To create change, grow your capacity to be with discomfort

Three lines of thought have been intermingling in my mind this past week, like colored threads of yarn, interweaving to make a pattern I can’t quite make sense of.  I think the theme is about the need to be with discomfort in order for change to occur, and the value of feedback.  One thread, perhaps this one is fire engine red, is related to exercise.  During a strength training workout yesterday, as I heaved the dumbbells up, I thought about the discomfort created during a workout, and the fact that without being able to tolerate discomfort, you can’t build your physical strength or stamina.  It also occurred to me how much easier it was to tolerate the discomfort when I had the feedback and emotional support of my personal trainer.  Working out with her not only made me stronger physically, it grew my capacity to tolerate discomfort.  My workouts alone are more effective compared to before I trained with her – but not nearly as effective as when she is with me.

A second thread (I imagine this one to be deep purple) is related to learning – either a new skill or a new area of knowledge.  When you first embark on a learning expedition, you often feel awkward, unskillful, and uncomfortable, especially if you have not tried to learn anything new recently.  I started to learn piano last year, and it was so hard – there were moments of joy, coupled with long periods of discomfort.  My playing never sounded like I wanted it to, hoped for.  And I did not really set myself up for success – I did not find a teacher, someone who could give me feedback and support when the going got particularly hard.  I also took on at least 2 other new practices at the same time as piano, and found that I did not have the capacity to be with the discomfort of all three at the same time.  As my dad would have said, my eyes were bigger than my stomach.  So I dropped the piano, but hope to pick it up again in the future, with support and maybe as the primary skill I am working on.  I have continued the two other practices, and one of them in particular has helped me develop my capacity to be with discomfort – the practice of mindfulness meditation.

A third thread (I imagine this one as an expansive blue) is the vast arena of systems analysis, with all of the interconnected relationships and feedback loops connecting different parts of the system. Most systems in stable state, unless a force acts on them to create change.  If I am trying to create change in a system, I will generate resistance, which creates heat – just as exercise creates heat by pushing through resistance.  But the heat from a system has to be managed, or at the very least awareness needs to be brought to it.  It often happens that intervening in a system creates unintended consequences – not necessarily bad, but not planned.  That is the nature of complex, dynamic systems.  They adapt to new inputs, sometimes in unpredictable ways. If you are trying to create change while managing unintended consequences, it really helps to have feedback loops in place, so you can adjust as you go.

Reflecting on the pattern of these three lines of thought, my conclusion is that in order to create more space for change, you need to grow your capacity to be with discomfort.  And that feedback and support are both highly valuable for this endeavor.  A good coach goes a long way.

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2 Responses to To create change, grow your capacity to be with discomfort

  1. Helga says:

    Eleanor,
    I’ve been enjoying your musings/essays. This one really resonated with me because of similar life experiences (“same thing only different”). In Martial Arts class we are asked to hold certain positions to increase stamina and endurance as well. Counting together helps build team support, while the coach goes around making small adjustments to our stances or positions. So building on your conclusions, I would add that the additional “sharing the pain” with others also builds “can do” team attitude in the face of immediate challenges or change. (We are constantly reminded by our instructor that if we want to change our condition we must challenge ourselves.)
    Meditation is part of my Martial Arts practice, so I see it as integral to an existing practice, rather than as an addition. One of our martial arts styles, Bagwa, generates internal heat and energy. Grand masters of this particular style indeed learn how to manage this energy . . . which manifests itself as a substantial force. And yes, one has to learn how to manage not only the generation of this energy, but the application of the resultant force.
    Oh, and my partner and I suddenly decided that learning a new musical instrument would help stave off dementia (re: your piano journey). We purchased accordions (and that is a whole ‘nuther story) and started self-teaching with gusto, but practicing dwindled rapidly after a few weeks. Not so much that we were frustrated by the slow pace of our learning, but rather our hounds made these dubious faces and quietly went elsewhere. Truthfully, our capacity for new learning, I think had also been met.
    I guess the discussion might also be framed by the following question: Is discomfort a necessary condition for change?

    • Eleanor Bell says:

      Helga, what a fantastic reflection! Thank you so much for sharing, and it is great to hear your voice again, if only via the bits and bytes on my screen. The sharing of pain with others is a great insight. I have been in a week-long leadership team meeting this week, and have that same experience. We are supporting each other in being able to be with discomfort taking place that allows learning. I think the answer to your question is yes – I think discomfort might be a necessary condition for change. -Eleanor

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