Recently, a parent of a participant at Confluence called me on a Friday evening, a night after the group had left for what was his son’s first wilderness excursion. He was concerned about his son sleeping in the wilderness. Although he and I discussed our safety measures and protocols, staff training, and daily communications, he was concerned for his son’s comfort.
Granted, wilderness was something of a foreign concept for the family. From the north shore of Chicago and with no backcountry experience at all, his concern is understandable, but also interesting to me. It wasn’t for his son’s safety that he was concerned. “I just want to make sure he will be comfortable,” he explained.
I’ve spent hundreds of nights sleeping in sleeping bags under tarps working in wilderness programs and in tents or on the ground on my own adventures. There is no question, it isn’t the most comfortable way of getting a night’s rest. Some nights are more like a series of interrupted naps, then a night’s sleep. Uncomfortable, perhaps. Invaluable, absolutely.
One of the core features of mental illness is an underlying pattern of avoidance in which people develop increasingly complex strategies to avoid feelings of discomfort. Uncomfortable experiences inevitably arise. These may be internal experiences such as worry, nervousness, sadness, anger or inadequacy. Or they may be external experiences such as loss, failure, rejection, traumas or physical challenges.
When these undesirable experiences inevitably arise we are faced with two distinct choices. We can engage and connect or we can avoid and restrict. Avoidance leads to missed opportunities to heal and grow. Along with this comes the shame, disappointment and worry associated with not living a values driven life. This spirals into increasingly entrenched symptoms.
Engaging discomforts and learning to be with our experiences, no matter what they bring, provides a strategy to turn the volume down on our suffering. There is a bit of a paradox here. The more we battle with our discomforts, the more they battle back. The closer we are to them, to more we learn to feel, share and be with these intolerable experiences, the more tolerable they become. The experiences don’t change. We do.
In the language of behavioral science, working with and through discomforts encourages us to build response flexibility. This process emphasizes the capacity to make choices that are consistent with goals and values in the context of all that life has to throw at us. We can’t manage the external world to feel better inside. Rather, we learn to be close with our thoughts, feelings, and relationships as a way of healing.
As I shared some of these ideas briefly with this father, and reminded him of our weekly coaching call to process through his concerns, he reflected on his own parenting. For so long, he had arranged his time and efforts to smooth the road for his son. The bumps, he realized, aren’t the obstacle. They are the opportunity. The goal, we agreed, at least for the next several weeks, wouldn’t be to create an environment without discomfort. The goal for our work together and with his son, would be to engage these discomforts and build the skills to live with creativity, adaptability, and resilience.