I remember one of my early NLP mentors tell me that: “you never want to be entirely comfortable in life”. His comment surprised me. At the time, I thought comfort was a pretty good goal: get to the stage in life where you were comfortable; have very little in the way of uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions. Surely that was one of the main goals of being able to master your thinking, your emotions, your life?

Well, perhaps…

Fast forward 16 years, and i’m standing in front of an extremely intimidating looking BBC standard camera stumbling and stuttering through a story that i’ve told with relative ease to live audiences close to a hundred times.

I’d been asked to record a training course with a fellow colleague in a studio and, i have to say, the level of challenge it was presenting had taken me by surprise. What would normally have been a simple explanation, had been transformed by the camera lens into a challenge akin to running a marathon; 5 minutes on camera suddenly felt like 45 minutes! Emotional state management? Huh…it was all over the place.

Out. Of. Comfort. Zone.

The 4 words that best described my experience.

In the background of my experience though, 4 distinctly different words could also be heard:

Exactly. What. You. Need.

It’s true, in the foreground it didn’t feel good – in fact, it felt pretty awful – but somewhere in the distance, a more important voice was silently being heard. A voice relaying a simple but profound message:

That the discomfort was only temporary, but the gains from the experience would be permanent.

So how is your own relationship with comfort? What happens when you move out of it? Or when it disappears completely? When you’re thrown, pulled, dragged, or voluntarily step out of your comfort zone, even if it’s only temporary. Do you thrive? Feel a sense of excitement? Or do you melt faster than a blancmange in a microwave?

Maybe you don’t even get that far…perhaps you’ve become so adept at organising life around the avoidance of discomfort that you rarely go out of your comfort zone…

I think the relationship you have with comfort is an absolutely essential one when it comes to your personal development, your chances of success, and your on-going sense of fulfilment in life.

One of the primary things I’ve noticed over the years that stops people from taking the kind of action they need to take, is the belief that things always need to feel all nice & good before they start; that they need to be entirely comfortable with the situation before it can proceed; and that they need to be fully ready and prepared to make it possible for them to do what they want to do.

When you get down to it though, most of the time, due to the organic nature of life, it rarely works out that way. It’s in the wrong order for a start. It’s generally the experience of doing something that makes us fully ready, not the readiness that creates the experience.

Sure, you can manage these discomfort levels so that they don’t overwhelm you, and there are many things you can do to help you prepare as much as you can, whatever your goal, but at some point there will inevitably be a threshold you will have to cross – or, of course, be pulled over kicking, spitting and screaming. 

If you’re going to do something meaningful, it will provide challenge. You will be judged, stretched, thrown into new situations, and hence, by default, you are going to be out of your depth; out of your comfort zone.

Sure, it’s going to be uncomfortable to a certain degree, but if you roll with it, welcome the discomfort in as if it’s some kind of kind of twisted, masochistic friend, then you can start to appreciate the meaning it offers in the long term; the worthwhile and long-lasting purpose it fits into.

I guess, for me, this was the message behind the silent but powerful voice that was echoing away in the background of my experience, accompanied by a nostalgic memory of my early mentor lecturing me on the usefulness of discomfort.

I now happen to mostly agree with him: I still love my comfort zone – come on, it feels so nice! – but you must definitely don’t won’t to max out on it; you don’t want to become dependant on it like some kind of narcotic. Discomfort is, in fact, actually a resource. It has a vital part to play in the overall game of successful living.

It might seem like it at the time, but the discomfort we feel when we step out of our natural habitat is not our enemy. It’s one of the pre-requisites of doing something meaningful; a sign that you are stepping into unknown territory and having some kind of new and potentially enriching experience.

When we make this shift in our thinking, the act of moving out of our comfort zone can start to look – and feel – a whole lot different. All of sudden, the discomfort we feel in these situations can be seen as the resource it is; a vital cog in the machine that makes up part of the journey towards the achievement of our goals, dreams and visions. Something to be welcomed rather than treated as a parasite that has to be controlled.

That way, we can work toward one of the most ‘resource-rich’ places I think we can be as human beings: being comfortable with the uncomfortable… 

I know this sounds like an impossible paradox but I do think it’s possible: you can feel uncomfortable in the moment when you do something, but because you appreciate how worthwhile it could potentially be in the long run, how it fits in within the greater scheme of things, this discomfort becomes mixed in with lots of other more productive emotions.

We don’t have to get completely lost in one emotion. Emotions can – and I think they mostly do – work in a more nested structure; linking together in a complex network that allows us to appreciate what feeling bad, temporarily, can do for us at a greater level.

It’s a bit like fairly recently when I was attempting to beat my personal best for a 10K run. Around about the 6K mark, every part of my body-mind was telling me to stop…but I kept running…in fact, I sped up…In that moment, I was experiencing quite considerable discomfort but, at some level, I knew that the discomfort was part of a greater plan; part of a system that included emotions that were of far greater importance to my fulfilment than that short period of discomfort. For me this is one example of what it’s like to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

So as we start moving rather rapidly towards 2019, what kind of relationship will you choose to have with your comfort zone? For it’s vitally important. Your success, happiness & levels of fulfilment rely on it.

How comfortable do you plan on being comfortable with? And also how much discomfort do you plan on being comfortable with? Not discomfort for the sake of being a total masochistic, but the kind that plays a small part in something more profound; something worthwhile and ultimately fulfilling.

The choice, of course, is yours to make…

All the best,

Steven Burns

The Scottish Centre of NLP