Last week, I was hanging out with a friend in a cool little café near Kings Cross, London. It was mid-afternoon and we were both starting to get a bit hungry, so I ordered a toasted sandwich for us to share: a “mango and apple chutney and cheddar” toasted sandwich, to be precise. Ten or so minutes later, the sandwich arrives. I take a bite, taste some fruity chutney and a bit of mustard but... no cheddar. I check the rest of the sandwich, and I have indeed been given a cheese toastie with no cheese in it.
My immediate reaction upon realising this was something like “Oh, well, that’s a shame - but I guess it’s not too bad, I can deal with this.” (My friend had just taken a phonecall, so unfortunately was unable to support me at this difficult time.) Two seconds later a second voice in my head chimed in to tell me how ridiculous this was: “Wait a second. You’ve just received a sandwich that is missing the key ingredient and you’re not going to take it back and ask for another one? You’re just going to sit there and eat two pieces of bread with a bit of fruit in between?” It was pretty ridiculous, I had to admit. Why didn’t I just take it back? Well, it felt kind of uncomfortable. I really dislike complaining - which means I often end up putting up with something less-than-perfect rather than risk putting someone else out.
This might have been it - I might have simply sat there and ‘enjoyed’ my chutney sandwich - if it wasn’t for the fact that I’d set myself this stupid goal of “expanding my comfort zone.” So as soon as I noticed that it was discomfort that was preventing me from taking the sandwich back, I knew I had to do it. So I did. I went up and told the waitress that I was a little disappointed with the lack of cheese in my posh cheese toastie, and asked for a replacement. I managed to hold myself back from apologising profusely - I think I managed to limit my use of the word “sorry” to just once, which felt like quite an achievement.
Ok, so taking back a cheese sandwich with no cheese in it might not seem like the most incredible comfort-zone expansion challenge ever. But I realised that I’ve been focusing so much on the idea of big “challenges” that all the small, everyday feelings of discomfort have been passing me by. I think there’s a lot to be learned from noticing and overcoming these smaller barriers before getting to crazy things like running down the street singing at the top of your voice.
Acting even when you’re uncomfortable
When we feel uncomfortable, we generally take it as a signal not to act. Recently, I’ve been trying to do just the opposite. Whenever I notice myself feeling mildly uncomfortable about doing something - especially when that thing is small and clearly a good thing to do - I take that discomfort as a sign that I should really just do the thing.
This might sound crazy - why would I do this? I do it because I really don’t want to be ruled by discomfort. If I’d sat and eaten my chutney sandwich and spent the whole time wishing it had cheese in it, but not had the guts to go and say something, I’d feel like my discomfort was controlling me. Not wanting to be the kind of person who is controlled by discomfort is starting to outweigh the discomfort itself: at least in these relatively minor situations.
I’m not saying you should always use discomfort as a signal to act: that would be crazy. Sometimes discomfort is there for a good reason - I feel uncomfortable running out in front of busy traffic because it’s dangerous. And sometimes when I feel exhausted and like I really don’t want to go another party, the right thing to do is stay home and recharge. In many cases the discomfort is a signal of something bigger: that there’s danger, that you’re pushing yourself too hard, or you’re trying to do something that’s going to make you happy. But in many other cases the discomfort is simply discomfort, nothing more. Sometimes it’s fairly clear that there’s nothing to be gained from holding back. I wouldn’t have felt better if I hadn’t complained about the sandwich, or if I’d held back from emailing someone with a question, or if I kept wimping out of going to an event week after week.
The ability to acknowledge discomfort and act anyway seems like a very valuable skill. Life often requires us to do things we don’t want to: to make phone calls we don’t feel like, to work even when we’re not feeling motivated, to talk to new people even when we’re not feeling sociable. But like any skill, to learn it needs practice. So I’m trying to practice it: by taking note of times when I feel uncomfortable for no good reason, acting anyway, and rewarding myself for doing it.