Let’s embrace being ‘Safely Uncomfortable’’

In a world that often glorifies comfort and convenience, the idea of intentionally seeking discomfort may seem counterintuitive. However, becoming ‘safely uncomfortable’ is a concept that can lead to personal growth and mental strength.

In this article, I will explore the fear of discomfort in modern society that tells us we should not feel any discomfort, even saying discomfort may be damaging to our mental health. But also saying we must step outside our comfort zone in order to be viewed as strong, brave and courageous. A double bind! I will explore the concept of ‘comfort zone’ and how this term has been hijacked and finally suggest we can change our biological, psychological and physiological responses to discomfort by learning how to embrace being ‘safely uncomfortable’.

The Fear of Discomfort in Society

In today’s fast-paced and convenience-driven world, the tendency is to avoid discomfort at all costs. Whether it’s through the quick fixes provided by technology or the myriad distractions available. The idea of sitting with discomfort has become increasingly unpopular. This avoidance has led to a society that seeks immediate solutions, often neglecting the valuable lessons that discomfort can offer.

And please know, I am not sitting in any ivory tower. I also want to move at pace, avoid unnecessary discomfort, have conveniences wherever possible and embrace the amazing opportunities we have at our disposal. But I am not as comfortable with that approach when it comes to being ‘who I am’.

An example of this is when my husband died in 1999 – he had been ill for many years with Multiple Sclerosis and I had been his main carer. When he died I remember wanting to ‘grieve well’. I didn’t really know what I was saying, but my whole system knew what it needed in order to process dying, death and my struggle with my life that was continuing. It wasn’t that I felt suicidal – I just didn’t see how my life could continue without my husband, I was lost and knew I would need to create some new meaning to my life. In order to reconcile my life continuing and my husband’s life coming to an end, I held the belief that ‘grieving well’ symbolised my respect and love for my late husband. As I embodied my grief and allowed it to pass through me, I also honoured who I was and who I was becoming.

When saying this to a well-meaning NLP colleague of mine, he said; ’You don’t have to dwell in your grief, you can easily create a new belief that will move you away from feeling sad and experiencing grief – right now. “ Whilst I know that individual was offering support in the best way they knew how – it did represent society’s view of me, my late husband, my grief – but also I could see a reflection of their own discomfort and their approach to feelings of discomfort.

I was ’okay’ experiencing grief because I knew it was part of the process. I had a phrase I often used ‘From Death to Life’ and that is how I saw what was happening to me. But often society tells us to get over … (you fill in the blank), to avoid discomfort. To get better. Or even encourages us to wear a mask and:

‘act as if’ rather than ‘notice what is and then (if you choose) act as if’.

We are not encouraged or given the skills/tools to notice what it is we are feeling. This lack of noticing can lead us to becoming disconnected from our body – and there are many wonderful books that capture an understanding of this brilliantly well. This disconnect can create an avoidance which can lead to a belief forming that says it is better to avoid any discomfort or to look for a quick fix in order to feel better. I wonder if this is connected to the rise in emotional distractions? Emotional desensitisers?

Please do note I am talking about discomfort. I am not talking about general grief, trauma, PTSD or any other form of a psychological condition. I am only taking the lens of discomfort and introducing the concept of being safely uncomfortable.

Linking discomfort to stepping outside of our Comfort Zone?

Why have I started with society and discomfort? I believe starting here shows the cultural ‘norm’ we are encouraged to follow. If we emotionally desensitise ourselves from feelings of discomfort – we will be safe and we will be mentally strong. This concept or reinforced societal belief will, and I believe, does affect our mindset. So what is a comfort zone?

What does ‘Comfort Zone mean?

The concept can be traced back to the early 20th century and was popularised in the 1970s. It has psychological roots which sought to describe a mental and emotional state. It means an individual feels at ease, free from stress and/or anxiety. A modern-day understanding would be moving from ‘distress’ to ‘eustress’. This concept further developed and explored what it meant if an individual challenges the boundaries of their comfort zone. This was described as ‘taking actions or confronting situations that may initially induce discomfort but can lead to personal growth, increased resilience and the development of new skills’. An important word here is ‘boundaries’ and I will come back to this.

This description is inspiring. We want to develop personally, we want to grow, we want to increase our resilience, we want to develop new skills. Yes – I am all signed up for this. I am up for challenging my boundaries. But then … we change the description from a boundary, separating the familiar from the unfamiliar which encourages us to embrace all those inspiring statements. Instead, we say:

Go and step outside of your comfort zone.

If I can ask us to pause for a moment and think about this with a linguistic lens. Isn’t this the strangest phrase? Why would we want to step outside of our comfort zone? And step into what? Danger? Anxiety? Stress? Unnecessary/frightening challenge? Not many of us skip and jump at the prospect of landing into something that is unfamiliar and unknown.

Unless of course you are from Star Trek, the crew of which was constantly told they should:

Boldly go where no ‘man’ has gone before!

(a gender representation of the time this phrase was developed)

And those of you who watched Star Trek will know the crew of the Enterprise got into all sorts of scrapes as they were ‘beamed’ onto unknown planets! And this was positioned as exciting, they were embracing adventure, their stories captivated our imaginations, heroes were bold, adventurous and exciting. Who wouldn’t want to step into the unknown – to step outside of our comfort zone (and apologies if Star Trek is an alien concept (excuse the pun) a more up-to-date example would be the Netflix series: One Piece). However, in Star Trek they just had to say ‘Beam me up Scotty’ and they were safe. If only it was that easy in life!

Please do hear me – there are times to push ourselves forward because we can often achieve so much more than we think or believe we can. But, using this language of saying to ourselves ‘I need to step outside of my comfort zone’ sets up our whole system into threat. Psychologically we move into a defensive position. We will consciously and unconsciously be bracing ourselves, preparing to arm ourselves to face whatever is out there!

What is the implied belief if you do not ‘step outside your comfort zone?’

There is also an implied belief that If an individual is not stepping outside their ‘comfort zone’ and jumping into the unknown, that individual is self-imposing a limitation, they are avoiding growth and challenges and they are choosing familiarity over the unknown. They are less adventurous, less exciting, less like a hero and in fact ‘less than’ in every way. That is definitely going to impact our mental health and wellbeing. It is almost as if people are judging you, putting the expectations of society on you that you ‘should be ’stepping outside of your comfort zone’. In fact it should be your goal to step outside of your comfort zone, with or without the knowledge of being well-supported, well resourced and well-equipped to deal with the challenge(s) you are facing.

The societal belief is that if you step outside your comfort zone you will always achieve your desired goal.

What does it mean to be ‘safely uncomfortable’?

And this is what has led me to focus on the phrase: ‘safely uncomfortable’.

During my training in Internal Family Systems, the facilitator posed a thought-provoking question: “How can we be safely uncomfortable?” This really struck me and has stayed with me ever since. I was left wondering about this phrase, how can we become safely uncomfortable?

And this is where I go back to the concept of discomfort. Rather than viewing discomfort as something to be fixed or avoided, we need to recognize its potential for personal growth. Discomfort often arises when we face challenges or encounter upsetting situations. These moments present opportunities to develop our self-regulation processes and emotional resilience, ultimately leading to greater mental strength. If we are able to position discomfort in a non-threatening way so that our system could positively respond to discomfort, we need to explore how can we build an inner ability to be safely uncomfortable.

Psychological Safety

One of the ways we can build the ability to be safely uncomfortable is to build our personal psychological safety.

Psychological safety is a much-banded term people use. Sadly, they are often using it incorrectly, but that is not for this article. Let’s explore the origins. The concept of psychological safety was pioneered by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson.

The concept is the belief that one can speak up, take risks and share ideas without fear of negative consequences. It has its roots in the business world, where open communication is crucial for innovation and problem-solving.

Through Amy Edmondson’s extensive research, she emphasises the importance of psychological safety in teams and organisations. She believes that creating a culture of psychological safety fosters trust and enables individuals to take risks, which can lead to higher performance and better decision-making.

Personal Psychological Safety

What happens when we apply psychological safety to our personal lives, especially when exploring the concept of being safely uncomfortable. When we feel psychologically safe in our relationships, we can express our thoughts, emotions and vulnerabilities without the fear of judgment or rejection. This, in turn, strengthens our connections with others and fosters personal growth. Which, again in turn, encourages us to take actions, confront situations that may initially induce discomfort or anxiety but can lead to personal growth, increased resilience and the development of new skills.

Sound familiar?

Psychological safety, comfort zone and becoming ‘safely uncomfortable’, I would say, are closely intertwined. When individuals feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to embrace discomfort, challenge their boundaries and view any expansion as an opportunity for growth.

Another way of seeing this is that this intersection can lead to the development of mental strength, greater resilience in the face of challenges which in turn gives greater strength to challenge existing boundaries – personally and/or professionally.

And circling back to the message of this article, this provides greater courage, wisdom and strength for the individual to widen their comfort zone, challenge any boundaries and ultimately embrace any discomfort by knowing they are ’safely uncomfortable’.

Final Thoughts

Becoming ‘safely uncomfortable’ and understanding the principles of psychological safety can empower you. By embracing discomfort, whether in personal or professional life and employing strategies (some suggestions are listed on the next page) you can navigate life’s challenges with confidence and resilience.

Let’s reframe stepping outside of your comfort zone into ‘Let’s embrace being safely uncomfortable and together, with personal psychological safety, step into the unknown.’

Five strategies to strengthen your psychological safety:

Embrace Challenges: Instead of shying away from difficult situations, confront them head-on. This process helps you build resilience and adaptability.

Practice Resilience: Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks. Cultivate resilience by learning from failures and setbacks, viewing them as opportunities to grow.

Cultivate Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself, especially during difficult times. Self-compassion allows you to acknowledge your emotions and move forward with a positive mindset.

Seek Continuous Learning: Embrace a growth mindset and continuously seek opportunities for learning and self-improvement.

Build a Supportive Network: Surround yourself with people who encourage your growth and provide emotional support. A strong support system can bolster your mental strength.

Psychological safety is not about being nice; it’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes and learning together. It enables high-performance teamwork. Amy Edmondson

In the embrace of discomfort, we discover strength and growth, for it is there that our true potential unfolds. Dare to journey beyond your comfort zone. Pheona Croom-Johnson

Pheona Croom-Johnson is Co-Founder and Academic Director of Sandown Business School. She has been in the OD field for over 35 years, partnering with Coaches, C-Suite and Senior Leaders. Pheona is a triple credentialed Master Coach (ICF, EMCC, AC), Master NLP Trainer, Team Coach Supervisor (ACTC, ICF) and credentialed Supervisor (ESIA, EMCC), IFS Trained therapist (Level 1) with psychological foundations (BPS). Get in touch to find out more about coaching, leadership and/or supervision.


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