Leaning Into Discomfort

An article on theatlantic.com caught my eye. How to Land Your Kid in Therapy takes a look at the effects of “overparenting” on the development of kids. The point that the article is making is that our emotional and mental resilience in the face of challenges, adversity, and failure needs to have the chance to grow in response to setbacks and disappointments, in much the same way that our immune systems need to have exposure to germs in order to develop. This idea makes a lot of sense to me.

In education circles (among others), people talk about learning edges, which are the boundaries of our comfort zones. If we never leave our comfort zones, we don’t learn. The trick is to discover how to go far enough to grow without going so far that we hurt ourselves. As my yoga teacher points out, it isn’t that going further is better. In fact, being too attached to going as far as possible leads to plenty of injuries. But since our edges shift, we also can’t stay in the same place. With experience and practice, we can learn to ride those edges to the point of maximum benefit, without going so far that we end up hurting ourselves. Growth is often uncomfortable or painful, and not all discomfort or pain is growth.

I find two things about this interesting. First, it’s a good reminder that US culture is a bit crazy when it comes to discomfort. Learning how to sit with discomfort is at odds with our tendency to avoid it. In my experience, avoiding discomfort rarely makes it go away and often makes it bigger. And when we go to the other extreme and try to fix it immediately, we often neglect the messages that it offers us. When we can sit with it without trying to deny it or make it go away, sometimes it has something important to say.

It can be really hard to make room for discomfort, and it can be even harder to make room for someone else’s, especially when it’s your child. And since I don’t have kids, I want to be careful to not jump on the “blame the parents” bandwagon that so often comes out when these kinds of discussions happen. But sometimes, folks do seem to go too far. The therapist who wrote that article says:

I started getting more patients like [the one described]. Sitting on my couch were other adults in their 20s or early 30s who reported that they, too, suffered from depression and anxiety, had difficulty choosing or committing to a satisfying career path, struggled with relationships, and just generally felt a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose—yet they had little to quibble with about Mom or Dad.

Instead, these patients talked about how much they “adored” their parents. Many called their parents their “best friends in the whole world,” and they’d say things like “My parents are always there for me.” Sometimes these same parents would even be funding their psychotherapy (not to mention their rent and car insurance), which left my patients feeling both guilty and utterly confused. After all, their biggest complaint was that they had nothing to complain about!

He goes on to discuss how many of these folks never learned to deal with conflict or digest disappointment or overcome interpersonal difficulties because they were always rescued from their difficulties. While it’s pretty obvious that lots of parents go too far in the other direction and don’t offer enough support, it also seems clear that when you’re always protected from the world around you, there’s little motivation to learn how to stand on your feet. And that has repercussions down the line:

[Parenting expert] Wendy Mogel says that colleges have had so much trouble getting parents off campus after freshman orientation that school administrators have had to come up with strategies to boot them. At the University of Chicago, she said, they’ve now added a second bagpipe processional at the end of opening ceremonies—the first is to lead the students to another event, the second to usher the parents away from their kids. The University of Vermont has hired “parent bouncers,” whose job is to keep hovering parents at bay. She said that many schools are appointing an unofficial “dean of parents” just to wrangle the grown-ups. Despite the spate of articles in recent years exploring why so many people in their 20s seem reluctant to grow up, the problem may be less that kids are refusing to separate and individuate than that their parents are resisting doing so.

I have to say that that sounds really surreal to me. But then, my parents always gave me the room to go and explore the world around me. It never would have occurred to them to ban score keeping from sports, as the article says some coaches and parents have done in order to avoid hurt feelings when teams lose. Instead, my Dad would tell me that he was sorry that we lost and help me cheer up. Seems like a much better approach in the long run. After all, we’re all going to have disappointment sometimes. And if we compete at anything, we’ll lose some of the time. I’m glad that I learned how to deal with that instead of hiding from it.

The second thing I think is interesting about this is that it’s going to have major consequences on people’s relationships and sex lives, although that’s not a major focus of this article. One of the most important skills for maintaining a healthy relationship is the ability to make room for the ebb and flow of connection. When we can’t hold space for our partner’s discomfort, or when we can’t tolerate the inevitable disconnections and misattunements that arise, it’s really easy to fall into enmeshment and co-dependency. The way to avoid that is to learn the skills of resolution and reattunement. To do that, we need to be able to lean into the discomfort of conflict. We need to have the emotional intelligence and self-regulatory capacity to digest our feelings and our experiences without getting lost in them or denying them. And we can’t do that if we never have the chance to learn those skills.

These are hardly new problems for people or relationships. After all, therapists have been helping people get unstuck from codependency for a long time. But we now have much stronger cultural messages that tell us that discomfort is a bad thing and that we need to avoid it as much as possible. I find that while discomfort is (by definition) uncomfortable, it can also be a source of a lot of useful information about myself and my situation. The more I’ve learned to lean into it and listen to it, the more gracefully I’m able to respond. Not that I’m perfect by any means, just less ungraceful than I used to be.

There’s a difference, though, between leaning into discomfort and wallowing in your pain. I was talking with a friend lately who has a habit of getting down on herself when things get hard. She sometimes beats herself up when she hits roadblock, but she does it in a way that looks like she’s leaning into her discomfort: she puts a lot of energy into analyzing what went wrong and how to not make that mistake again. When I suggested to her that her place of discomfort might be learning how to be gentle with herself and to let go of her harsh self-criticism, I knew I hit the target because her immediate reaction was “that’s scary.” For someone who avoids looking at their actions and responsibility, leaning into discomfort might mean putting more energy into the kind of self-analysis that my friend does. But then, there isn’t one tool that works in every situation so the trick is to have a whole set of them to work with. Finding the balance between avoidance and wallowing in your pain is a tough thing to practice.

One way to manage that is to learn to let go of is our habitual reactions. Our habits often do a great job of helping us not feel discomfort, even when they cause us a lot of pain. Whether it’s self-soothing without addressing the root cause, creating drama in order to distract ourselves, numbing out, convincing ourselves that it’s someone else’s fault or that next time will be different, our habits do a lot to help us not feel pain. My experience is that I often need to move in whatever direction is opposite from my habits in order to experience the discomfort that underlies my pain, to listen to what it has to tell me, and to find other ways to respond. It’s a challenging practice and I’m nowhere near perfect at it. At least it does get easier over time. Usually.

So if you find yourself wanting to rescue your partner or your child from an uncomfortable experience, take a moment and think about whether they just might be better off if you gave them some support and helped them learn the tools to deal with it themselves. You might need to lean into your own discomfort around their pain, but that’s a much more sustainable way to go. After all, you won’t always be there, but if they have the skills, you won’t need to be.

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2 Responses so far.

  1. Megan says:

    Very well said

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  2. Amber says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Well written and hit on some interesting things I had not considered before. Also kind of makes me happy that i didn’t mother hen my children. I will be passing this along to them, as they are now entering the phase of ‘motherhood’ themselves. Thank You

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