It’s been quite a year for me. I started this year with a health concern, which I’m on the other side of dealing with now. Back in the first half of this year though, I had many plans and things to do. I was excessively busy. I didn’t have time to deal with a significant health challenge as well!
The health issue was physically and mentally uncomfortable, but this was accompanied by rewards of things going on in my life at the time: the satisfaction of delivering interesting and meaningful work projects, moving to my new home with a garden for the cats, training for and completing the London marathon… This period of intensity could not go on. By early June I went in for major surgery, and as strange as it may sound, I was looking forward to a break! To everyone’s relief my biopsy results were clear and my main focus became recovery. The thesaurus should have the word ‘rollercoaster’ under the entry of recovery. It is quite an experience. I use current tense because whilst I am back at work and looking and sounding like Anna again, it is actually a two year recovery from my operation. Recovery is not a linear process.
It was not a great surprise to me that taking time off work and staring out of the window from the sofa for a couple of months really gave me time to reflect. ‘Stuff’ started to emerge. The type of stuff that has little chance of getting sufficient airtime against the noise of regular, busy, daily life and work issues (even for someone who regularly reflects and meditates).
So yeah, I have sat with the discomfort of all of this, and as I’ve gradually started to build work back up, the theme of discomfort has continued. My clients have been exceptionally supportive and understanding, to which I am grateful. I also hope that my clients will ultimately benefit from this experience. From the personal experience of discomfort comes personal growth, should one bring a growth mindset to it. As a psychologist who firmly believes in growth mindset, I will be honest and say it is definitely not easy, but being able to observe, sit with and reflect upon discomfort is a growthful process (an Anna-ism, as my friend would say).
As well as my own personal growth, I have been discussing discomfort with my clients. It features in some of the thinking around psychological safety. Ironically – teams who have good psychological safety have more moments of discomfort. This is because they feel safe enough to speak up using their true voice, challenge the status quo, share difficulties and disagree with each other. The safety comes from using their voice and being vulnerable in doing so without humiliation, punishment or rejection.
Being vulnerable usually feels uncomfortable and in today’s world where we are led to believe there are solutions to everything, fixes, cures, life-saving technologies, we are conditioned not to go there. This constant message of “get rid of anything that causes discomfort” is problematic, because it leads us to believe that we should never experience discomfort. That we should complain to someone, or take steps to eradicate discomfort.
We live much longer lives now thanks to the comforts of modern living and healthcare. Why be uncomfortable when you can be comfortable? Quite. I’m not suggesting we have to purposefully hunt down some adverse situations, or wear a hair shirt to achieve our full potential. We do not have to seek; in this tricky life that we all lead, discomfort, pain and hurt are things we will be faced with. So the question is more when we face discomfort, why and how do we show up?
Let’s start with WHY. Why should we show up for discomfort when we could just hide from it or resist it? Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Manic Street Preacher fans will know that resistance is futile. I’m none of the above, but I know that when I lean into discomfort it shows me, often with great vibrancy, that I’m alive. I’m lucky to be alive. Discomfort also shows us the route of something that has potential, potential to grow and become vibrant.
How we show up, is something about wanting to be honest with what we face and pursuing the source of the discomfort. The alternative is to shy away from it, blame others, distract ourselves or employ another form of denial. By denying our discomfort we deny ourselves the growth that comes from turning towards it and seeking to understand the self that little bit more. I think that by denying ourselves the honour of turning towards discomfort, our ability to cope with it gets smaller and less able. All discomforts become more difficult to bear.
I’ll be honest. I haven’t always wanted to look at my stuff, and have many well-practiced denial behaviours available to me, some of which are still in use! However, I have found that when I do honestly look at the uncomfortable things in my life, by showing up for them, my life and work have evolved for the better. I have overcome adversity and found strength and authenticity in that process.
Recently I went to Birkbeck to speak to doctoral students about my career since graduating. My story had them laughing, even though it wasn’t all joyful news. What I got most from my doctorate is something I’m still holding close for safekeeping. A very personal thing that brings a tear to my eye just reflecting on it. It was both difficult and beautiful at the same time. I didn’t share this with them – instead I spoke of publishing my work, speaking at conferences and on podcasts, growing my business and developing budding psychologists. I also share some of the discomforts, such as knock backs from publishers and the pain of conducting a systematic literature review with a neurodivergent brain. We laughed, but I do, and I will turn towards that discomfort because in there is some comfort for me too.
The rollercoaster of our lives will continue, the highs, the lows and the flats where we plod along. I made a pact with myself recently that I would not get upset or offended where it could be avoided. Laughter, joy and gratitude as a priority. When things are not OK, then saying OK to them and letting them in the door. They will pass on in their own time and leave a gift behind (Rumi fans will know the inspiration for my words here, check out the link if you don’t).
I am in a privileged position to be able to make this pact with myself. It is in this spirit that I’m offering a gift to others. I love working with people from under-represented and marginalized groups. In the spirit of giving, am offering a free one hour coaching session to a select number of people in December, until the 18th. So if you are experiencing discomfort at work and wanting to find a way to show up for it let me know. Get in touch anna @ zestpsychology.com
This blog was authored by Dr Anna Kane, founder of Zest Psychology, Chartered Coaching and Occupational Psychologist.