The Pursuit of Discomfort – Theme of the year 2020 - Live in Wonder
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The Pursuit of Discomfort – Theme of the year 2020

Discomfort. The intolerable, disagreeable, prickly state of discomfort. Though often avoided and sometimes feared, it can be the pathway to growth, progress, triumph, and accomplishment.

Can happiness truly be sought in our “positive vibes only” culture? Or is it better achieved by acknowledging and embracing uncomfortable feelings? By facing up to an uncomfortable conversation? Having the courage to overcome an untenable fear?

Living in the Discomfort Zone

Discomfort doesn’t have to be synonymous with suffering or deprivation.

The difference between staying in our comfort zone and making progress can simply be in showing up. Pushing through. Saying yes. Stepping into the unknown. Embracing the unexpected. Being open to trying.

To take a more quantifiable approach, what examples of discomfort could lead to a sense of accomplishment, transformation, or connection?

discomfort or did you die
  • Ask a question in a room full of people.
  • Do one extra rep or run to one more lamppost.
  • Answer the call or write the message you’ve been avoiding.
  • Keep working until the task is complete.
  • Share a personal belief even if it may be challenged.
  • Schedule the most difficult job first.
  • Order something different from the menu.
  • Ask for feedback.
  • Sit through one more minute of meditation.
  • Be willing to not have it your way.
  • Be immersed in moments of silence – avoid the desire to be externally distracted or entertained.
  • Lean into an anxious feeling to find its roots.
  • Say: “Good morning” to a stranger.
  • Apologise first.

The funny thing is, that by pushing through this a state of discomfort, the discomfort itself has been overcome. So, what’s waiting to be discovered on the other side? What was gained by persevering? Was it really so painful, or just uncomfortable in the moment?

Discomfort brings engagement and change. Discomfort means you’re doing something that others were unlikely to do, because they’re hiding out in the comfortable zone.

Seth Godin

New year, new theme

Last year, my theme was “ATTENTION”. It served me well and allowed me to deeply focus on fewer things. However, it also enabled the introverted aspect of my personality to shy away from anything that took me out of that safe wee zone.

I got very, very comfortable.

In 2018, my focus word was “EASE”, because it was what I needed at that time. Oh, how the tide has turned.

I would consider discomfort to be the antithesis of ease. But I will approach it with the same open-hearted presence and vulnerability.

This wasn’t the first choice for my 2020 focus word. I had another word in mind which I’ve pondered over for the past couple of months. But it felt like something was missing, as though it wouldn’t bring about profound transformation.

I also believe that discomfort is the antithesis of complacency. And complacency gets you nowhere.

I needed a challenge.

Then I came across a recent episode from the Afford Anything podcast, in which Paula Pant interviews psychologist Dr Susan David. She talks about “emotional agility” and being open to feelings, without judgement. This idea helped lead me to explore the concept of being with discomfort. Listen to the podcast here or below.


Dr Susan David also talked about emotional agility in her TED talk. Watch here, or at the bottom of this article.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-happiness. I like being happy. I’m a pretty happy person. But when we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. I’ve had hundreds of people tell me what they don’t want to feel. They say things like, “I don’t want to try because I don’t want to feel disappointed.” Or, “I just want this feeling to go away.”

Research now shows that the radical acceptance of all of our emotions — even the messy, difficult ones — is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and true, authentic happiness. But emotional agility is more that just an acceptance of emotions. We also know that accuracy matters. In my own research, I found that words are essential. We often use quick and easy labels to describe our feelings. “I’m stressed” is the most common one I hear. But there’s a world of difference between stress and disappointment, or stress and that knowing dread of “I’m in the wrong career.” When we label our emotions accurately, we are more able to discern the precise cause of our feelings.

Dr. Susan David
Inside Out

The idea of all emotions serving a purpose is one I’ve been exploring for a long time.

Emotions aren’t “good” or “bad,” but they all have value — if only we seek to understand them. Fear, anxiety, and disgust can keep us safe, while Sadness can make us empathetic, grounded, and appreciative.

This is beautifully illustrated in the Pixar film Inside Out.

OK. Discomfort. I got this.

(What have I done)

I’ll look forward to sharing my uncomfortable, prickly journey with you throughout the year.

And, of course, if you have a particular theme, focus word, or goal for 2020, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Alissa Smith

Alissa is a yoga teacher, graphic designer, and creative writer based in Auckland, New Zealand.

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