“And it goes so slowly on,
everything I’ve ever wanted,
tell me what’s wrong”
- The Replacements, “Unsatisfied”
Nobody likes change.
Most resist it until they can do so no longer. Only when “optimal discomfort” ( a clinical term) takes place, do people then begin to embrace what they can no longer deny: something’s got to shift. It’s called optimal discomfort because too much discomfort creates panic and resistance and not enough leads to continued “stuckness”, a condition many are comfortable in.
Every summer, I take a trip to Kripalu in the Berkshires with a friend and colleague who is also a therapist. The rooms there are simple and clean. There are windows and a fan, but no air conditioning. Summer days in the Berkshires can be extremely hot and humid and though it does cool off at night, the rooms at Kripalu tend to hold onto the heat from the.
One year, on the first night of this trip, I tossed and turned for most of it. At 2 am, my friend whispered from across the room “you can always open the window you know. You might sleep better.” I responded “that would require me to get up” and we both laughed. Though I was uncomfortable, I wasn’t uncomfortable enough to do anything about it.
In therapy, many of my clients share their quiet discontent with me, often for a long time before they are ready to make any changes.
This is part of the process however. My job is to create a space that allows them to honestly explore their level of dissatisfaction, whether it’s with work or a relationship, until they become dissatisfied enough to do something about it. Hence they experience optimal discomfort. Sometimes therapy helps people learn to better tolerate conditions that they aren’t ready to do anything about and sometimes it empowers them to be bold and take the risk their heart and soul desires.
Either way, nothing changes on the outside, until something changes on the inside first.
The second night at Kripalu, I began to toss and turn again while trying to sleep. Though the temperature during the day and night were roughly the same as the previous day, something inside of me wanted something different: to sleep better. So at 2 am, I quietly tiptoed out of bed to open up the window.
I wasn’t quiet enough however, as I heard a voice from across the room ask “what are you doing”?
“Opening the window” I whispered back and then we both burst out laughing.
Optimal discomfort allowed for me to create space for something new, which in this case was more fresh air and a soft breeze that led to good night’s sleep.
Imagine what optimal discomfort might allow for you to create space for in your life?