I believe living in your comfort zone is a guarantee for a life of mediocrity and low satisfaction. It is arguably the number one reason why most people do not become successful in the things they dream of achieving. I am sure everyone at some point has wanted to try something ambitious but ended up being too fearful of failure and risk that the dreams you have stay as, well, dreams. Whether it be asking your crush out or starting that Youtube channel or business with your mates that you always wanted to launch. These are things that you may have wanted to do but knew it would be hard and uncomfortable, so why would you want to feel those things when you could just stay safe in your comfort zone? Well, when you see someone else get with your crush, or starts the business you wanted to start and they end up succeeding, you are left with regret, which sucks. But what if there was a way to defeat this, a way to train yourself to actually be comfortable with things that bring you discomfort, and in turn confront your fears? The Stoics, from the ancient Hellenistic school of philosophy known as Stoicism, had an interesting approach to this dilemma that is worth considering.
What is Voluntary Discomfort?
To begin, let’s unpack this concept of voluntary discomfort. Essentially, voluntary discomfort is the act of intentionally putting yourself in situations that are challenging and uncomfortable to deal with, with the goal of growing accustomed to it to the point where you become comfortable with those same situations. As a result, if and when the same situation happens to you involuntarily, you will not be as stressed out because you will have developed immunity to its circumstances. To illustrate the concept, let’s take a step back in time more or less 2000 years ago during the time of the Stoic philosophers in Ancient Greece. Cato the Younger was a senator in the late Roman Republic and was a firm believer in practicing voluntary discomfort. For example, he would stroll down the streets wearing the most outlandish clothing with the intent of having people laugh at him and mock him. By doing so, he grew comfortable with the judgment of other people and learned to dismiss it which was important to him as a Roman Senator. Another key Stoic figure, known as Seneca the Younger, a statesman and dramatist insightfully advised that you should:
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.” — Seneca
The key insight here that we can learn from the Stoics is that by purposefully placing yourself in situations that bring you stress and anxiety will naturally develop your resilience to those situations for when those situations inevitably occur in your life. If you fear something, it is likely that you have an unrealistic notion about how bad the reality of that fear truly is. Once you face it and experience the outcomes of your fears, you will be liberated in a sense because it is likely not as bad as you thought. Now that we know what voluntary discomfort is, lets first learn how NOT to use it.
How NOT to Use Voluntary Discomfort
So now that we know what voluntary discomfort is and how it was practiced back in the day. It is important that we cover how not to use it to add clarity to the purpose behind it. Firstly, you do not want to put your life at risk with voluntary discomfort. For example, do not gamble all your money or harm yourself severely to get comfortable with pain. Instead of doing big dramatic life-altering things that are potentially irreversible, stick with things that only make you uncomfortable for a temporary period, ensuring you have control over whether you want to continue or stop the process entirely at any time. Another thing to be wary of is your relationships with others. Say you want to be more comfortable with speaking your mind and being more honest and authentic. An example of what NOT to do would be to actively insult your friends and be excessively rude to them with the purpose of becoming more comfortable with saying what is on your mind without a filter. This may lead to irreversible repercussions as these people may not want to be friends with you anymore. The big takeaway here is: do not do things that either risk your life, whether financially or literally, and risk your relationships with people you care about.
How to Properly Use Voluntary Discomfort
So now that we know what not to do, here is how you should go about utilizing voluntary discomfort. Start with something small. For example, in my own life, I used to always take warm showers. The warmth felt so nice I would sometimes take 30–40-minute showers as a result. However, when I was in a place with no water-heating systems, I would not be able to endure it. So one day, after learning about some of the benefits of taking cold showers I decided to do it for the next month to build my resilience and enjoy the benefits such as faster muscle recovery, potentially weight-loss, and better blood circulation. At first, it was really uncomfortable and unpleasant. I did it for about 1–2 minutes and then switched back to the warm setting. As each day went on, taking cold shower after cold shower, I was soon able to endure the entire 5–10 minutes of each shower I took. Another great place to start is with intermittent fasting. This trains you to be comfortable with fasting for a period of time in which you may experience hunger and some discomfort (though as time progresses this will subside), but if one day you have no access to food, you can remain calm and survive with less. Seeing this experience with voluntary discomfort work so well for me, I went and began doing this with bigger things. One of those things I exposed myself to was actively seeking to be judged by people whose opinions I used to seek external validation from. I used to fear being judged in a negative manner which made me act like someone I was not, for the longest time. So to combat this I tried being more candid with people for a bit by publicizing some controversial ideas out for discussion. I allowed myself to receive criticism and feedback from a lot of people which in turn allowed me to feel more comfortable with judgment. This as a result helped me develop the mental strength for writing on a platform like Medium where my ideas would be available for the world to critique and discuss. Had I not practiced voluntary discomfort in this regard, it is likely I would not have had the confidence to post these articles.
So when trying out voluntary discomfort, focus on things that can be done repeatedly and consistently for extended periods of time until immunity can be built. Put yourself in situations that you normally find uncomfortable and allow yourself to experience the stress, anxiety, and discomfort, and eventually, after a while, it will subside. Doing so leads to some incredible benefits, which is the last part of this process.
Benefits of Voluntary Discomfort
Effectively practicing voluntary discomfort can lead to some tremendous benefits. In my personal experience, my self-confidence and self-esteem grew a lot and I began to believe in myself a lot more than I did previously. I was also able to overcome fear and anxiety with situations that were intimidating to me in my imagination because they turned out to not be so bad in reality. I developed a novel sense of resilience and patience to the hardships of life because, in times of hardship, I would change my mentality from one of suffering to one of practicing voluntary discomfort for growth. This essentially enabled me to endure more pain both mentally and physically which led to an increase in my discipline.
The concept of voluntary discomfort is credited from the Stoics, who practice the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Back in the 3rd century BC, it was used to prepare for the hardship and uncertainty of everyday life, however, this concept still works in a more modern context in the sense that it can be used to help overcome fear and staying in your comfort zone.
When practicing, do not do things that risk your life or your relationships with people you care about. However, focus on things that you can do repeatedly over a long period of time that do not have irreversible repercussions if things go wrong.
When done correctly, it leads to a spike in self-confidence, mental strength, resilience, patience, and ultimately discipline which enables you to overcome your fears and anxiety.