A while back, I decided that the only way I could participate in Church was to say no to absolutely anything and everything that I didn’t feel comfortable with. This was a huge shift for someone who spent 40 years saying yes to absolutely anything and everything Church-related no matter my level of discomfort.
In addition to that, several years ago (when I moved to Utah) I started experiencing worsening seasonal affective disorder. For me, that means that during the winter months, I don’t want to do a whole lot. Things that I generally enjoy doing become things that I dread, and I have tried to figure out the balance between allowing myself to rest during the winter months (some good old-fashioned hygge), and pushing through and forcing myself to do things that I know ultimately are good for me even if they are extra hard in the winter.
Those developments caused me to think a lot about comfort and discomfort. Existing in a state of constant comfort is ultimately not a great thing because we would never experience growth in such a state. At the same time, existing in a state of constant discomfort is bad for our mental and physical health. A very concrete example is physical exertion–there are a lot of things that aren’t physically comfortable in the moment (like exercising) but that produce positive results (better energy and fitness). There are other things that aren’t physically comfortable in the moment (like breaking a bone) that produce injury rather than positive results. When I gave myself permission to start saying “no” to things that didn’t sit right with me, or to use winter to rest body and soul, I wanted to make sure I didn’t over-rotate so much that I started saying no to things that I maybe didn’t want to do in the moment but that would ultimately be good for me.
Given that, I’ve thought a lot about what type of discomfort is “good” or “productive” and should be leaned into rather than avoided, what type of discomfort signals that I should opt out of or change a situation, relationship, or behavior, and how to tell the difference between the two.
What makes discomfort particularly challenging is that discomfort can signal different things to different people in different circumstances. For example, we are taught at Church that discomfort or the absence of the spirit may indicate that we shouldn’t pursue a course of action. At the same time, we are taught that following Christ requires difficult and uncomfortable sacrifices. Both of these things can be true.
So how do we know the difference?
- Two people may experience discomfort in watching a same-sex couple expressing affection in public. One person might interpret that discomfort as confirming a belief that those relationships are “unnatural” or not approved by God. Another might interpret that discomfort as a signal that they have a bias, due to lack of exposure to people or couples who don’t look like they do, and they need to work on overcoming that bias so that they can more openly love and accept others.
- Two people may experience discomfort about being asked to speak in Church. One person might decide that this is something that, for their own emotional well-being, they should decline (even though declining is also a little uncomfortable and embarrassing). One person might decide that this is a learning and growing opportunity, prepare for and deliver the talk, and ultimately be glad they accepted the assignment.
- Two people may experience discomfort at being approached by a homeless woman. One person might interpret that discomfort as a warning that the person is dangerous and to be avoided. Another person might interpret that discomfort as a signal that they need to learn to really see the woman as human and be more open-hearted towards her.
- Two people may experience discomfort attempting a running fitness routine. One person may double down and work through the discomfort, ultimately getting stronger and being glad that she persisted. Another might decide that walking, or yoga, is a better fit for her and change approaches.
- Two people may experience discomfort about the Church’s position on Heavenly Mother. One person might interpret that discomfort as a signal that they need to do more work to support and sustain Church leadership and that they cannot trust their feelings of discomfort–that those feelings are coming from their own worldly, incorrect opinions. Another might interpret that discomfort as a signal that something being taught at Church does not align with what their own inner voice tells them or with the values they hold dear, and that they do not need to accept the teaching.
- Two people may experience discomfort at the thought of attending a social event for a friend. One person may interpret that discomfort to mean that they should not attend the event because it will be unsafe or too overwhelming for them. Another may interpret that discomfort as a little bit of social anxiety or insecurity that they need to work through and attend, knowing that they will ultimately be glad they did because they want to support a friend.
- Two people might experience discomfort leaving a young child home with a babysitter. One might interpret that discomfort to mean that it is wrong for them to leave their child and decide not to do so. Another might interpret that discomfort as ordinary parental anxiety that they need to push through to spend quality time with their partner.
- Two people might experience discomfort at being offered tea by a host in a culture where that is an important component of hospitality. One person might interpret that discomfort as a reminder that they should not drink the tea, and reject it. Another person might interpret that discomfort as the result of competing values–one of adherence to a health code (Word of Wisdom) balanced against wanting to be gracious and generous to a host. That person has to decide which decision is most aligned with her values.
- Two people might experience discomfort around a family member. One person might interpret that discomfort as a signal that the family member isn’t safe for them to be around and they should opt out of their company. Another person might determine that the things that bother them about this family member are reflecting back their own insecurities or something they need to learn, and that they need to take that information to do their own work.
I think these are legitimately difficult situations and I’ve tried to write them that way. For some, there is not a “right” answer because it’ll depend on the context and information missing from the hypothetical. For others, there is an answer that I think is right, but I used to think differently and so understand why others do now. In any event, I personally find it difficult to know when I should honor my discomfort as a signal that I don’t need to participate in or believe something and when I should recognize discomfort as a personal bias or minor anxiety or insecurity that I should push through and experience personal growth.
I don’t have a great answer for how to decide whether discomfort is a signal to lean in and learn or opt out. After a lot of thinking on this, I’ve really only come up with two touchstones to decide:
- When I have done this uncomfortable thing in the past, have I been glad that I pushed through or did I regret it?
- Which decision is rooted in my values? Am I uncomfortable because this is something out of alignment with my values (in which case, I will honor the discomfort and opt out) or is this something that does align with my values and is just hard and uncomfortable to do (in which case, I will try to push through)?
So now I’m turning it to you.
- How do you tell the difference between “productive” discomfort and (for lack of a better word) “warning” discomfort? Can you think of other “touchstones” to help figure that out?
- Can you think of other examples where discomfort may signal that you need to change something about yourself versus examples where discomfort may signal that something is not aligned with your values and you need to opt out? (Is that even a helpful / valid framework through which to view discomfort?)
- In what ways has your Church participation helped you know how to respond to discomfort? In what ways has your Church participation hindered your ability to identify the reasons behind, and respond appropriately to, discomfort?
- How do you know the difference between the spirit / your inner knowing on the one hand, and biases / anxiety / intrusive thoughts on the other?
I always found it odd that as a TBM, General Conference Sunday was so much more appealing than a regular Sunday. If I was totally active in the Church and a full believer, shouldn’t I be looking forward to Sunday services? I really did not. And then during Covid when we were forced to stay home, Sundays became awesome. For months we couldn’t go even if we wanted to and it was terrific. You can see why so many of us never went back post Covid (although for me it was coincidently when I took a deep dive into Church history).
I used to sit on the other side of the fence so I know what those folks say about me: he’s lazy, he’s worldly, etc. But I have to ask a not so obvious question: if life feels so much more comfortable out of the Church than it felt in the Church, especially on Sundays, isn’t that some kind of sign?
In “Productive” Discomfort, I “own” my decision and honor my moral authority. I can remind myself of the innate value to me of the discomfort (and figure out if any of it can be eased). I can tell myself sympathetically, “I gave it my best shot” and mean it.
In “Warning” Discomfort, it comes down to others “talked me into owning” the decision and I feel a degree of resentment, of “being conned” after the fact. When trying to tell myself “I gave it my best shot, but/and…” – it isn’t with sympathy to myself or to others in the situation.
For me, the difference between productive discomfort and warning discomfort has changed throughout my life, as my priorities and perspectives change. For example, there was a time several years ago when I would begrudgingly go to my Church meetinghouse on a Saturday morning to vacuum carpets and scrub toilets. I tried to convince myself that I was doing my “duty” as a user of the Lord’s property, that it was a character-building experience, and the sacrifice of my free time and physical/emotional energy would bring “blessings”. Whatever discomfort came from the task was for my own good, I thought.
Later, with some maturity and perspective, I reframed Church cleaning assignments as a task that blurs the line between service and servitude to exploit members for free labor (especially when it used to be done by paid professionals, who did the job much better). Normally, I’m not averse to dirty work, as I have plenty of my own toilets to scrub and floors to clean at home–this was a matter of principle. Also, I consider my time valuable and my Saturday mornings are reserved for sacred pursuits such as recovery from an exhausting week, or family recreation time. The “blessings” I get from those activities are both tangible and intangible, and far more important to me.
It’s all in the knees, for me. One pleasant spring day in 1995 I took a bridge-to-bridge-to-bridge walk along the Charles River from my office at the BU Law School. As I was coming back around, the sidewalk took a distinctly uphill turn to meet the last bridge. At that moment I had what any traditional Mormon would term a spiritual insight, that the feeling of walking up that incline, the effort involved, was the good kind of effort, an indication of something worth doing, the feeling the OP calls productive discomfort. A year later, in a much more difficult and painful juncture considering my future with God and with the Church, my knees gave way to tell me “NO, not that way, we won’t go!” I doubt my experiences matter for anyone else, but I’ve learned to listen to my knees.
This is a fantastic post! You’ve distilled a problem we don’t talk about much in a very wise way.
I would take it a step further and say that our emotional intelligence relative to “discomfort” improves upon having more words to describe different kinds of discomfort. The more we’re able to distinguish, say, disgust from alarm, the better we’ll be able to parse our own biases from things we should be genuinely worried about.
Some subcategories of discomfort (I’d love for others to add to this list):
I think some of these tend to be more productive than others. Disgust should usually be a prompt to look inwards and examine our biases. I think doubt gets a bad rap and is usually an indicator of the presence of fallacies or falsehoods. The productiveness of fear probably depends on what we’re afraid of. Social rejection? Physical harm? Other kinds of discomfort like embarrassment? More words = more emotions = more accurate understanding of ourselves.
I love this post and the questions it raises, and I don’t have answers, but I think about these questions a lot. Is my discomfort going to be worth whatever I’m getting from it?
I’m reminded of that scripture in Isaiah (55:2, I think)–because I have spent a lot of my labor and discomfort on things that don’t satisfy. But eating what’s good, to borrow Isaiah’s metaphor, is harder than it looks. Isaiah’s advice later on in that verse to delight in abundance (lots of good translations there; the KJV’s “fatness” is kind of wonderful) implies to me a sort of “‘say yes’ to anything that looks like it might be good whenever possible” outlook on life. But figuring out what that is and how much and when–well, that’s the hard part for me.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
For me, the discomfort is bearable if I am moving in the direction of the things that I value.
I had a situation at church some years ago that kept me up at night. I felt I was being forced in a position that compromised my values. I had to fight to have my concerns heard by those above me. After reflecting on that situation I decided that in the future if I had to compromise my values in a church calling I would step down. In most organizations that’s a no brainer yet in church somehow we don’t see that as an option. I sure didn’t at the time.
One example that means something to me…
Two people might experience discomfort participating in the temple endowment ceremony. One person might interpret that discomfort as a need to participate more frequently in the temple endowment ceremony. Faithful temple attendance will bring light and knowledge that will eventually lead to the temple experience being very special and spiritual. Another person might interpret that discomfort as a sign that the temple endowment is really a manmade ceremony that didn’t originate with God, isn’t required for salvation, and while perhaps not terribly damaging, is quite a waste of time.
I tried the first option (I just needed to be patient) for quite awhile, but I’m now much more comfortable with the second option (God/Christ is not the origin of the temple endowment).
Kirkstall has a really good point. When we are uncomfortable, that is the first signal, but it s only the first signal. It is the same as physical discomfort. We have to recognize *how* we are uncomfortable. Pain? Hunger? Cold? Hot? Nausea? What we do depends on how we are uncomfortable. We do something different if we are hungry than if we are in physical pain. Then we have to divide it down slightly more. Sharp pain? Dull ache? Where exactly? You can’t just go to the doctor and say “I am uncomfortable,” or even “I am in pain.” You have to get specific. Only after you get real specific can he start to poke around to narrow it down even further. Even then, he might send you for X-rays, a scan, or lab tests.
So, what do I do about the discomfort is, “it depends.” So, break it down, and for emotions if you know how, you can do you own lab tests by asking yourself questions.
The hardest part of this analysis is that you have to be honest with yourself. Are you disgusted because what you just saw is icky, or because you have been taught it is icky? That can be hard to figure out, and then you have to figure out, is it really icky because it is bad, or just because it isn’t for me. See, slimy eggs make me gag. No, I wasn’t taught that slimy eggs are disgusting, they just are. They make me gag and if I force myself to swallow, I just might puke. But that is me, not that slimy eggs are poisonous. So, I need to shut up and let my husband eat his half cooked slimy eggs, because he does not have my texture issues. But I can defend my grandson who gags on cake frosting on his first birthday because I understand texture issues with food. But I don’t have to watch as my husband eats slimy eggs, half cooked eggs because watching can make me gag too, just thinking about slimy eggs makes me want to gag. Sooooooo, now I am starting to teach you that slimy eggs are disgusting.
So, where does the feeling originate? If a church calling makes me uncomfortable, and the emotion is resentment, is it because I resent being pressured when I get anxious? Or because I really am up to my eyeballs in three year old children and teaching them in primary is too much? Do I need a break from three year olds? Or do I resent being asked to clean the church building when I have to bring my own supplies because the ward budget doesn’t cover a vacuum and toilet bowl cleaner? And the church sits on over 100 billion extra money. If I am anxious because I don’t have any experience teaching and I think the experience will be good for me, it is one thing. But if I am uncomfortable because I am an extreme introvert, and I honestly don’t think I want to force myself into all the social interaction of RS president, then it is another.
You can’t run through all these question while you are sitting in an interview with your bishop and he is waiting for the expected “yes.” So, you need to learn to at least express to the bishop your right to get your own answer that this is a good calling at this time for you. “I need to think this over and pray about it,” should be your automatic answer, not an automatic “yes” to anything the church asks.
Keep in mind, the church does not respect your boundaries. Especially if you are endowed, the church thinks you have already promised to give the church your very life if it asks. So, you need to establish boundaries. My husband and I learned a boundary that has worked really really well with salesmen. At the first sign of pressure, we say no and walk away. Well, we were 20 years too late discovering that boundary is great for church too. If the bishop has to pressure you into a calling, you really don’t want it. If you have to be pressured or guilted into building cleanup, you really don’t think the church should be asking when your time is more valuable than free janitor work for a *company* that has more than enough money to hire somebody who needs a job.
Funny stories about companies and saving money, once the US A. F. decided to save money by firing the janitors and asking active duty personnel to clean their own office space. So, my husband comes home and announces that if the Congress thinks they can save money by hiring master electrical engineers and generals to do janitorial work, at $50 through several hundred dollars per hour instead of hiring a high school kid to do janitorial work at minimum wage, well Congress is just stupid, because I will not clean my office on my own time, but the government will pay me. But, see he got paid, so he was perfectly willing to do it. We joked about deducting $50 per hour from our tithing for the janitorial work for the church, but decided that refusal was more honest. And besides, if everybody did that, the church wouldn’t get any tithing and would still be dirty with stinky restrooms.
I’ve loved thinking about this the last few days.
As a parent, I fail frequently, but one area my wife and I have done well is helping out kids try new things. I think a big reason we have been successful is that we tell them if they try it and don’t like it they don’t have to try it again (whether it’s food, or a sport, or a musical instrument, or a roller coaster, or trying out a new friend). And when they tell us they don’t like something, we’ve respected that (though sometimes years later we will tell them it’s time to try again as people change). It’s been really great. We’ve provided an environment where there is no pressure to sit in discomfort trying something new.
Contrast this to the church experience. I have turned down both callings and meetings about callings if they won’t give me advance notice or if they won’t give me time to think about it (no we need to fill this calling right away and sacrament meeting is in four minutes and we need to sustain you). No thanks. No amount of discomfort is worth committing to something without processing time. The church needs to change this procedure STAT. Give people a chance to think about it; to even say no.
This is the same reason we won’t let the missionaries come over anymore. They try to use high-pressure sales tactics with a hint of spiritual feelings attached to get us to commit to do something we don’t want to do and don’t intent to do because saying no is simply not an acceptable response in the moment. I now realize this is why every time we taught people they would say yes only later to ghost us. It wasn’t because they were flaky; it’s because we gave them no choice but to act this way.
The more I think about this topic, leadership’s choice to hide their assets from the members, and what I see in news feeds about the proposed laws in the Utah legislature, the more I realize that agency is a ruse. The church doesn’t actually want us to exercise agency. They want us to support them in exercising their agency to tell us what to do.
Were any goldfish hurt in the creation of this blog. The dead goldfish made me feel very uncomfortable.
Two people might feel discomfort when they hear the word “Mormon.” One might think, “What an odd name, but my Mormon neighbors are nice people.” Another might think, “Satan keeps winning.”
No fish were harmed during the making of this post!
Dang, a lot of great insight in these comments but I have been traveling and unable to respond. I really appreciate people sharing some ideas that are going to help me answer this question better. And there are some comments that I think make entire post topics that we will have to explore further.