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It’s been a tough two years for everyone since the COVID-19 crisis began. Some of us have been hit very hard by the impact of the pandemic. We had to adapt in real-time. Short-term discomfort turned into long-term challenges.
The accelerating rate of change in technology, businesses, and policies adds to that impact. We're all experiencing a range of exceptional and extraordinary changes.
As a result, many of us feel overwhelmed and disoriented. We're languishing in varying levels of discomfort, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. As a coach, I see people struggling with extreme uncertainty, while I also seek to prepare and manage my own environment for what might come next.
At the same time, many of our members are seeking support to keep themselves, their people and teams, engaged and moving forward. They are looking ahead for what is next up and how to move toward the next level in a constantly changing world.
With both the work environment and work itself in a state of flux, to thrive, it's time to get more comfortable being uncomfortable.
Stepping into the unknown means stepping out of our comfort zone. Luckily, leaning into uncomfortable feelings and new situations is the path to personal growth. And the level of discomfort often looms larger in our minds than in reality.
Ditching the status quo can sound appealing when we're talking about old ways of doing business. Many are cheering the end of rigid work hours, policies, and processes.
Yet it also means that the patterned worlds of our “business as usual” existences are no longer certain, predictable, or stable. We have to adopt new ways of working and being amid constant and accelerating change.
To find those new ways means trying out new things, and they won't all be successful. Both disruption and transformation will be the order of today, and tomorrow.
Whether we know it or not, those patterns kept us comfortable and calm and helped us stay emotionally and mentally even. Stepping away from the status quo can feel less appealing when we're talking about daily life. Many of us find safety and comfort in our daily routines.
To step into the unknown, we need support from one another, we need a level of safety, and we need a foundation of well-being.
As a coach, this creates an opening to partner with members in resourceful and creative ways. It helps to have support when facing uncomfortable things, especially for the first time. A coach helps make it safe to step into the unknown and can help us reframe to see this moment in time as an opportunity for growth and change.
A coach or mentor, or even a small community of peers, can lend courage, motivation, and practical guidance to abandon and exit our comfort zones. Embracing the discomfort of change and the unknown is hardest the first time. We get better at it, although we may never actually become comfortable being uncomfortable.
As humans, we have an internal need for consistency.
We have our own internal mapping of neurological comfort zones, our unique places for getting comfortable. In a time of disruption, we encounter inconsistencies between what is really happening and what we believe to be true. We experience cognitive dissonance.
As result, we often slip into auto-pilot. We behave with an array of aggressive and passive defenses and reactive responses. Avoidance, denial, anger, cynicism and sarcasm, opposition and resistance are all part of the mix. Often described as “retreat, freeze, take flight or fight,” this is a natural reaction to what is seemingly going on.
We distort and generalize our thoughts or feelings into believing that have no control over events.
It is a normal neurological survival mechanism, but it isn't the most helpful in our modern world for coping with the situation. When we operate this way, we lose our personal power and question our ability to shape outcomes. We may become convinced that we lack the ability to influence others or our environments.
Resistance is futile
We are wired to avoid feelings of discomfort. We try to avoid the pervasive, visceral thoughts and feelings that come from our conflicting beliefs and values. Our neurological urge to remove the discomfort keeps us in our comfort zones.
The result: procrastination, excuses, denial, avoidance and justification, and ultimately, immobilization and inaction.
This isn't helpful, for ourselves or our teams and organizations.
When we feel paralyzed, it deprives us of growth and prevents us from seeing opportunities. It prevents us from developing the mindsets, behaviors, and actions required to thrive in the future. Our “next normal” will depend on our ability to find flow and motivation amid instability and uncertainty.
Costs of resistance
Resistance to change prevents us from:
- Adapting to the current and future environment, day-by-day and looking ahead. Survival of the fittest means being the most adaptive.
- Exploiting the opportunity to improve our confidence, competence, and emotional capacity. The transition through professional and personal crises builds resilience for future challenges.
- Exploring possibilities and unleashing the potential of this moment as a turning point to learn and grow, as a coach, leader, or team.
- Developing strategies for the hybrid work environment to improve competitiveness, connectedness, and innovation. Growing our own practices and helping others expand their roles, teams, and businesses.
- Breaking down the silos that add to the current state of disconnection and loneliness and get in the way of connection and collaboration.
- Creating permission and safety for others to share their fears and anxieties and lay down their negativity and pessimism. This opens the way toward co-creating positivity and optimism, together.
- Embracing the world of digitization and experimentation. We can reframe to look for productive and responsible uses of technology. We can use it to support others through change, enhancing agility and developing new mindsets, behaviors, and skills.
What can we do about being uncomfortable?
Fortunately, in addition to being wired to avoid discomfort, we also crave novelty. Humans are curious. Rediscovering our curiosity — and finding the courage to follow it — can be an antidote to fear.
In normal times, creating a comfort zone is a healthy adaptation for much of our lives. Yet boldness and courage in the face of challenges and adversity helps us become more agile and adaptive. We can get better at transitioning and transforming.
In fact, once we act brave and take the first baby steps out of our comfort zone, we become more brave. We encounter our fear zones and get closer to our fears of loss, blame, shame, envy, punishment, opposition, control, and humiliation.
They don't destroy us.
From there we can enter the learning zone. This is the first stopping point toward generating creative energy and curiosity toward the edges of our comfort zones.
Doing this expands our comfort zone. It builds the foundations for being more comfortable with being uncomfortable by:
- Enabling us to face, feel, acknowledge, and let go of some of our deepest fears. We can deal with them rationally and realistically, with empathy and compassion rather than bias and distortion.
- Reducing our levels of anxiety by letting go of the need to be constantly in control. We grow faster when we adopt a mindset that everything that happens might be a future resource for effecting positive change.
Here are some coaching questions I use that you might consider experimenting with to assess your comfort level.
Be fully present and calm your autonomic nervous system by taking four deep breaths. Then ask:
- How am I truly feeling about this situation?
Accept, embrace and acknowledge the range of feelings:
- How might I name this emotion?
- How might I embrace this feeling?
- What might be causing me to feel like this?
Detach and be non-evaluative and ask:
- What am I telling myself about this situation?
- What do I really believe about this? Do I believe these thoughts?
Provoke and challenge the beliefs and ask:
- What if that belief or assumption isn’t true?
- What if there is something to learn from this experience?
- What might be possible in this situation?
- How might I choose a different response next time a challenge like this arises
Pause and take another four deep breaths and ask:
- What else might be possible in this situation?
- What exactly can I learn from this situation?
- What will I do and say to myself differently next time I feel so uncomfortable?
- How might doing and saying this help me to get comfortable being uncomfortable? What else?
- How will I hold myself to account for doing and saying that?
Leaning into being uncomfortable
This is a great opportunity to co-create a new playbook for ourselves and our teams by enabling the mindset shift from comfort zone to growth zone.
How do we transform cognitive dissonance into being comfortable with being uncomfortable?
Engage in a set of consistent and regular practices that build toward seeing the learning potential in change and disruption.
Hit pause: retreat from activity, get grounded in stillness and silence, and be fully present to your energetic state. You won't stay here. Be mindful and pay deep attention to recognize your patterns and become more attuned. Try to unhook from the internal chatter, stories, and default thought patterns.
Label thoughts and emotions: be present and get connected to others in interactions, feel the feeling, knowing that it is transient.
Acknowledge and accept: embrace the range of feelings, and be compassionate and open-hearted with yourself and others.
Detach and observe your thoughts and emotions: be willing to sustain an open mind and be inquisitive and curious. Explore the non-judgmental space between your feelings and how to respond to them rather than reacting.
Be emotionally agile: learn to see yourself as the operating system, filled with possibilities, and flow with it.
Be courageous and brave: challenge your habitual thinking, feeling, and decision-making habits. Build your confidence to reboot. Act brave before you feel it.
Be imaginative and creative: reimagine your most desirable future state, be optimistic and positive about choosing the best ways to reset, and walk your way forward into the unknown.
Focusing attention and being intentional
The constant and significant changes we all face can be a threshold opening onto new opportunities and possibilities. Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable creates openings for growth, learning, and innovation.
Support from BetterUp can empower leaders and their people to respond positively to uncertainty and dynamic change. Our coaches respect and engage people’s values and humanity in co-creative and innovative ways that improve the quality of people’s lives in ways they value, appreciate, and cherish.