I ended my last post by talking about my idea that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is really less about needs and more of an embedded heterarchy of comforts. In this post I’ll be expanding on that topic by discussing what comfort and discomfort mean in terms of the Ups and Downs of eightstep me.
Feeling is supposed to drive you to act — it’s motivation to behave. Pain and discomfort are particularly powerful types of feeling that are nearly impossible to ignore. The burning sensation as your hand lays on a hot stove is an unavoidable discomfort because you need to move to prevent serious physiological damage. In painful, life-threatening, or otherwise fight-or-flight scenarios our reflexes will often kick in, which allows us to behave without any thought to guide the action. You can likely think of a time when a reflex caused more harm than good, but action without thought is generally an adaptive trait for survival. Unfortunately, our reflexes are habitual behavior and, therefore, exist outside of our conscious selves. This tends to mean that me (as a self-aware agent) gets very little practice at experiencing discomforting situations.
This is all well and good for physical pain and discomfort, but the self aware entities (mes) that emerge through interpersonal communication exist in a space that oftentimes seems separate from ‘physical harm.’ While a burnt hand is quite obvious (ugly, painful, and uncomfortably delicious smelling), the damage caused to our psyche when we refuse to withdraw from mental discomfort is not nearly as noticeable. In my own life I have always found it so much easier to passively endure situations and experiences that make me uncomfortable rather than actively change something.
The problem is that recoiling from discomfort doesn’t make it go away. A character in one of my favorite TV shows describes this phenomenon nicely:
“It’s funny — I spent all that time feeling bad instead of doing something. It’s like I was trying not to think about it and that just made it worse!”
When you are avoiding mental discomfort or ‘trying not to think about it,’ as Connie says, you are avoiding the fulfillment that arises from rationalizing your emotion. Using the structure of logical thought to guide the motion of feeling is one way of turning self-actualization into purposeful behavior. We get very little conscious practice at dealing with discomfort, so the inability to focus on cognitively damaging situations and thoughts is quite common. But avoiding these things is like building the boundaries of our comfort zones from discomfort.
In fact, all comfort zones are inherently designed in this flawed manner. There will always be discomfort, but by attempting to maintain a hard boundary between comfort and discomfort you imprison yourself in a bubble (a popular topic in current media referred to as an ‘echo chamber’). As I’ve referred to it previously, you trap yourself in a spiral on one side of the infinity loop (zoom).
It’s like a Chinese finger trap: the harder you struggle to avoid discomfort the more you restrict yourself to your comfort zone, which will grow smaller and smaller with every conflict. Eventually you’ll end up stuck in anxiety, or depression, or PTSD. As I said before, the problem is that mental discomfort doesn’t just go away like physical discomfort — you can’t just take your hand off the stove. As Connie says, trying not to think about it only makes it worse.
Paradoxically, the way to remove yourself from discomfort is by embracing the discomfort. We see evidence for this in things like exposure therapy, which is used to treat anxiety disorders and phobias by exposing you to the things that make you anxious or afraid. In behavioral Neuroscience this is known as ‘extinction training,’ which is essentially learning that a previously dangerous stimulus is no longer a signal for danger.
In animal experimentation the ‘subjects’ can be forced to experience the discomfort in order to extinguish the feeling. However, in humans (and I would argue in animal experimentation too) consent is a vitally important aspect of crossing boundaries. Apparently I don’t feel ready to write a post that does justice to this issue, so I’ll end it with this.
My mother always used to say “you need to get out of yourself” when she would force me to do things I didn’t want to do, but I never understood what she meant until recently. We can get so wrapped up in defining ourselves by our comforts, like our favorite food, or music, or setting. But our selves are defined just as much by our discomforts — up does not exist without down.
To define yourself, get out of your self.
To find true comfort, dissolve the barrier between comfort and discomfort.