Are You Tolerating Too Much?

Wait, Renita, what are you talking about? Don’t you always say we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable?

Well, let’s make a distinction between two kinds of uncomfortable: there’s the discomfort of going into the unknown, the unfamiliar, taking action when we don’t know how it’ll play out.

And then there’s the discomfort where we put up with some very familiar aspect of our lives that serves no greater purpose — a lack of challenge at work, an unethical boss, chronic health problems, a dysfunctional relationship.

But why in the world would we put up with conditions that are so uncomfortable? That just doesn’t make sense.

Well, human beings do a lot of things that don’t make sense. But there is one basic principle of human behavior that we all follow: we will always move away from pain and towards reward, or at least something we perceive as less painful.

So, if we’re putting up with discomfort, then it’s because we perceive the alternative as even more uncomfortable.

“There’s no way I would willingly put up with this misery if I didn’t have to!” you’re thinking. I know: you, me, we’re not doing it consciously. But our emotional states — like frustration, guilt, regret, anger — produce hormones that our body get addicted to, just like any chemical substance. And when we have a “craving,” we’re only one thought loop away from instant gratification (a more rapid delivery system than anything Amazon will be able to come up with). Then autopilot kicks in and, with repetition over time, we get habituated to the way things are and it’s hard to imagine they could be different.

But they can, you just have to recognize “The Pay-Off Principle” (hat-tip to Janet Jackson). Ask yourself: “What’s one thing I’m putting up with — what’s the pay-off?”

If you’re putting up with an unsatisfying work situation, the pay-off might be that you don’t have to do the (even more uncomfortable) work of figuring out what your ideal situation would be, having a difficult conversation with someone who could help change it, or taking a chance that a different role isn’t any better. Maybe the pay-off is just that you get to be “right” about what a struggle life is, not being appreciated for all the things you do, or not having the advantages (education, age, connections) that others have.

And guess what, you don’t have to change anything. It’s your life, you get to decide. All I’m saying is, you might want to get clear on the pay-off.