WELCOMING VOLUNTARY DISCOMFORT
My girlfriend is always asking me where I get my self-control from – especially in regards to food. “I just don’t get it,” she says with a half-eaten potato chip in one hand and a pint of Halo-top ice cream in the other, “If I ever had to diet or fast, God forbid, and you had the audacity to have a pizza delivered to our apartment in my presence, I would fight you.” I’m in the late stages of dieting for an upcoming competition and I have one scoop of peanut butter left before I’ve hit my allocated macro intake for the day. While the overwhelming smell of pizza grease has me almost drooling on myself, I’m content with turning it away in the pursuit of more fulfilling things. In this moment, that would be the scoop of gooey deliciousness I get to treat myself with. Her comment gets me thinking, though. While I definitely consider her to be an outlier on the hypothetical self-control in the face of food scale, I know many people who would have a similar response to the situation. Why is it so much easier for some people to refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing? This internal dialogue continues for a bit until I unintentionally tune in to a mattress commercial that’s blaring from the TV in front of us. “Sleep cool and comfortable..” and something about the different layers of various types of memory foam and a temperature control technology that prevents you from overheating at night. When exactly did we evolve into a society that requires 8 different types of memory foam?
American culture has it backwards now a days. As consumers, we’re being hardwired to believe that comfort and ease are the keys to happiness in every aspect of our existence. We ride in Ubers and up elevators and demand air-conditioned rooms cold enough for us to walk around in our favorite pair of sweats, all August. Everyone’s on the pursuit of happiness while being sure to avoid discomfort at all costs.
One of my favorite ancient Stoic practices is the welcoming of voluntarily discomfort. Stoics found that if they occasionally practiced getting uncomfortable over a long period, they were able to transform themselves into individuals with remarkable courage and self-control. They didn’t do this to punish themselves, the goal was to minimize their desire for material objects and pleasures, enhance their appreciation for what they did have, and prepare themselves for future hardships (which are inevitable no matter how thick or durable your mattress).
They would set aside a few days to practice living outside of their comfort zone. They would replace lavish meals with simple dishes, sleep on the ground instead of in bed, and wear clothes that didn’t keep them warm in the cold. Seneca, a leading Roman Stoic philosopher wrote,
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.” – Seneca
Seneca and the Stoics strived to be able to stay calm in the face of hardships, so they prepared for tough times in advance when it was easier. When Seneca asks, “Is this the condition that I feared?” he proved to himself that the fear of whatever hardship he was facing was much worse than the hardship itself. Similarly, the idea of pushing through 3 more reps at the gym is a lot worse than the act itself. I know this because I’ve experienced it through the practice of (drum roll) voluntary discomfort. I’ve learned to ask myself this: When discomfort stands between me and virtue, will I choose comfort? Or virtue? Discomfort is never everlasting nor intolerable. So why allow it to hinder us from reaching our goals? Whether it’s pushing myself out of my comfort zone at the gym or purposefully saying no to pleasurable situations (aka inhaling pizza like a vacuum) at home, this technique has helped me to strengthen myself against future misfortunes and put my greatest fears into perspective.
Once you overcome the need for comfort, your life will become much easier. Setting goals for yourself and sticking to them will be easier. You’ll find yourself becoming more grateful for the things you do have. Your thought process will begin to shift from ‘I need’ or ‘I wish I had’ to ‘I’m so happy I have’ and ‘I’m grateful for’.
Eventually shit will hit the fan at some point in your life. If you only know comfort, you might be left traumatized. Prepare yourself to have the mental and physical strength to weather the storm. There are countless ways to embrace a bit of discomfort in your life. I challenge you to find yours and tackle it head on. The effort necessary to change is minimal, but the difference in courage and self-control over time is monumental.