Another reason why it is prudent to cultivate tolerance of discomfort is because life will inevitably impose adversity and discomfort will be experienced. Essentially there is no escaping discomfort; it is part of the human condition.
Ellis argued that people who have not cultivated discomfort tolerance will experience discomfort anxiety. These people will experience anxiety when they anticipate discomfort and will avoid doing useful things due to this discomfort anxiety. This is a very self-defeating behavioral pattern. This pattern undermines the development of our potential as humans. It leads to all sorts of unhealthy escapes like procrastination and substance abuse. Furthermore, we often experience even greater discomfort in the long run due to the fact that we chose to avoid addressing a problem while the problem was in its infancy.
The fundamental philosophy behind low discomfort tolerance is:
- I must remain comfortable or experience minimal discomfort or frustration. Just about any amount of discomfort or frustration is unbearable.
- I must have a guarantee that if I make an effort towards a goal that will involve being uncomfortable I will ultimately succeed in achieving my goal.
REBT also takes aim at the mistaken notion that one needs a guarantee that making an effort (which is uncomfortable) must lead to the desired goal. Again it is fine to want or desire a guarantee but it is never a requirement to exert oneself towards a goal. People who realize their potential and achieve important life goals have come to accept that the way the game of life works is that we pay upfront with effort not knowing if the effort will succeed in getting us the desired outcome.
To aid my patients in helping to achieve their potential and experience more ultimate pleasure in life I encourage them to intentionally look for ways to become uncomfortable. I use the metaphor of a muscle. If we vigorously use and stress a muscle we train the muscle to be strong. If we do not exercise the muscle it becomes weak. Discomfort tolerance can be thought of as a muscle of the mind. It is by doing uncomfortable things do we build our tolerance for discomfort. Tolerating discomfort can become a healthy habit just like escaping discomfort has become a self-defeating habit. People are creatures of habit and it is good to keep track of your habits and strive to develop and maintain healthy habits.
To this end I encourage my patients to deliberately seek to experience discomfort by doing both practical and impractical things which involve experiencing discomfort. Examples of practical discomfort exercise include doing housework, laundry, homework, physical exercise, mental exercise, or learning a new skill. However, I also believe there is a place for impractical discomfort exercise. I recently told a patient to walk his bike home from his REBT appointment as if he had a flat tire. Not only would doing this enhance his discomfort tolerance by extending the time and effort of getting home but he also would develop gratitude for all the times his bike is functional and available to ride home quickly and with relative ease. Other impractical examples of discomfort exercises might be picking up litter that you are not responsible for, standing instead of sitting when a chair is available, or not eating a favorite food that is available and it is not because you are on a diet. In each of these scenarios the individual is merely choosing to be uncomfortable because that individual wants to practice the ability to tolerate discomfort.
I encourage you to experiment with voluntary discomfort exercises. Tell yourself “It is a struggle to choose to deliberately create a state of discomfort but it is not unbearable and it is worth doing as this will enhance my discomfort tolerance. Furthermore, I am worth doing this for in order to prepare to face greater adversity in the future”. Make facing, rather than avoiding discomfort, a habit. Be patient as the habit of avoiding discomfort dies a slow death. Nonetheless, if you do what REBT teaches and cultivate the habit of facing rather than avoiding discomfort you will soon reap the many benefits of having cultivated a high discomfort tolerance. Try it and see!