked for an out. They all had stories of wanting to find a hole to step in or a curb to trip on in the middle of a race. They all wanted to quit. It wasn’t a sign of weakness. It was normal.
As one world-class runner told me: “You have to accept the reality of the situation. Your mind is going to go to a dark place. That doesn’t mean you are weak. It’s just your brain trying to protect you. You get to decide what you do with that information.” Elite endurance athletes see their inner voice and the feelings that come with it as information, not a personal sign of who they are. They don’t push away or ignore their feelings and inner voices; they learn to listen to them.
Listening doesn’t mean we have to validate the feelings as true, as they are often incorrect. But the only way we learn to distinguish what is pain versus an injury, or anxiety alerting danger versus anxiety protecting our ego, is to get to know them. It’s why research shows the best athletes, soldiers, and even stockbrokers all score highly on something called interoception—our ability to read our internal signals. The better we’re able to understand and communicate with what’s going on in our inner world, the better we’re able to decide whether to heed its warnings or let them pass on by.
By accepting that our inner doubts and anxieties are a part of life, we learn to use them as information. Some we’ll listen to, like the runner who learns that an early sign of fatigue means they need to top up their energy levels with a carbohydrate drink. Others we’ll realize are like our crazy aunt ranting on Facebook—a delusional rant that we should just scroll on by. Not every feeling needs to be validated. Some are, in fact, crazy or misinformed. It’s sorting through what is worth listening to and what is our crazy aunt that matters.
Seek out and embrace discomfort
Awareness is great. But not so much, if we stop there. We tweet or post our struggles. That we, too, are having a difficult time. We get lots of support. We’ve received a feel-good hit of dopamine as we’ve shared our struggles and embraced vulnerability as all the self-help books suggest. But what really matters is what occurs next. Do we do something about our struggles?
A recent study found that seeking out discomfort is motivating when it’s done in pursuit of growth. Those who sought discomfort instead of focusing on the outcome or benefit of an activity were more engaged and open to reading about and learning from the other side of a controversial topic. Furthermore, when people were recruited to have a discussion with someone on the other side of the political aisle, those who were instructed to seek out discomfort were more open and receptive to opposing viewpoints than those who were told to try to learn from the other person. When it comes to dealing with controversial topics, the answer isn’t to avoid politics as we do at family gatherings across the country. The answer is to make embracing discomfort the goal.
When we embrace discomfort, we take ourselves out of protect-and-defend mode and into a place to be challenged and grow. As we’ve long known in the world of exercise, a little bit of stress is a good thing. It sends the signal to your body to adapt and grow stronger. The same principle applies to our psychological stressors. A little bit of stress can open the way to resilience.
Look no further than the two most widely used and effective therapies in dealing with anxiety and mental health disorders. They both teach us to deal with the thing, not avoid it. Exposure and response therapy relies on putting you in a situation that evokes fear or anxiety and then learning to accept and sit with it. If your fear is of heights, you stand on a balcony, often with support there, until your brain learns that it’s okay and you don’t have as much to worry about as you think. Over time, it’s as if you are telling your brain, “I appreciate you sounding the alarm and telling me I am high off the ground. But there’s no need to sound the alarm. Everything is okay.”
Another gold standard in treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy relies on cultivating awareness of inaccurate or irrational assessments of triggers and threats and changing our response to such events. Learning how to navigate, not avoid or bulldoze through, works in the psychologist’s office just like it does out on the athletic fields or military training grounds. If we want to learn to turn down the alarm, we’ve got to face the challenge.
Respond, don’t react
According to research, when put through extreme stress, 96 percent of a sample of both general infantry and Special Forces soldiers experienced dissociative symptoms. Sixty-five percent reported having "lost track of what was going on." All but two of the 94 soldiers interviewed said they "felt as if they were looking at the world through a fog." Not exactly the experience you want to be having when in the midst of combat and survival.
When it comes to training soldiers to handle the uncertainty and stress of war, the military doesn’t just throw them into the deep end and see if they can swim. It’s not simply doing hard things that matters. In 2014, the RAND foundation was tasked with answering an important question: "Is the Air Force doing everything it can to prepare battlefield airmen to perform successfully under stressful conditions?" In evaluating nearly a dozen methods of preparing soldiers for the stress they’d experience, there were two items sitting atop the list of recommendations. First, emphasizing core skills that aid performance, including confidence, goal setting, attention control, arousal control, imagery, self-talk, compartmentalization, and mental skills foundation. And second, ensuring those skills are mastered before exposure to stressful conditions.
In other words, you need to teach the skill first. And those skills don’t evolve simply by pushing through pain but through creating space so that you have influence over your inner world and can keep your mind steady. Stress inoculation doesn’t work unless you have acquired the skills to navigate the environment you will encounter. As sports psychologist Brian Zuleger told me: “Telling people to relax doesn’t work unless you’ve taught people how actually to relax. The same goes for mental strength. The historical way to develop toughness was to do something physically challenging, and you’d have a 50-50 shot if they thrived. You have to teach the skill before it can be applied.”
The path to staying calm, cool, and collected isn’t to bulldoze through; it is to learn to navigate and respond instead of reacting. The military experts are just like our meditation experts. They learn how to respond by first developing the mental skills to handle whatever it is they’ll face. Then they put themselves in situations that allow them to apply what they learn. The meditators do this by sitting with their inner world, learning to let thoughts float on by, and not assigning excess importance to any feeling that might arise while they are meditating. They experience discomfort or an inner world that trends toward chaotic, and they learn to not scratch the itch.
The same holds for the rest of us. When we learn to sit with discomfort, to get comfortable being uncomfortable, we can navigate discomfort with equanimity. Not by avoiding, resisting, or bulldozing, but by doing hard things, and calmly, coolly teaching our brains that they don’t have to sound the alarm, that we’ve got everything under control.
In our everyday lives, we don’t train our minds to respond; we train them to do the opposite—to react. We call people out on Facebook; we give in to the urge to roast someone on Twitter. We get outraged by what we see on cable news. We flip out when our congressman tells us there’s another existential threat coming our way. We aren’t taking cues from the Special Forces, monks, or the best endurance athletes, to learn to sit with discomfort.
The wrong kind of toughness
We are the novice meditators who can’t see anything but the pain of the probe right in front of us. Our amygdala lights up and tells the rest of our body a threat is near. We lose control, catastrophize, and, before we know it, we’re screaming at someone online. We’ve forgotten how to navigate our inner world. We push away, ignore, or avoid. We react instead of responding. We lose our minds, freaking out when someone holds a different view or asks us to do something that, ultimately, is a minor inconvenience. We don’t know how to sit with the inevitable discomfort that life brings. We’ve trained our brains to avoid, resist, and freak out.
We need to retrain our brains. To not see threats everywhere, to not think that everyone is out to get us, that any slight feeling of discomfort should lead us straight to a freak-out. The answer doesn’t lie in the traditional advice to “toughen up” but in a more nuanced version. One that starts with awareness and acceptance but encompasses learning how to sit with discomfort.
Real toughness isn’t about manliness, machismo, or bravado. It’s not about the external. It’s about the internal. It’s about being able to understand, navigate, and cope with the inevitable rigors of life. We’ve forgotten that those who shout the loudest, those who need to put up pictures or run political ads showing their strength, often are the most insecure. The ones who can’t deal with the inner turmoil that we all experience.
We need to realize that toughness doesn’t come from dictating, demanding, and controlling. Decades of research has shown that it’s the opposite. People persist through pain and discomfort much more when their basic psychological needs are met. When people feel that they belong, that they have a voice and choice, that they can make progress toward a meaningful goal, they can handle what life throws at them.
It seems like our modern world has pushed us towards taking the opposite approach. We all feel a bit lost. We may think we belong in our corner of the Internet, but we’ve lost genuine in-person connection. Many are stuck in jobs and pursuits without a clear path toward progress. And most of us are being micromanaged to death. All the while, we think that the path back toward normal, to getting rid of this chronic low-level anxiety we all feel, is to simply avoid things that make us uncomfortable.
Maybe, just maybe, we need to take the advice that my wife who teaches elementary school kids gives to her young students when they complain about their latest assignment. She supports them, creates a classroom where they feel like they belong, and gently reminds them when they are struggling through a difficult chapter book: “You can do hard things.”