Workplace Wellbeing

How Embracing Discomfort Makes You a More Effective Leader

Written by
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Mandy Castanon, LMHC
Spring Health Provider
Clinically reviewed by
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    This is Part 7 of our blog series for People leaders, Managing Uncertainty, Engagement, and Your Own Mental Health.

    Discomfort is a part of daily life, but it’s something we don’t generally think about —except when we’re trying to avoid it. And uncomfortable feelings are something we need to recognize, think about, and ultimately embrace to challenge our own growth and development. 

    This is especially true in the workplace, where uncomfortable conversations, situations, and emotions are happening all the time.

    Understanding our own roots of discomfort can lead to self discovery, and it can also increase our empathy, understanding, and connection to those around us. 

    For HR leaders, these skills help set the stage for us to meet people right where they are, create a safe space, and support employees in addressing what may be causing discomfort for them in the workplace.

    Avoiding discomfort can be harmful to our wellbeing

    Trying to avoid discomfort is a natural, protective response. But making a regular habit of avoidance can lead to self-reinforcing cycles of anxiety, concentration problems, and avoidance behavior. 

    These cycles and behaviors can have a negative impact on our physical, emotional, spiritual, and social wellbeing, and lead to:

    • Procrastination. Avoiding negative or difficult feelings means avoiding the many things we have to do in life that are uncomfortable—whether that’s tackling a complex project for work, starting therapy, or having a hard conversation with a coworker.
    • Stagnation. If we’re only willing to act in ways that reinforce our own comfort, it doesn’t leave much room for personal growth or overcoming challenges. 
    • Disconnection from our emotions. Ignoring and avoiding discomfort means disengaging from our feelings and experiences. This disengagement can cause a disconnect from ourselves and our feelings, making it more difficult to experience the full spectrum of human emotion. 
    • Creating barriers to reaching our goals. Achieving change is already challenging. When we avoid uncomfortable feelings—a natural consequence of change—it can make it even harder to achieve those goals. Every kind of change is uncomfortable at first, but avoiding the discomfort makes our progress a lot slower. 
    • Missed opportunities. Trying new things or speaking up can be particularly scary, especially if you’re taking an unpopular stance or putting forward a new idea at work. Pushing yourself to embrace the temporary discomfort can lead to more rewarding experiences at work, home, and in your community. 

    Embracing discomfort can help you better support employees

    Everyone in the workplace, from C-suite and HR to People leaders and employees, all experience the same difficult feelings. Learning to manage and even embrace your own discomfort enables you to more effectively support people at all levels of your organization. 

    This is also a critical skill for leaders because it can help you develop empathy for your employees, learn useful skills to pass along, and lead to developing better workplace relationships. 

    Exploring and embracing your own discomfort can show employees that uncomfortable feelings are part of being human. It also helps us learn how to engage with the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of discomfort to better serve our colleagues. 

    Wondering exactly how to do this? The first step is to identify the thoughts and feelings that signal discomfort, and then identify the effect they’re having on our actions.

    Identifying what makes us uncomfortable 

    For many of us, the experience of being uncomfortable is often accompanied by feelings of dread, anxiety, fear, or rejection. Negative thoughts about your worth, competence, and importance are also usually involved. 

    Regardless of what comes up for you in times of discomfort, know that the way you’re feeling is normal. To tackle these emotions, we must learn to listen to the clues our minds and bodies give us—the physical, emotional, and spiritual symptoms—for the real reasons we’re feeling uncomfortable. 

    To identify physical symptoms, use mindfulness and bodily awareness to locate and identify uncomfortable sensations in your body.

    Some common bodily cues are:

    • Tightness in your shoulders, neck, or head 
    • Skin irritation
    • Sweating
    • Upset stomach
    • Racing Heart

    To identify emotional symptoms, consider what you’re experiencing in the present moment. Try to label your emotions. If you’re struggling to identify what you’re feeling, try using a feelings wheel

    Some common feelings associated with discomfort are:

    In addition to physical and emotional sensations of discomfort, it’s important to be mindful of life circumstances that can cause spiritual or social discomfort and contribute to emotional and physical unrest. 

    These might include:

    • A recent loss
    • Big, life-changing events
    • Feeling a lack of purpose or hopelessness
    • Emotional or physical isolation other people

    When we feel uncomfortable, our fight, flight, or freeze response is activated, causing our nervous system to go into red alert. By identifying our feelings and identifying bodily sensations, our brains are telling our nervous system we are safe and secure, and to calm down. 

    Then we can reflect on what we were feeling and thinking, and how that affected our behaviors. By learning to connect our thoughts, feelings, and actions, we can create room for personal growth and positive change. 

    Breaking down the barriers

    After identifying that we’re experiencing discomfort, connecting it to our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and calming our nervous system, we can begin to tackle barriers created by our discomfort. 

    Here are four ways to do this:

    • Practice naming your emotions and connecting them to the thing/situation that caused discomfort.
    • Challenge the negative thoughts that are part of the fear and anxiety cycles.
    • Separate the facts from your opinion of the situation, to separate your feelings from distorted thoughts.
    • Talk about your thoughts, feelings, and experiences out loud to a friend, colleague, or even yourself to externalize and practice naming the feelings.

    When we’re brave enough to engage with and challenge our discomfort, we can learn to accept and integrate our feelings instead of running from them. We can clearly identify what’s keeping us from our goals, find ways to overcome barriers, and develop a newfound understanding of ourselves. 

    Then, the next time fear and discomfort presents itself in our lives, we’ll have the tools to clearly recognize what’s happening and move through it.

    Handling uncomfortable situations with employees 

    When an employee approaches you about something that’s making them uncomfortable, it’s critical to respond with curiosity and empathy. If they feel dismissed or unheard, there’s a good chance they’ll feel discouraged from opening up again, leaving HR in the dark about things that need to be addressed. 

    Here are three effective ways to respond.

    Validate their feelings

    This shows your employees that what they’re experiencing is okay, their feedback is valued, and you are genuinely interested in what they have to say. 

    You can validate someone’s feelings by using phrases like: 

    • That sounds really difficult.
    • I can’t imagine how that must feel for you.
    • I can see how hard you’re working.
    • I can see this is important to you.

    Listen, then ask

    It can be very tempting to go into “information gathering” mode when employees bring issues to their HR team. You likely want to know all the objective whos, whats, wheres, whens, and hows about the situation—but oftentimes, we forget to ask the employee what their subjective experience has been. 

    Before you start gathering information, use open-ended questions to encourage employees to share their experiences, and give you a chance to validate their emotions, as mentioned above. 

    Here are some open-ended questions to start with: 

    • Tell me more about that.
    • What I’m hearing is [include a summary]. Is that right?
    • What was that like for you?
    • How has that affected you?

    Acknowledge what you don’t know

    We don’t always have an answer or solution for the problem placed before us, and that’s okay. As much as we would like to have all the answers, some situations have lots of layers and don’t have a “right” answer. 

    Even though the feelings of uncertainty and confusion may be uncomfortable, the best thing we can do is embrace them and acknowledge that we don’t know everything.

    Encourage your employees to be part of the problem solving by asking things like:

    • What do you need from me?
    • How can I help support you?

    You can also say, “I don’t have an answer, but let's brainstorm an approach or solution together.”

    Embracing discomfort is an opportunity for HR leaders  

    The more you’re able to understand your own discomfort, where it’s coming from, and how it’s affecting your life, the better you can function as an empathic leader—someone who is able to recognize discomfort and pain in other people, and help them move through it.

    HR leaders who identify and sit with their uncomfortable feelings can shape a more open and empathic workplace culture, and show employees that you are safe and approachable. That you also struggle with fear, pain, anxiety, and those feelings can be confronted together as they pop up in the workplace. 

    Developing a workplace culture that encourages embracing discomfort can lead to improvements in mental health, from accepting our feelings and integrating our emotional experiences. It can increase resilience, teaching individuals and teams to persevere in the face of adversity.

    A sense of community at work can begin to emerge around embracing the difficult aspects of our emotional lives. Everyone struggles with discomfort at times, but we don’t have to feel isolated or alone as we navigate it. 

    HR leaders have the opportunity to do just that, even if it’s a bit uncomfortable at times.

    Read this blog for more ways you can help integrate resilience into workplace culture, and become more resilient yourself.

    About the Author
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    Mandy Castanon, LMHC
    Spring Health Provider

    Mandy is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Indiana. She works primarily with children, teens, families, and LBGTQ+ clients, and also enjoys working with adults on a variety of issues. She operates her own private practice, providing telehealth individual and family therapy for a variety of clients, as well as employee assistance program services through Spring Health. Mandy earned her B.A. in Psychology from Fresno Pacific University in Fresno, CA. in 2016 and her M.A. in Counseling from Ball State University in Muncie, IN in 2018. Mandy loves what she does and has a passion for helping kids and families develop their strengths and use them to be the best they can be.

    About the clinical reviewer
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