The minute we get a whiff of discomfort, we want to swerve in the other direction.

We freely admit to physical discomforts, always complaining about the weather or one’s aches and pains. It’s harder for us to cop to emotional pain because we want to appear strong.

In the modern Western world, we are insulated by all the technology that money can buy. If you are lucky, it’s possible to feel very little physical discomfort. We get used to a comfort zone, and when we feel ourselves bump against the edges of it, we bounce off in the other direction, back into it. Pretty soon we never want to leave it. We lose our tolerance for discomfort.

I live well within my comfort zone. This became clearly evident while on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. It was an eight-days-on-the-river, sleeping-under-the-stars-every-night kind of trip. All of our meals were provided. We were given strict limits and suggestions on what to pack. I’m a lip balm addict, so I stashed about twenty of them throughout various bags and clothing, just in case a bag was lost overboard in the river. I fretted about it. That’s how close my comfort zone is.

No matter how prepared you think you are for a trip like rafting in the Grand Canyon, whether you have the right clothes and shoes and sunhat and sunblock and lip balm, you will still be discomforted by the physical experience. Being on the Colorado River is a constant dance between extremes, scalding heat and freezing water, scorching sun and shocking cold. It’s physically demanding to be out in the elements twenty-four hours a day for an entire week. My modern sensibilities were challenged. I was discomforted on a continuous basis, but I also learned how temporary each state was. Nothing lasted very long without transforming into something else. You get cold and wet really fast. You get hot and dry really fast. This happens over and over again.

Everyone on that rafting trip was out of their comfort zone. But, after two or three days, we all settled in to our new routines. The river became our way of life. This never would have happened if we hadn’t agreed to step out of our comfort zones, albeit in a fairly luxurious way. By the end of that trip, we had expanded our tolerance for discomfort, and we were forever changed by our experience on the river.

The other kind of discomfort, the emotional kind, is easier to ignore in some ways. You can pretend you’re not feeling it. We’re taught by the culture that we should smile and be polite. If we’re uncomfortable, maybe we’re not doing it right. Maybe there is something wrong with us. So often we grin and bear it because that’s what we think we’re supposed to do. We’re faking it along the way, hoping to get it right.

But right by whose standards?

When anxiety and unease are your primary emotional discomforts, this is feedback that you may not be heading in the right direction to realize your full potential.

I’m not talking about the fear you feel when you are exploring and trying out new things.

I speak of the discomfort that happens when you’ve stayed too long at the party. When you’ve stayed too long in a marriage or a career, even though it’s stifling you. When doing something different feels too scary, we numb ourselves to the discomfort, which later manifests as boredom, frustration and irritability.

Your brain will tell you to cool it. Don’t mess with the good thing. You’ve put up with it for this long. Who knows how good the next thing will be?

Discomfort means you need to expand your comfort zone. Not by becoming more tolerant to the discomfort, the way I did on the rafting trip, but by using it as a guide to move yourself forward in life. When that numb feeling settles on you, when dull anxiety is running in the background of your life, it’s time to expand. Stop settling.

No matter how illogical it may seem to your brain, trust your emotions to guide. You know what it feels like when things could be so much better in your life, when you just aren’t satisfied. You want more.

When you feel sad, tired and bored, ask yourself what it is that you are holding back on?

What are you not expressing that needs to be expressed?

Find a way to express it no matter how uncomfortable it is.

Creating is uncomfortable. It’s way out of everyone’s comfort zone.

That’s what creativity is. Venturing into unknown lands.

By the end of the trip, we expand our tolerance for discomfort and are forever changed by our experience on the river.