The one life skill I wish they’d taught me at school

Now, I can hear all the teachers bristling already. “It’s not up to us to teach life skills! That’s a job for parents!”

And yes, I agree.

But this particular life skill, I feel it’s too important to leave to parents.

And that skill would be:

The ability to sit with discomfort

In some situations, the inability to sit with discomfort is desirable. Are you feeling cold because you’re standing barefoot outside in the snow? Best get yourself back into your nice, warm house before you die from exposure.

Most of the time, however, discomfort comes from a reality gap. And, if you read this blog then I’m guessing you’re mostly dealing with two kinds of reality gaps:

  • The Striver Gap: the gap between where you are, and where you want to be.
  • The Control-Freak Gap: the gap between how life is, and how you want it to be.

Both these gaps result in angst, anxiety and unhappiness.

But they don’t have to.

We just need to learn to sit with the discomfort of those gaps.

Here’s how:

1. Notice the discomfort

Most of us are so used to a low-level hum of angst or discontent in life, we think it’s normal. And we’ve also gotten very good at avoiding it. We put the uncomfortable thoughts in a box in our brain, shut the lid, and get on with our day. Or we medicate our unhappiness with food, exercise, alcohol, anything that takes our mind off the way we’re feeling.

Now, we can’t stop and ‘notice’ every bit of discomfort we feel in every day otherwise we’d never get anywhere. But if there is something persistent and ongoing, it’s worth taking some time out to notice you’re feeling that way. Then you can …

2. Approach discomfort with curiosity

When we’re frustrated by a reality gap, it’s common to judge ourselves harshly for how we’re feeling. (‘You should be grateful for what you have!’ or ‘What makes you think you deserve better?!’) And then we try to rationalise the uncomfortable thoughts away.

If you’ve ever been to a therapist, however, you’ll know one of the most empowering things they do is validate how you’re feeling. They never say, ‘Oh gosh, you’re ridiculous for thinking that.’ Instead, they approach your discomfort with an attitude of curiosity: ‘What does your discomfort feel like? When is it most evident? What triggers are most likely to bring it to the top of your consciousness?’

Being curious and observing your discomfort in a detached way defuses it somewhat and allows you to …

3. Sit with the discomfort

Perhaps the best exercise I’ve come across for demonstrating how to do this is ‘hands as thoughts and feelings’ (adapted from here):

Sit comfortably in a chair with your eyes open and looking ahead.

Imagine in front of you are the things that matter most to you: your family, friends, hopes and dreams. Also in front of you are the tasks you need to do, and the challenges you face.

Now, keeping your eyes open, bring both hands up in front of your face.

Imagine your hands are your uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. When you’re caught up in those thoughts and feelings (hands obscuring your view of the world), do you notice it’s difficult to engage with the things that are important to you? That it’s difficult to concentrate on the tasks at hand? That it’s difficult to take meaningful action with regards to the challenges you are facing?

If you’re able to defuse those uncomfortable feelings (approach them with curiosity rather than judgement; observe them in a detached way), this has the effect of lowering your hands from your face.

Notice that lowering your hands doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared, (the thing we generally try to make uncomfortable thoughts and feelings do). They’re still there, resting gently in your lap. But now they’re not obscuring your view, you’re better able to engage with the people you want to, perform the tasks you need to, and take appropriate action with regard to the challenges you face.

I’ve heard it said that you cannot be anxious and grateful at the same time, but this has not been my experience. When I try to manage anxiety and angst with gratitude, at best it feels like a flimsy band-aid, one that’s going to fall off as soon as I have a shower. At worst, it’s a brilliant tool for self-flagellation.

When I perform the exercise above and lay my angsty-ness gently next to me (rather than trying to rationalise or ‘avoid it’ away), however, the actions I take to close the Striver and Control-Freak Gaps in my life seems to come from a better place, one where I’m kinder to myself; more accepting of where I am.

I used to strive from a place of scarcity – identifying the things I didn’t have and using that discomfort to drive me towards them.

Learning to sit with discomfort has flipped that on its head – I now strive from a place of abundance. Which means there is less desperation to my striving now and that low buzz of background angst shows up only rarely these days.

My only regret is it took me nearly 40 years to get to this place.

Imagine if I’d learned these skills at school?!

What life-skill do you wish you’d learned at school?

Comments 10

  1. Great article Kelly!
    I recently red a quote:
    “The only power you have is your attitude and that makes all the difference.” Not exactly the same approach to anxiety as in your post, but I really liked it. It helped me to realise that I have a choice to freak out or not and to step back a bit from whatever Gapanxiety I might experience.
    In the same potcast someone asked the question, if excessive worrying had ever let to anything positive and that question was a nice little wake up call as well! Have a lovely weekend!

  2. I wish I had learnt meditation at school. The ability to observe in a non-judgemental way. The ability to question why my thoughts and attitudes are a certain way, instead of assuming you and your personality are almost hardwired from birth.

  3. Very good post Kelly. And yes, I agree that living with discomfort is a good skill for all to have. What a great visual exercise to address the discomfort. And to show that you are recognizing it and addressing it, but that it doesn’t have to impede on what’s important. (Another thing I think should be taught in school is budgeting. Unless you took accounting/finance courses as electives in high school, it was never taught. I sure could have used those skills in my 20s, especially during university when I was living off student loans and a part-time wage).

    1. Oh yes! When I first started writing this piece it was ‘the three things I wish they’d taught us at school’ – and personal finance was one of those things!

  4. This is so timely Kelly, thank you! I’m a yoga teacher and I’ve spent the past week dropping my students right into the heart of discomfort, with even more uncomfortable postures than than I usually dish up. I set the intention at the start of the week, to just sit with discomfort, as it rolls in, and notice what how you respond. As adults, we don’t tend to linger in discomfort for long, as soon as something feels awkward, we get out. We spend our life in air-conditioned comfort, choosing how and when we do things. It’s incredibly illuminating for people to realise how they respond to discomfort. I use yoga postures to teach the art of discomfort but a lovely reminder that there are so many ways. Be well x

    1. I love this Paige! In my CrossFit classes at the moment we do a lot of mobility and movement work that I find VERY uncomfortable (both mentally and physically) – but it’s so interesting to see how much stronger it is making me!

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