Discomfort Training: A Way To Improve Resilience

When you’re a teenager and your life is a mess – e.g., plunging into a vortex of excessive partying, and/or sinking into the quicksand of chronic overspending. It’s not that concerning. You are still exploring – still “finding yourself”. Thus, there is time to apply a fix once you figure out your authentic self. But what if you’re already an adult, and still living a crappy life?

Choosing to remodel your world often involves activities like signing up for a gym membership, reading books, purchasing courses, and conceptualizing the importance of self-discipline.

However, do you really think that not having a gym membership is the main reason for your unfortunate physical condition?

Commonly, we rely on things to fix part of our lives. We firmly believe that ownership is the key ingredient in terraforming our existence.

Well, that’s not the case.

“Having this” or “owning that” are common traps.

The number one reason keeping our life stagnant is our inability to handle discomfort.

We never set foot in a gym, not because we don’t own a membership bracelet. But because lifting weights is like an unwelcome intruder in the kingdom of our comfort zone.

We never ventured into the realm of healthy eating, not because we lack access to fresh products. But because opting for nutritious meals feels tasteless and less emotionally satisfying than a bowl of ice-cream.

Enter: discomfort training. The premise of this drill is simple: daily, you do uncomfortable things – things outside your comfort zone.

The idea?

Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Discomfort training is like a magical potion for mental toughness – except that there is no magic involved, only a generous dose of intentional unpleasantness.

So, if you’ve always dreamed of looking good shirtless. Discomfort training will kidnap you from your cozy routine and throw you into the arena of growth.

What Is Discomfort Training?

Discomfort training refers to activities that aim to strengthen your pain tolerance. You intentionally expose yourself to uncomfortable situations, which improves your mental and emotional resilience.

A simple example is regularly taking cold showers.

A cold shower is not only uncomfortable, but it can be seen as an insanely stupid thing to do in the presence of hot water. Yet, when you deliberately pour near-zero liquid all over your body, overtime, you become comfortable doing things you don’t feel like doing.

Plainly, the concept of discomfort training aims to explain that when you expose yourself to healthy doses of stress, you develop resilience. The greater your resilience grows, the better you will become at handling your emotions in various moments during your day. You quickly adapt to the ever-changing world without falling into self-destructive patterns.1

Why Do You Need Discomfort Training?

What normal person would expose themselves to unpleasant activities that will interfere with their comfort?

The answer?

People who recognize that the only way to get your hands on worthy things is by dealing with pain, annoyance, and daily doing tasks that are oftentimes unpleasant.

After all, the only way to get a degree, have a six-pack, keep a relationship going, have good habits, etc., is by earning these things with sweat and work.

Self-prescribing activities that are uncomfortable strengthen your willpower muscles.

Over time, this practice gives a nice boost to your upper limits. That is, you become emotionally and physically stronger.

After all, think about what will happen if you never set foot outside your comfort zone?

If you:

  • Stay in the same soul-sucking job.
  • Do what everyone else is doing.
  • Deliberately avoid physical activities.

Not only will you self-sabotage your future self. But you also psychologically adjust yourself to avoid challenging activities altogether – something way more dangerous.

I mean, I’m fully aware that remaining a permanent resident of your current limits feels safe. But this lack of exposure to difficulties cripples your ability to handle challenging situations. Situations that are just part of life.

This leads to…

Why Can’t I handle Discomfort?

A life without some sort of exposure to discomfort is a life condemned to eternal stagnation.

I know this from personal experience.

During the first half of my twenties, I was doing everything possible to avoid taking ownership of my life.

I had devoted to doing things that are easy and fun.

Everything that made me feel uncomfortable was abandoned and replaced with activity that provided immediate gratification – e.g., eating, instead of exercising, playing video games, instead of learning new skills, etc.

Over time, my intolerance to engage in ambitious activities put me in a really nasty situation. While most of my peers were considering starting families, I still roamed bars a couple of times per week. Or in other words, I was broke, overweight, and unable to escape the grip of alcohol.

When I look back on why I did this, I can spot three main reasons:

  • Home environment: While there were a lot of good things happening at home. If I can add a single label to describe my experience growing up, I would use this word: chaotic. Fights were a regular occurrence in our house. While my brother chose books to cope with the ongoing stress, I chose liquor.
  • Social circle: My desire to escape the troubling environment at home got me involved in social circles where the only aim was to get wasted. Though I met decent people who were doing interesting things in their lives, I defaulted to recklessness. Consequently, I became stuck in a loop of self-sabotaging behaviors that only made my condition worse.
  • Lack of role model: During adolescence, a role model, or a mentor can have a huge positive effect in shaping an individual’s identity, personal values, and aspirations. These figures provide not only guidance, but also inspiration to tackle hard to reach goals – eventually making the individual reach new places. Without a positive role model to help me deal with the surrounding complexities, I was clueless about what I wanted to do with my life.

As you can identify on your own, the above three are all external factors. And while it’s convenient to attribute my lack of progress to these “other” things. There was one huge factor responsible for my inability to handle discomfort: myself.

When you fail to do the needed inner work that helps you improve self-discipline, practice delayed gratification, and become mindful about your bad habits. You will never crawl out of the pit hole.

Having that in mind, let’s take a look at how can we move from I can’t handle discomfort to I can handle discomfort.

How Do I Learn to Deal With Discomfort?

“Just doing it” is a good start.

But it’s not that easy.

To continue with my personal story…

At some point in my life, it became clear that I could no longer continue living the way I was living.

There ought to be changes – big enough to alter my trajectory, yet small enough to all seem doable.

It all starts with self-reflection.

You take some time to carefully think about your life – the good, the bad, the ugly.

Then you move to acceptance.

You see, we are guided by comfort. We stay close to what feels familiar and reject what doesn’t – even if the latter is obviously better for us.

The things I was doing were comfortable, yes. The drinking, the partying, the sporadic consumption…

All of these things made me feel good. But these were simply momentary sensations. On the next day, I had to deal with the consequences – the headache, the money spent, the lack of energy, the agonizing feeling that my life is a mess.

At some point, I hit my personal rock bottom. And the good thing about reaching rock bottom – yes, there is a good thing – is the following:

Discomfort becomes more appealing than comfort.

Rock bottom becomes a turning point because you start thinking: “I never want to feel this awful again!”

In such a moment, you finally accept that the problem isn’t how the universe is; it is how you are.

Discomfort becoming more appealing than comfort is understanding that while pouring whiskey feels good right now, it will make everything worse in the future. Thus, you start to see value in challenging activities that help you grow as a person.

Discomfort Training Examples

The underlying goal of discomfort training is the following:

Embrace discomfort for small moments during the day in order to make the rest of the day (and life) comfortable.

Let’s take exercise as an example again.

You decide that you’re going to live a healthier life. For this to happen, you add workouts into your daily schedule. The goal is to exercise the first thing in the morning.

Regardless of whether you’ve done morning exercises in the past or not. Believe me, it never becomes easy. The first thought that consumes your mind when you open your eyes in the morning is about not exercising.

Yet, when you do summon enough willpower and actually complete a workout session, everything else feels much better.

  • Your energy levels are up.
  • Your mood is elevated.
  • You think more clearly.
  • You’re more likely to choose healthy food options later in the day.
  • You feel awesome that you are working out while everyone else is still asleep in their pajamas.

The discomfort training examples I’ll share below are aimed to be practiced regularly.

When you routinely expose yourself to uncomfortable situations, you push your boundaries. This leads to all sorts of benefits:

  • Uncomfortable tasks/situations become comfortable.
  • Your mind becomes more resilient to tolerate adversity.
  • You get a nice confidence boost.
  • You develop a growth mindset – the belief that nearly everything is possible if you commit to it.2

So, without further delay, let’s see some discomfort training examples:

1. Exercising

Without a doubt, one of the best things a person can do to build resilience towards discomfort is exercising.

But you already kind of new that. Working out is like a synonym for pushing your limits.

The definition of the word itself breeds discomfort. That is, you engage in physical activities instead of flipping through celebrity profiles and daydreaming about becoming the next hot take.

And while lifting weights might seem like the king of discomfort, it’s not. There are other activities that will make your whole body tremble by the mere thought of doing them.

The first one is…

2. Public Speaking

Going on a stage and vomiting words in front of total strangers ranks in the number one spot of all fears – higher than death.

Yes, some people will rather bite the dust than walk on a stage with a microphone in hand.

And while presenting in front of a group can be nerve-wracking. It’s an excellent way to build confidence and go outside your limits.

If you think that you are incapable of doing something like this, start small. Begin with speaking at an online event. This will make things more gradual.

3. Networking Events

For outgoing extroverts, meeting people is just part of being alive. But what about the opposite group? The folks who constantly seek solitude?

Even if introverts do happen to attend a gathering, you’ll commonly see them either occupying the dark corner or nearly glued to someone they know.

So, it’s not only about visiting events where there are people you don’t know. It’s also about engaging in awkward conversations with these strangers.

4. Solo Travels

Solo travel doesn’t mean going downtown by bus. It means planning a trip to another town or another country all by yourself.

I was terrified when I had to travel to Seattle alone a couple of years ago. Sure, I’ve visited US before, but changing two flights, taking a rental car, and then visiting a conference where I’ll have to sell a product to total strangers all by myself? The mere thought of all of this made me want to pretend I was sick.

Yet, I’m glad I’ve done it. It showed me that I am capable of surviving in a foreign land all by myself.

5. Cold Showers

There’s a lot of hype around cold showers – how to do it, when to do it, and why to do it.

To be honest, the hype is well-justified.

The benefits are clear: you build resilience. And you built resilience by personally subjecting your body to freezing water. While the hot switch is right “there”, you choose the other one. The uncomfortable cold lever.

Some might think that cold showers are a punishment for the body, but if you’ve tried it yourself, you know. After the initial agonizing feeling of freeze, your body adjusts to the chilly spray and the whole experience starts to feel quite energizing.

6. Meditation

Do you know what’s more adrenaline-pumping than physical exercise? What’s more nerve-bending than presenting on a stage?

Meditation.

Yes, the best form of discomfort training is the simplest one – sitting in stillness and trying to do nothing.

I’m saying “trying” to do nothing because only people who have engaged in mental work know how hard it is to remain motionless while also keeping your mind clutter-free.

To overcome our external obstacles, we first need to overcome our internal obstacles.

Meditations help us tackle the thoughts that can sabotage our performance. It allows us to gain clarity of what’s important and what’s not.

While meditation looks comfortable – after all, it’s usually done in a quiet place all by yourself – it becomes quite intense when a train of thought attacks your fragile consciousness.

Meditation is a great teacher. It strengthens our mental capacity. Helping us stay calm and centered while a gazillion of other thoughts try to steal our attention.

7. Rejection Therapy

Winston Churchill famously said:

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

If you are looking for something to keep your enthusiasm exceptionally high, look no further. Try getting rejected.

In 2016, Jia Jiang gave a TED talk on the topic of rejection. More precisely, he’s talk was about: “What I learned from 100 days of rejection”.

By asking strangers ridiculous things for 100 days in a row – and getting rejected in the process. Jiang desensitized himself to the pain and shame that rejection often brings.

The goal of the exercise is not making other people mad. It’s about getting used to being rejected.

Why?

Social anxiety is one big reason so much of our potential remains unfulfilled. People all around the world attribute their lack of personal progress to inability to cope with others in the world.

Rejection therapy can assist in this case.

The concept is rather simple: every day for 30, or 100 days, you do one thing that will probably lead to rejection. Whether it’s asking a stranger on the street to give you $100, a hug, or jumping on all the mattresses in a shop, the goal of this insane-sounding exercise is to become immune to the tyranny of social rejection.

The more nos you get from people you don’t know, the better you feel about yourself. Your outlook on the world changes. You realize that you can get rejected – i.e., fail – and still have the capacity to move forward.

Some Closing Thoughts

Inconsistency can be a huge blocker in relation to personal development.

Don’t try to do everything in the above list of discomfort training examples. Pick one activity at first, but do it consistently.

Doing something uncomfortable every day is better than doing a couple of things inconsistently.

And when things start to feel too good again, it’s time to add another uncomfortable activity to your daily routine.

You see, we think we optimize our lives for happiness. We think that happiness is the main thing we want. In reality, what we are really after is comfort.

Paradoxically, the more comfortable our lives become, the more we hinder our progress.

As the saying goes…

“If everything is too good, you’re probably stuck not being awesome.”

While chasing discomfort will surely feel intimidating at first. The path will set you on an exciting journey that tends to unlock new possibilities and interesting avenues.

So yes, do more of the things that scare you. You’ll be surprised how much more you can accomplish when you become more comfortable with discomfort.

“If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures; if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the shame endures.” Musonius Rufus

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Add to your self-discipline toolset by reading the following:


Footnotes:

  1. Discomfort training is tightly related to the concept of hormetic stress. Hormetic stress is a form of positive stress that builds resilience within the body. It has been recognized as a type of stress that can positively attribute to longevity and greater health.
  2. For more on the topic of growth mindset, read the following book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck (my summary of Mindset)
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