When Is Feeling Uncomfortable a Good Thing?

Meeting a crush for drinks. Making a presentation at work. Having a serious talk with your parents. All of these situations can be uncomfortable, even anxiety-inducing. They’re also often necessary for moving forward in life.

But, sometimes, it’s hard to interpret feelings of discomfort. How do you know when to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, and when you’re not ready for it yet?

Young man presenting at work to his peers. Uncomfortable pbs rewire
Discomfort doesn’t always equal bad.

“A lot of times people say listen to your gut or intuition when it comes to making the right decisions for yourself,” said Benjamin Ritter, founder and life consultant at Live for Yourself Consulting. “The problem with that advice is that your gut or intuition is based on your previous experiences, including your fears and limiting beliefs.”

Trusting your gut can help you, but it can also hold you back. Ritter and other experts shared how to think through and tackle uncomfortable situations.

Focus on your goals

“The key to knowing when to trust yourself and to force yourself to be uncomfortable is to know exactly what you want to accomplish, the goal, and then the steps to get there. For example, if you want to make more money at work, you need to ask for it, or put yourself in the position or do the work that deserves a promotion. If you want to meet someone new, then you’ll need to go to events and talk to people that are outside of your current social circle. Discomfort leads to growth, you just need to ensure that the growth you are targeting is aligned with your own goals and desires.” — Benjamin Ritter

Are you in unfamiliar territory?

“Our brains have been wired for thousands of years to protect us and keep us safe, above all else. This is a wonderful feature (to tell you you’re) about to be eaten by a lion, or… not to step in front of that speeding car, but it can also get in the way in our modern lives where real danger is not hiding around every corner. …

“Part of what (our brains) do is continually calculate risk and one of the major things your brain looks for in that calculation is have you done it, or something very similar, before. If not, (your brain) will flag that it’s possibly dangerous, which comes across as discomfort or anxiety. Of course, that activity may have no peril involved at all, so it’s up to you to take control of the signals your brain is telling you. … Take a moment to really notice the feelings… If you push them aside, your brain will only ramp up the anxiety as it thinks you haven’t noticed.” — life coach Laura Killick, Laura Killick Coaching

Reframe your thoughts

“Another way we set our brains into high-alert is by telling it something is dangerous. Our feelings are created by our thoughts, so if we’re thinking we’re going to fail or that the situation is scary in some way, your body responds by making you feel uncomfortable, which often makes you think worse things and so on in a downward spiral.

“Combat it by upgrading the thoughts you’re having. It’s almost impossible to go from ‘I’m about to make an idiot of myself in this gym class’ to ‘The instructor is going to be blown away by how amazing I am.’ It’s simply too much of a leap for your brain to work. However, you can replace the thought with a neutral thought (like) ‘I’ve successfully completed exercise classes before’ or ‘This is an exercise class where people learn things every day,’ which should reduce your stress response.” — Laura Killick

Woman snuggling with her husky puppy. Uncomfortable pbs rewire
Sometimes, staying home really is the best choice you can make for yourself.

Avoiding discomfort isn’t the answer

“Breaking out of your comfort zone allows one to expand their world. When experiencing nervousness and anxieties, people tend to make their world smaller by avoiding things that cause discomfort or negative feelings. The issue with this is that slowly their world shrinks and shrinks, boxing the person in and shutting out positive aspects of the world.

“Opening your world is an important step in taking back your confidence and decreasing anxieties. It is important to consider your particular situation and then determine the steps you can take to slowly ease yourself into the stressor.” — therapist Janice Hartley

How to break out of your comfort zone

“You should expose yourself to a mild level of discomfort initially. For instance, If you are uncomfortable in groups, you could pick a group that interests you and make the first step of contacting the organizer to ask questions. Next, you could go to the location of the group outside of the scheduled group time. Walk around and get a feel for the location. Next, you may want to walk into the group at the scheduled time but only stay for five minutes.

“You can slowly expose yourself to the feared situation little by little, noting each step made as a success. If, while completing a step, you feel overwhelming anxiety, leave the situation with the intention to try again. Some anxiety and discomfort is normal. Try taking three deep breaths to help remain clam and you can try focusing on how you are now opening up your world. Retreating from a feared situation allows anxieties to grow. Overcoming feared situations will give you power over your discomfort.” — Janice Hartley

Some situations are unhealthy

“Internal alarms are built to protect us.  When our internal alarm system screams ‘danger,’ it is good to have the uncomfortable to then make a decision on what to do. To ignore your alarms and do nothing is a bad uncomfortable. For example, your internal system is saying that your co-worker is being inappropriate and shouldn’t have sexual comments about you. Your body gets tight and uncomfortable. That is a good uncomfortable because your body is trying to protect you and tell you the situation isn’t safe and that you need to take action. It becomes a bad uncomfortable when you turn off the alarms, tell yourself that you are being too sensitive,’ and begin to internalize it.” — relationship therapist Jennine Estes, Estes Therapy

Don’t ignore your body’s cues

“In some ways, you’re asking which internal cues should we trust. Is this discomfort something I should allow to guide my decision here, or not? Some discomfort is conditioned, and will arise in response to a particular set of circumstances or triggering cues. The question is always one of discernment … and there is a danger in having one set point for how to respond to discomfort. Always pushing past discomfort isn’t healthy, nor is always avoiding discomfort.

“Is the discomfort debilitating? Is it a signal of an actual threat or perceived threat, or potential negative consequence? Is the discomfort consuming? That is, can I experience discomfort and know I’m experiencing it, or is it fully engulfing me in the moment? Bringing compassionate curiosity to the situation is key, so that a person can effectively discern whether to move towards or away from the thing that seems challenging.

“Sometimes a part of us wants to do something, and another part of us is saying “hell no!” Befriending these different aspects of ourselves can help untangle this internal tension so as to create more ease and confidence… Being gentle with oneself doesn’t mean being complacent. Quite the opposite—it’s what allows for true growth and an unfolding towards new possibilities.” — relationship consultant Rachel Zamore, InnerWell Integrative Counseling Services

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.