Christopher was an intelligent 41-year-old accountant when he came to me looking to “re-brand” himself in the second half of his life. Though he had a steady, well-paying job, he longed to work as an entrepreneur. Single and attractive, he was still optimistic about meeting a romantic partner, and hopefully one day starting a family. He was excited about the new direction his life was taking, and impatient to begin it immediately. All good indicators that he was serious about change. As a beginning exercise, I suggested he write a business plan with an executive summary, and come up with 3 ideas for ways to meet new people.
When we met again two weeks later, he was still excited but admitted he had been “crazy busy” at work, and hadn’t managed to do any writing. Nor had he identified any social opportunities that might allow him to meet single women. I made a few simple suggestions, all of which were rebutted for various reasons: “Too expensive. Too difficult. Too contrived. Too awkward.” He was paying me to help him reach his goals, and yet, categorically refusing to do anything that could increase his odds of achieving them. This is one of the most maddening and paradoxical aspects of human nature. We know what it is we need to do to reach our goals, but most of the time, we refuse to do anything that will help us get there. Why? Because we are afraid of the pain.
With Chris, it was the pain of being exposed to criticism or feeling vulnerable that made him avoid writing, or seek out any interactions with new people. But he paid a heavy price for this, as we all do when we refuse to leave the comfort of our bubbles. It wouldn’t matter if we avoided these things once or twice a year. But for most of us, avoidance becomes a way of life. We barricade ourselves behind a protective wall and rarely venture out because beyond that wall is pain. The comfort zone isn’t so much a physical space; it is a mental and psychic prison of our own making. In extreme cases, a person may even hide behind the actual walls of their home: a painful condition known as agoraphobia.
In their new book, The Tools, authors Phil Stutz and Barry Michels outline their theory of pain avoidance, and offer practical tools to counter it. Pain avoidance, they argue, has become the central organizing principle of our lives. But escaping pain isn’t enough. We also insist on replacing it with pleasure. Internet surfing, shopping, recreational drugs, alcohol, and the aptly named “comfort food” – all keep us happily narcotized and safely at arms length from our true wants and desires. Your comfort zone is supposed to keep you safe – but what it really does is make your life small.
Getting Beyond The Bubble
To take advantage of the endless possibilities that life offers, we have to venture out. But the very first thing we encounter is pain, which sends us scuttling right back to the safety of the comfort zone. The answer put forward by Stutz and Michels is a conscious choosing of the pain that negates its power over us – a technique they call “Reversal of Desire.” It’s a form of mental conditioning that allows you to move towards pain that you know may be beneficial for you.
Think of something that is painful for you. It could be as simple as a phone call you’ve been putting off, a project that feels overwhelming, or a task that feels tedious and unrewarding. Most people would agree that the temporary discomfort we feel by executing on these, is actually far less than the long-term pain associated with their avoidance. As you move towards it, pain shrinks. When you move away from it, pain grows.
Christopher, while clearly unhappy about his current situation, was unable or unwilling to confront the pain that might allow him to improve upon it. That’s okay. Many people don’t want to work that hard, even to improve their own lives. They want someone else to do the work for them and serve it up neatly on a platter. But the truth is, nobody can do the work for us. Only we have the power to transform our lives.
The task ahead of you, if it’s worth doing at all, is probably long and hard. Most of us have long-term aspirations we’re working on, and these require the most commitment of all. The difference between those who succeed and those who fail, is the ability to meet pain head on and not be cowed by it. They’re able to “embrace the suck” and still stay the course. Long-term commitment of any kind – to a vocation, a relationship, starting a business – requires an almost endless series of small painful actions. This is the necessary pain we must go through in order to make our dreams a reality. Unnecessary pain, like worry, just keeps us stuck.
The good news is that every time we confront pain head on, we exercise our discomfort muscles. And this is what builds inner strength. With inner strength and courage, we can meet challenges head on. And that is the greatest comfort of all.