Discomfort is Necessary for Mental Health

Mental health means a commitment to discomfort. One of the most counter-intuitive facts about life is that growth almost always involves pain or discomfort on some level. And this is as sure as death and taxes. If you get to a point in your life where things are easy or comfortable, it may be an indicator that a mental health tune-up is in order.  “How ludicrous!” my imaginary audience might protest: “Everyone deserves happiness in this world!”

And to that I might say “Well it’s out of my scope of practice to moralize on what everyone ‘deserves’,  I do know that happiness—as its own end— will almost always disappoint.” Certainly, there are seasons where we will have peace and joy and a reprieve from the daily or mental grind. Welcome those when they happen! But if you happen to be a human being who is interested in the pursuit of constant growth (admittedly, not everyone is), you must EXPECT to be uncomfortable. And if you are doing it right— the growth thing, that is— this discomfort will show up in three domains:

Thought

Mental health means abandoning binary thinking that limits our understanding of self and others. An easy example: someone might not be a “bad” person… but they might not be right for you. There is a lot of unfamiliarity that comes with abandoning false dichotomies. It’s takes no effort to think in black and white; this is the human default. It takes much more mental effort to allow for shades of gray. What this means is learning to accept truths that live in tension with each other. A really common one therapists see is when clients try to dismiss their childhood emotional neglect by saying “My parents loved me and did the best they could.” Yes, we believe you! And it may also be the case that this wasn’t enough to provide for your emotional needs. Another example of truths living in tension is someone who means well but is not being honest. Or when you can know something is a good decision… but not want to put in the effort to make it. Or, when you value your partner more than anything else… but spend more time on your phone than with them. These are hard things to accept! But once we begin to recognize the nuance of seemingly contradictory thoughts, we are on the path to healthy mindsets.

Feeling

Mental health means allowing for all the feelings. Moral judgements have no place in the emotional realm. Feelings are simply feelings and not necessarily an indictment of our character, an indicator of our maturity, or a sign of our healing. They are just feelings. And the path to mental wellness is one that allows for these feelings to do their work in us, without too much avoidance or resistance. This is incredibly uncomfortable. It’s easier to distract ourselves from grief, numb ourselves from pain, or to apologize for our tears than to sit in the social awkwardness of feeling them. Mentally healthy people work to adopt a disposition of curiosity towards their emotions, allowing them to pass in and through them without self-criticism. Of course how we act in response to our emotions is another story: lashing out in anger is not “feeling the feeling”… it’s simply emoting in an unhealthy way. But I digress. 

Behavior

Mentally healthy people intentionally do uncomfortable things. One of the most obvious ways this can happen is by creating and maintaining boundaries. It can be uncomfortable to tell people that you are not available to help them if they ask. Or to tell someone that you don’t want to be physically intimate if you’re afraid of disappointing them. Going straight into discomfort is the exact premise of different exposure therapies— one of the most successful treatments for things like PTSD and OCD. Little by little, we learn to tolerate the discomfort of the things that cause us fear or reactivity. In your personal life, you can practice pushing yourself out of your comfort zone by attending a social event that makes you feel nervous, speaking up if a friend says something offensive even if you’re afraid of what their reaction might be, or starting a new business despite the fears that might be holding you back.

The point is that there is a strong correlation between growth and discomfort. Knowing this can improve our willingness to think, feel and do hard things. To do so is to live in a mentally healthy way.