Difficult Situations · Exes · Single Parents · Stepfamilies

Stop Missing Out on Life to Avoid Discomfort

“It’s not fear that makes our lives narrow and small – it’s avoidance.” – Harriet Lerner

In 2005, I attended a conference in South Carolina and had the privilege of hearing Harriet Lerner, author of multiple books including The Dance of Anger and Fear and Other Uninvited Guests.

She told the story of a friend who called her. He had been recently divorced but was having trouble on the dating scene. He wanted to invite a specific woman for dinner, but he couldn’t get past his fear and phobia of being rejected. He told Harriet that he didn’t want to spend months in counseling. He wanted a quick and fast solution.

Harriet told him he would have to do exactly as she said, and he agreed.  She sent him to the shopping mall near his house, and told him to stand at the bottom of the escalator all day. Every time a woman, who was by herself, came down the escalator, he was to ask her if she would have a cup of coffee with him.

He had some say “No,” but surprisingly, he had many women say “Yes,” and he had coffee with them throughout the day. He called Harriet sometime later and told her that he didn’t stay as long as she told him to, but he had stood at the bottom of the escalator long enough. He finally got the nerve to call his crush and ask her out for a cup of coffee.

Avoidance is natural in new and unfamiliar situations, but it WILL NEVER help you move past your problem and your discomfort. You’ll just stay there and years later, you’ll still be dreading them. 

I’ve watched many single parents and stepfamilies over the years, including my own. It can be agonizing to see people who, years later, still can’t be in the same room with others in their extended family without looking anxious or angry. But it’s often worse when those people avoid such situations altogether. They miss out on important moments in their kids’ lives, in the own lives, to avoid some discomfort. I say, no more.

Start attending the sports games you’ve been avoiding, the parent events that makes you crazy or whatever situation makes you feel awful. Show up and be uncomfortable. If you do it enough, just like the guy at the bottom of the escalator, it does and will get easier. Acknowledging your discomfort and not avoiding helps you to get past it. 

And just for clarification, this doesn’t mean that you can’t ever miss anything. Even the most together people have times when it would be better not to go, but don’t miss everything because you want to avoid being uncomfortable. Research shows that the more you avoid, the worse your fear, phobia, discomfort and anxiety becomes, anyway. It is possible to learn how to manage your discomfort.

Be willing to be uncomfortable, not for your partner, your kids, or anybody else. Change for yourself.

Here is how to take charge of your own actions and feelings and stop practicing avoidance.

  • Be willing to practice. See every new event you attend as practice for this new skill of yours.
  • Exercise or release stress in some way before the event, to reduce the anxiety you feel about being around the uncomfortable person or situation.
  • Do not drink or take pills to help you relax. This would defeat the purpose of learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • Don’t try to have a full-blown conversation when you are at the event or around the person. Be courteous, smile, offer a few short sentences about the weather or what a nice event it is. That’s all you have to say.
  • Fake it til you make it. If you don’t know what you look like “comfortable,” practice that look in the mirror until you can simulate it, even if you don’t feel it.
  • Breath deeply. Inhale and exhale, when you are just standing there and don’t know what to do or say, especially if you are feeling anxious.
  • Have a running conversation in your head complimenting yourself. Think “Good job! Way to go! You’re almost done!” That can be a tremendous motivator.
  • Envision the scene as if you are a third party looking on. Watch all the people including yourself, almost like a movie. It can be fun to see how everyone is acting, and it doesn’t feel so scary.

No doubt, it is very hard at times, and yes, others may try to make it more difficult for you. But, if you follow the above steps just a few times, you’ll find yourself feeling more confident about those situations. You will watch others continue to be uncomfortable, but you won’t be. And that is, indeed, a powerful thing.

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