When Avoiding Misery Causes Misery
Sometimes, you have to lean into your discomfort, not run from it.
Posted Oct 28, 2019
There's a cruel, ironic twist to your attempts to avoid pain—you're causing yourself more agony in the long run.
It's something I see in my therapy office over and over again. Many of the people who walk through my office door spend almost every waking minute of their days trying not to feel bad.
But their attempts to dodge discomfort introduce more misery into their lives.
An individual who feels stressed reaches for his phone to mindlessly scroll through social media. Although his digital device provides a brief distraction from reality, looking at pictures of people who seem happier than he does actually adds to his distress.
Another person feeds her loneliness with food. Sitting down with a plate full of food is like salve on a wound—at least for a minute. But as soon as she's done eating, her loneliness returns, and she raids the refrigerator again, even though she's not physically hungry.
These are vicious cycles that are hard to recognize, let alone break. But until you interrupt those patterns, you're going to stay stuck in a downward spiral of emotional turmoil.
It's likely that all of us have times when we seek immediate relief from discomfort in exchange for longstanding pain.
Here are three short-term solutions that may be creating bigger long-term problems in your life:
1. Numbing Yourself to Pain
Binge-watching Netflix and drinking a glass of wine (or two) to unwind after a stressful day, eating because you're anxious, and scrolling through social media when you're lonely are just a few ways you might be tempted to distract yourself from your emotions.
Those strategies temporarily help you avoid painful feelings—and they often become emotional crutches that help you get through bad days and tough times. But suppressing emotions doesn't allow you to learn, grow, or heal from them.
In addition to your emotions never getting resolved, those unhealthy habits can also take a toll on your physical health, social life, and psychological well-being.
2. Avoiding Hard Things
Stepping outside of your comfort zone is tough. Whether you take a new class or you apply for a new job, you're likely to experience anxiety to some extent.
You might make a mistake, embarrass yourself, or fall short of your goal. And that'd be uncomfortable. So in an effort to avoid that discomfort, it's tempting to play it safe.
Living inside your comfort zone is an effective way to dodge anxiety—but living a small life is also a recipe for depression.
3. Giving In to Instant Gratification
Whether you eat a few extra cookies, or you can't resist checking how many likes your latest post got on social media every few minutes, instant gratification comes in many forms.
And while giving into temptation will give you momentary pleasure, it will rob you of long-term happiness. Plenty of research backs this up (including the famous marshmallow test).
So while saving your money, sticking to a healthier diet, and staying focused on a task may seem like torture for a few minutes, they are key to reaching your greatest potential.
Build Your Mental Muscle
Managing your emotions in a healthy way is a key component of mental strength. And it's a two-way street—the more strength you build, the easier it becomes to manage your emotions. And the more you work on coping with emotions in a healthy way, the stronger you become.
Learning how to tolerate uncomfortable emotions is a skill. And like all skills, it takes practice. But as you gain confidence in your ability to feel uncomfortable feelings, you'll discover that you're more capable and competent than your brain gives you credit for.
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