• Therapist Sandra Hilton shares her experience of developing "discomfort resilience"

  • Discomfort resilience is the ability to face difficult emotions rather than shut them out with harmful avoidance strategies like drinking, binge eating, or shutting down

  • If you need help overcoming unhelpful coping mechanisms, find a therapist here

When I was 15, I used to watch a TV series where the lead female character left her boyfriend and went to work in Paris. This was in the early 80s and was considered quite radical at the time, certainly for the working class girl from Manchester that I was. I watched Jan wrestle with her dilemma – career, adventure and the unknown on the one hand, and love and security on the other. When she chose Paris, I was delighted and super excited about her future. So much so, that I began to ferment an idea that I too might go to Paris to study. 

I flirted with the idea of going to university in France and nursed this delicate dream throughout my sixth form. I first dared to speak it at my careers interview. That was a mistake. My adviser laughed at me, told me not to be ridiculous and that I should think about teaching French if that’s what I was interested in. The seeds of my dream were so nascent, so loosely planted, that this was enough to rip the ground away. I never wanted to experience the searing humiliation that I felt in that moment ever again. That was enough for me lock the dream away. I so wanted it. I desperately longed for it. But it was so far beyond anything that I knew and I didn’t know where to begin to make it happen. After this excruciating experience, I felt unable to ask anyone who might know to help me, so I buried it and moved on. The discomfort I felt in that one exchange was enough for me to abandon something dear to me.

I felt like I was daring to ask for something that wasn’t meant for “people like me”

Fast forward several years, when I was in my second year of university studying Russian and applying to go on a prestigious year long programme to Moscow. It was clear at my panel interview that I was massively under qualified, had little to none of the required experience, and I probably looked dazed and confused through most of their questions. It was 1988, Russia just emerging from Soviet rule under Gorbachev and the closest I had been to eastern Europe was a seaside resort in the then Yugoslavia. But I really wanted to go on this programme. I knew it was my best chance of learning the language and having the broadest experience of Russia. I felt deeply uncomfortable throughout the whole process. I had to withstand many looks of incredulity from people who wondered if I could hack it. A raised eyebrow and yes, some more laughter, reminiscent of my insensitive careers adviser. However, this time, I was willing to ride it. My desire was greater than my discomfort this time round and even though I got the final place on the programme, having hung around on a wait list for several months, it didn’t matter. I was going to study in Russia.

Buddhist monk and author, Pema Chodron uses the term “discomfort resilience” to describe what I believe I began to develop as a young woman. When my careers adviser laughed at me, I was in touch with my inadequacy, my inexperience, my lack of financial and intellectual means at the time. I felt like I was daring to ask for something that wasn’t meant for “people like me”. In that moment, I had a fixed sense of my identity and of the path that I was “supposed” to tread and felt the pain of the risk of stepping off the path. In that moment, I was overtaken by the humiliation. I couldn’t stay with that experience. It was painful. Disorientating. I felt stupid. So instead I rushed to shut down all of those feelings, all of that experience, and found safe ground again.

What happens when we shut down?

This shutdown happens to us not just in the transitional moments of life but also on a day-to-day basis. I’m aware that I often struggle to stay with my own sense of discomfort. This can be in relationship – avoiding difficult conversations and working hard to keep things harmonious. Avoiding physical pain in my body by keeping my mind busy. Avoiding criticism by playing small and safe. I hear my clients speak of similar experiences. A client recently described how she felt like she was “going mad” because she is caught in a loop of endless distractions and feels like she’s forgotten how to focus. When we enquired a little further, she acknowledged that actually, she didn’t want to stay focussed in the now because to do so, would be too painful and confronting. So the avoidance strategy keeps her away from her deep pain. But in so doing, it creates other problems. She’s unable to do some of the rigorous thinking required by her role; she feels distant from people close to her; she feels distant from herself.

Pema Chodron says “it’s not our intention to live in a way that makes us unhappy” but that we’re “extremely stupid about the causes of happiness”. Many of us have developed habits that we’d rather not have. Overeating. Drinking too much. Working excessively. Avoiding conflict. Procrastinating. We know we have the habit. Sometimes, we identify with it religiously….."If I don’t finish everything on my list, I just can’t relax", ”I don’t know what I’d do without a glass of wine at the end of each day” It frustrates us. Confounds us. Paradoxically, the habit feels both intrinsic and unnecessary. Especially when it gets in the way of our aspiring goals to look good/sleep more/be more honest/get more done/spend more time with my family/fill in the gap…..and yet we carry on.

Chodron writes that if you want to find out why you do something, stop doing it. You’ll soon discover what emerges. If you go fast, slow down. If you binge eat, stop. If you’re afraid to start a project, take the first step. If you stay silent when you have something to say, speak up. And then notice. What do you feel? For whatever it is, that’s what the habit has been keeping you away from. That’s what you’ve been avoiding.

The habits keep us firmly in our comfort zone. Once we stop, we are in the realm of discomfort and our natural inclination is to move away.

How can we be more resilient?

Chodron has begun to explore how we can get more comfortable when our nervous system is unhappy and in so doing, how we unlock something in ourselves. This is what she calls “discomfort resilience”, opening a doorway into our fundamental nature. As I reflect on my 15-year-old self, I wonder what might have been different if I could have opened up to the pain of the moment. If I could have really allowed myself to embody all that was going on for me in that moment of humiliation and to connect with the whole experience. I imagine the inner dialogue might have gone something like this…..

”I feel totally stupid and ridiculous right now. I actually feel sick. And my body is so rigid. I want to curl up and disappear. I don’t know what I’m talking about or if what I want is possible. I don’t think my careers adviser knows if it’s possible either. In fact, I think she has never had to answer this question. She may be feeling challenged by my question as well. We’re both feeling inadequate. Let’s feel that (deep breath….)..she looks nervous too. Where does that take us. Oh look, we’ve got a question here that neither of us knows how to answer. I’m not stupid. Nor is she. We just don’t know…..it's hard not to know. In fact, I hate not knowing. I feel vulnerable and scared. So here I am sitting vulnerable and scared and wanting...wanting so much to find out how to do this thing. I wonder how we might find out what’s possible? I can realise that I’m asking a new question. This is new ground. Unknown. I feel my energy rising again. I’ll acknowledge that this is an unusual request. I’ll engage her to find out where I might start to look.”

And so, something else emerges. There is movement, emotionally and intellectually. If I don’t get bogged down in the shame of the moment and can allow the whole experience, then there is the possibility of a different outcome. I’m no longer frozen, trying to dodge my pain. As writer, Tara Brach describes with her RAIN process of self compassion, I can: 

  • Recognise it for what it is
  • Acknowledge it
  • Investigate to find out more about it and 
  • Nurture myself at the same time

Now it's highly unlikely as a 15-year-old, that I could have done all of that (just as it's challenging for my 50 year old self to stay so present in the moment) but the possibility of it keeps me trying.

Brach describes modern day society as “avoidant addicted” and I would agree. It’s become an effective coping strategy, made easier by the multitude of ways we can escape ourselves in the modern world. I see the work of therapy, coaching and supervision as an important antidote. A place to uncover what it is that we might be avoiding; to touch some of the unpleasantness we experience; to open up some internal doorways and to learn what lies within and beyond it. To live a less censored version of the experience. It often feels like time slows down in these moments, as the fullness of the lived experience unfurls in the light of our quiet attention and reveals hidden gems of insight.

There is so much wisdom in each experience if we allow ourselves to have it, to embody it, to not edit it in accordance with some predetermined script that has been handed down. With each moment, we have the opportunity to write a new script, to ask a different question, to find our own Paris within.

Writer and analyst, Clariss Pinkola Estes writes:

"The doors to the world of the wild Self are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door."

Next time you reach for your favourite avoidance strategy, how might you put it down for a moment and find out:

  • What it is you don't want to let in? 
  • What's the conversation you might riff with yourself? 
  • What's the door you might open and where might it take you?

Sandra Hilton is a verified welldoing.org therapist in London

Further reading

Can painful feelings be helpful?

Mental flexibility and resilience to change

8 ways to develop emotional resilience

How childhood shame shapes adult identity