Ilene was a single, professional 30-something woman in the prime of her life. Her business was successful, she was involved in her community, and she was well liked and supported by her friends and family.
The problem was, even though by all appearances, she looked like she was living the life of a happy and healthy 30 year old, she wanted something more.
She wanted to get married, and have a family.
But this was much easier said than done. You see, Ilene had painful experiences with men in the past that caused her to draw into herself. Dating means taking risks, and Ilene felt much safer at home with her cat, her netflix, and a bottle of wine than out meeting new people. In the past few years, Ilene had avoided dating all together.
Not only was she avoiding dating, but she had developed major self-sabotaging thoughts that kept her from exploring any romantic connections with other people.
She was in a constant cycle of shooting herself down, thinking that she would never find anyone. She was overwhelmed with the fear that if she did meet someone, that once they got to know her, they would learn she was a mess and would leave. She thought that since she chose men who hurt her in the past, she couldn’t trust herself or the men around her.
During an intense session with Ilene, she tearfully asked me if she would ever be able to move past her avoidant behavior, self-sabotaging thoughts, and trust issues.
So I told Ilene about a vital concept to her growth and success: Manageable Discomfort.
In order to overcome personal obstacles, we have to confront them, and this can cause discomfort. If we’re constantly comfortable, we will never look into our issues for long enough to solve them. However, if someone pushes us too hard to face our problems and oversteps their boundaries, it will be too painful, causing you to avoid them altogether. Manageable Discomfort in psychotherapy is finding a balance between challenging yourself and protecting your emotions.
I explained manageable discomfort to Ilene using the Adaptation Principle, a concept that I’ve learned from my fitness practice. The Adaptation Principle is the process of the body getting accustomed to a particular exercise or training program.
The longer you do the same workout at the same intensity, the easier that workout will become.
I told Ilene about how when we work out the same way over and over, our body becomes used to our workout routine, and eventually, when on the same workout regimen, we stop making progress. We have to change our workouts so that our bodies will be challenged again.
I told her that this principle doesn’t just apply to fitness, it applies to our mental health as well.
When we get stuck in self-sabotaging thinking and avoidance, we need to change the way we are approaching our mental barriers, just like how we need to change our fitness routine to overcome physical barriers. Manageable Discomfort is vital for pushing past our mental and emotional barriers, by challenging our comfortable status quo and forcing us to confront our problems in manageable doses.
In order to truly address the obstacles in your life that are holding you back, you need to step into discomfort to confront difficult emotional issues.
To push past long standing thoughts, feelings, and behavior keeping you stuck, you need to step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself.
If you leave counseling sessions feeling like you got together with a friend to catch up, you’ll likely quit therapy prematurely. You’ll feel like you haven’t accomplished anything, or enjoy the comfortable state of affairs too much, convincing yourself that just because you have a psychotherapist, you are dealing with your problems.
But it’s a balance, too.
If your therapist pushes you too hard, you’ll dread going to counseling sessions. As a result, you may end up feeling strained and burnt out, unable and unwilling to continue your emotional work.
Because your tolerance to face your challenges and obstacles will change from day to day your tolerance to Manageable Discomfort needs to be calibrated from session to session. Some days you can go deep, and deal with the painful parts of your life. Other days, it may be better to dwell at the surface.
It’s vital that you communicate your needs to your therapist.
You have the right, and even the responsibility, to tell him or her when you’re feeling safe emotionally and when something is pushing you too far or hitting a nerve.
It’s also vital that your therapist knows when to push you into discomfort, and when to cut you some slack. A skilled psychotherapist will work with you to strike a balance of Manageable Discomfort, pushing you when you need to go further, and respecting the emotional boundaries that you set for yourself.
I know facing your emotional obstacles can be a tumultuous journey, but it’s vital to your health and happiness. Finding a psychotherapist who will push you but respect your emotional safety will help facilitate that. Seek manageable discomfort, even when it’s scary, and growth will be sure to follow.
Are you looking for a psychotherapist to help you mediate the intensity of your counseling sessions? I’d be happy to talk with you about your goals. Reach out today for a consultation.