Hierarchy of Resilience: Intentional Discomfort

Hierarchy of Resilience - Intentional Discomfort Em Capito, LCSWIntentional discomfort is perhaps the most powerful intervention to jumpstart your resilience, and build immunity to the negative effects of stress.

This final resilience factor at the top of the hierarchy is my favorite, combining multiple resilience factors into one incredible tool to decrease fear-based reactivity and open up endless possibility.

“You have comfort. You don’t have luxury. And don’t tell me that money plays a part. The luxury I advocate has nothing to do with money. It cannot be bought. It is the reward of those who have no fear of discomfort.”

– Jean Cocteau, French poet, artist and writer 1889-1963

Resilience really boils down to our level of comfort with discomfort; our ability to find our authentic self underneath the fear when confronted with stress, change or tragedy.

And there is a disturbing trend in our culture toward fragility – in ourselves, our families, and our communities. It’s a direct result of a modern era of unprecedented comfort.

Yerkes Dodson Curve - Window of Tolerance

Your Window of Tolerance (or Resilience Zone)

In psychology, we often refer to the resilience zone as the window of tolerance, based on the Yerkes-Dodson Curve.

By building up more stable resilience factors, such as our Wholehearted Allies or our sense of Meaning and spirituality, we can widen this curve, opening up our window of tolerance.

But, this curve also fluctuates from moment to moment, based on the more sensitive resilience factors, such as lack of sleep, hunger, or illness.

When we lose our footing, we are impatient, reactive, self-absorbed and fear-based.

We snap at our kids, binge on pints of ice cream, drink too much and can watch an entire television series in one go.

While we can recover from a rough day, this is sadly where the average adult lives.

Without resilience, our quality of life is at the whim of external conditions. Even a minor frustration can push us over the edge and rob us of our peace, happiness and well-being for hours, days…or an entire lifetime.

“Fear doesn’t shut you down; it wakes you up.”

– Veronica Roth

The Tyranny of Comfort

When we consider the scope of human evolution, up until very recently – even just 100 years ago, we could count on hard work and adversity being part of every day.

The fruits of our labor were tangible. We couldn’t just microwave a quick meal, escape a hot day, or wash our clothes with the push of a button. We knew and had to rely on our neighbors. Disease was common. Many people died prematurely.

We now live in a very different modern era of superficiality, comparison, and less than meaningful work.

Our culture values wealth, status and power, and our ancient neurological wiring associates these values with survival and security, reinforcing the hedonic treadmill that turns our lives into Groundhog Day on repeat.

Over time, we retreat further and further into what we know; hiding out in small lives of comfortable routines.

We begin to avoid the challenging projects, promotions or outright career changes that could spark meaningful purpose. We avoid the vulnerability, intimacy and conflict required for meaningful relationships. We tune out with every form of distraction, missing out on the meaning present in this very moment.

Before we know it, our resilience – our window of tolerance – has atrophied down to the point that we are no longer able to find ourselves inside our lives.

And then a crisis hits.

“How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives”

– Annie Dillard, American Author

How we handle a minor stressor – say of a car merging into your lane suddenly while you are running late to work during morning traffic – is of course reflective of how we respond to a major crisis or traumatic experience.

If we are self-absorbed, irritated with the universe for the traffic, and angry at this stranger’s decision to merge in front of us, triggering a flood of fight-or-flight stress hormones that will impact us for hours afterward, imagine how we will react when we are in a major car accident or a loved one dies suddenly from cancer.

Our lack of everyday discomfort as a normal and necessary aspect of life leads to a pervasive intolerance for it.

Road rage is dangerous enough in and of itself, but the implications are far more reaching.

Our fear of discomfort and denial of adversity can lead to depression, complicated grief, and post-traumatic stress disorder – in short: an inability to tolerate and integrate the natural and inevitable dark times in life.

In one of my favorite books, albeit with a shock value title, Mark Manson repeatedly comes back to discomfort as our way into happiness:

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience… Dissatisfaction and unease are inherent parts of human nature and necessary components to creating consistent happiness… Often the only difference between a problem being painful or being powerful is a sense that we chose it, and that we are responsible for it.”

– Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*

While we can be grateful for our creature comforts, safety, and the eradication of many diseases, we now must purposefully face our fears and immerse ourselves in regular doses of uneasy growth.

Enter: The Resiliency Field Trip

Intentional Discomfort is indeed just what it sounds like: engaging in uncomfortable experiences on purpose.

I call these experiences Resiliency Field Trips, because this requires a resilient mindset of curiosity, learning and fun. Without this intentionality, discomfort is just discomfort.

There are three elements of a Resiliency Field Trip:

  1. A Resiliency Field Trip is new. When our brains encounter a novel experience, we remember it, anchoring in the positive association.
  2. A Resiliency Field Trip is a little scary. This is the core ingredient: discomfort. We can’t expand our comfort zone without stepping outside of it.
  3. A Resiliency Field Trip is intentional. We choose into it – which we can do even in the midst of an unplanned field trip. It’s all about mindset.

And then there are some bonus elements:

  • Go solo. For most of us, we seek out the comfort of an ally in the face of discomfort, but we discover more about ourselves when we are able to be fully present without the distraction or insulation of a friend.
  • Go outside. Nature offers enormous and immediate benefits, drawing us into mindfulness, reducing stress hormones, and creating a sense of distance and perspective.
  • Get physical. Movement syncs up body and mind, while also boosting our mood through the release of uplifting hormones that can create a stronger positive association with your experience.
  • Get creative. When we engage in nonjudgmental open creativity, we face many of our insecurities while also practicing the release of control necessary to create something meaningful.

You might even be able to curate the ultimate Resiliency Field Trip, incorporating all of these factors – perhaps a solo hike to the top of peak you’ve never summited, where you compose a poem of your experience.

Travel Into Discomfort

A quick invitation here to a specific type of Resiliency Field Trip: leave home and travel.

Do it as often as you can.

Make it a cornerstone commitment for every year to venture away into a new world.

Travel is one of the most powerful interventions you can invite into your life, into your becoming.

It is inherently uncomfortable in every regard – you are immediately outside of your routine, away from the emotional safety of your sanctuary, and forced to into constant presence with your experience, and ongoing adaptation to unpredictable conditions.

The British travel writer, Pico Iyer, described the transformative quality of travel in his beautiful article, Why We Travel:

“Travel can be a kind of monasticism on the move: On the road, we often live more simply, with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance. This is what Camus meant when he said that ‘what gives value to travel is fear’ — disruption, in other words, (or emancipation) from circumstance, and all the habits behind which we hide.”

Beyond the resilience that comes from regular travel, when we venture outside of our borders, literally and figuratively, there is a special and critical impact only found in being immersed in communities of people who are different from ourselves.

The American poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou lamented:

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

If you have yet to go abroad, I cannot express fully the urgency with which I invite you to do so.

You will never regret investing the time and money to go forth, and it truly doesn’t need to cost what you think it might.

Don’t stay in an all-inclusive resort full of your own people. Leave the tourist areas behind. Don’t worry about language barriers; you’ll figure it out. Eat with the locals. Try out small conversations. Wander their streets. Take in the humanity. Notice the opening of your views, your beliefs, your plans.

Foreign travel will transform you in the best possible way, forever.

Take the Resiliency Field Trip Challenge

Right now, brainstorm an initial list of 10 ideas (or more) that would light you up – field trips that are new to you, a little scary, and that you could intentionally create – even if they might require some preparation or savings.

Resiliency Field Trips Em Capito, LCSW>> You can download my free checklist here <<

This is an exercise in opening up to possibility rather than shutting it down. No one is going to force you to act on this list after you create it. Get curious with yourself.

These are not only exercises in intentional discomfort which will inevitably break open your self-limiting beliefs and build immediately accessible resilience – these rich experiences are also going to become your favorite memories, transform your relationship to yourself, and bond you to anyone you choose to share these adventures with.

These challenges are what cement in lifelong friendships.

Do you want an incredible partnership or marriage? Turn date night into Resiliency Field Trip night.

Are you a parent? Take your kids – drag them if you must. You’ll gift them with a rare confidence and curiosity that most children in the current generation lack.

Stop here. Make the list.

Resilience is the counterweight to fear.

By stepping into uncertainty with curiosity, we experience discomfort in a positive context, witness our triumph over our own resistance, and reinforce new pathways in the brain that turn down the volume on fear.

This is called stress inoculation: the development of an adaptive response from stress exposure, building up immunity to the negative effects of future stress.

When we engage in these challenging experiences from that resilient mindset, we get to experience fear from a different perspective, and practice letting go of expectations and reactivity, opening up to the unpredictable nature of life, allowing adversity to transform us, to strengthen us.

This is resilience training in action – expanding our comfort zones – or more aptly, our resilience zones.

The best part, the part that surprised me initially and resulted in building these calls to adventure into my life and my professional practice, is that the resilience we generate taking a flight lesson or going on a river rafting trip immediately transfers to every other area of our lives.

Throwing Open Your Window of Tolerance

With this practice, we train our brains to open up to possibility even in the midst of life’s unexpected field trips. An innocent field trip genuinely prepares us for the real tests – the unplanned changes, losses and tragedies that define our lives.

Resilience expands our whole comfort zone, widening the curve and opening our window of tolerance wide – filling our lives with fresh air and sunlight.

These field trips seem simple, but they empower us to author our own journeys forward from the mindset of confident possibility, an endlessly renewable superpower anchored in those extremely memorable, slightly scary experiences.

“And one has to understand that braveness is not the absence of fear but rather the strength to keep on going forward despite the fear.” – Paulo Coelho

Building Resiliency Field Trips into our lifestyle anchors in a regular touch point – a reminder to reckon with our fears and see them as invitations to grow.

What are you most afraid of right now?

Intentional Discomfort Resilience Em Capito, LCSWOur fears can range from surface level fears of heights or spiders, to the deeper, more existential fears of death, loss, conflict, intimacy or failure.

When fear is left unchecked, our mindset and thinking is black and white, all or nothing, and we exist in a state of anxiety where the unhelpful coping mechanisms of control or denial run our lives.

Both of these survival strategies inevitably result in reactivity and resistance to reality – suffering – because ultimately we have no control in this regard and that which we fear is waiting for us no matter how much we deny it.

When life forces us to face and overcome our fear, or we choose to do so intentionally, we are forced to reckon with our inaccurate black and white beliefs.

We learn experientially that life is gray, that we survive, and that we are actually stronger for it. We connect with our authentic, inherently resilient self. We become the hero and author of our journey.

Each field trip is inevitably infused with meaning, opening us up to our lives with confident curiosity, a greater sense of humility, and perhaps even a radical acceptance of the challenging experiences to come.

All of this coalesces into a bigger perspective on life – from that narrow cannot, must not pinhole view, to wide-open possibility, and a deep appreciation for the triumph, for the people in our lives, and for each day that we have the luxury to enjoy the simple things, or to choose into discomfort.

Your invitation, and challenge: Choose one of those field trips on your list – a challenge just outside your comfort zone, and make it happen in the next 7 days.

Place yourself in discomfort without running, without pretending you aren’t a little afraid, without soothing the fear through self-medication. Lean in to it and notice every sensation along the way.

 “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.”

– George W. Addair

Notice your mind trying to justify why you can’t.

Notice when you try to come up with excuses the day of.

Notice the butterflies in your belly.

Notice the adrenaline.

Notice the surrender after you’re in far enough that you can’t back out.

Notice the elation as you come out the other side.

Let this next field trip lead you into Intentional Discomfort on a regular basis.

And then, perhaps most importantly, watch for life’s next unplanned field trip.

Let go into the call to adventure.


This is a taste of the full lesson on Intentional Discomfort inside The Resilience Class. Learn more and enroll now with lifetime access.

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