Deb Gorton on the Myth of Comfort and Embracing the Uncomfortable

Dr. Deb Gorton is a clinical psychologist and a leading voice on the integration of faith and mental health. Today we’re talking about her book, Embracing Uncomfortable: Facing Our Fears While Pursuing Our Purpose. 

Can you describe what you call the myth of comfort? What did you once believe about comfort that you no longer do? 

The myth of comfort is believing that our ultimate goal is building a life without obstacles. While on the outside most of us would state that this is unrealistic and not really what motivates us, our actions and choices typically suggest otherwise. Meaning, when push comes to shove, we often make the decision to pursue what is familiar, perhaps habitual, instead of what aligns with our core values. For me, deep down I don’t want to live the easy life, I want to live the me life, the one that authentically aligns with my values and purpose, and that is always going to require a willingness to step into uncomfortable spaces. 

In Embracing Uncomfortable I share the story of failing my graduate school comprehensive exam seven times (I’m quite confident a personal best that might stand the test of time). While failure is never an easy experience, I translated my failure into a belief system that consistently told me “you don’t belong here.” My driving motivation became fitting the standards I believed others expected of me in order to feel comfortable (safe, secure), and ultimately that I belonged. Instead, I quickly found myself disappointed, frustrated, stressed, discontent, exhausted (the list could go on) and wondering how the heck did that happen? Long story short, I found that I was functioning in nothing close to comfort and it was exhausting. 

The consequence of living the comfort myth is an ongoing restless desire for something else because every time we achieve the false comfort we seek, it’s never enough. 

So, then, is comfort always a bad thing? How can you recognize when it is? On the other hand, is discomfort always a good thing? Are there times when you shouldn’t embrace uncomfortable? 

Comfort is definitely not always a bad thing! As I write this, I’m sitting under a cozy blanket with a hot cup of coffee feeling quite comfortable. The challenge of comfort is when it serves as a roadblock for pursuing or living out the life we long for. Experientially, transformation is uncomfortable, while seeking comfort really serves to maintain the status quo. Much like the definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again while hoping to achieve a different result,” placing comfort as your ultimate goal often leaves you on the merry-go-round of disappointment life outcomes.  

That being said, there are times when putting a pause on embracing uncomfortable is warranted and even necessary. When I work with clients or walk alongside someone navigating the consequences of trauma, the path towards embracing uncomfortable becomes much more delicate. Since this process requires a balance of acknowledging our emotions while shifting into the process of transformation, moving too quickly towards discomfort can be intensely difficult or even re-traumatizing. If you’re not at a place where you’ve given yourself adequate space to grieve and lament the losses in your life, stepping into the work of embracing uncomfortable might actually serve to harm rather than heal. Radically accepting the grief process is challenge enough for the moment. 

Can you tell us more about the difference between comfort and contentment and why it matters? 

When comfort is shifted to a state of being (instead of a physical or situational sensation), it becomes a false sense of security and safety. It actually serves as a justification, while often unconscious, not to change. Contentment, on the other hand, is a discipline. Think about the Apostle Paul, when he talks about contentment, he describes it as something he’s learned (Phil. 4:13). Comfort drives us to think, “when I get to this place everything will be alright.” For this, you can insert any of the following: a relationship, a healthier marriage, a job position or status, a specific amount of money. The list goes on and on. The quest for comfort places us in a never-ending spiral of discontent.   

The quest for comfort places us in a never-ending spiral of discontent.  

On the other hand, practicing the discipline of contentment challenges us to survey our circumstances, acknowledge and validate whatever real emotions they are causing (both the pleasing AND challenging ones), and commit to a willingness to hold space for both pain and joy. At some point in time, all of us are going to find ourselves stuck in the middle of a situation we didn’t expect, we didn’t plan for, we didn’t choose, and we really, really, really don’t like. Instead of fighting against the gravity of emotional heaviness, we can choose to pursue a balance of validating what is real and tender while also choosing to look for moments of joy. This is the practical practice of learning contentment. It may feel overwhelmingly lonely in the dark places and you may feel a brief release from the pain while feeling the pleasure of watching a child laugh on the bus. You might feel the heavy burden of grief and you might feel the gratitude of a friend’s company over a homecooked meal. You might feel the anxiety and fear of re-traumatization when returning to a home absent of comforting childhood memories and you might feel the peace of the familiar surroundings of church sanctuary.  

We often use the excuse, “I just don’t have time” to justify our lack of commitment to change. How does the way we steward our time impact our ability to pursue this kind of transformation in our lives? 

One of my life mottos is that every decision we make involves a loss. In our Western culture, we’re very driven by achievement, accomplishment, and gain. We focus on what we can get instead of what we might lose in the process. When we fail to consider the losses in our decision, it’s not that those losses magically disappear, instead they rear their ugly heads when we least expect it.  

Think about the last time you were overly stressed. Did your actions suggest or communicate that any of the following – intimate time with the Lord, healthy eating, solid sleep, relational connection, or physical activity were luxuries verses necessities? When we communicate that we don’t have time for something, we’re ultimately indicating that that “something” is a bonus verses a God-ordained need. When we take the time to consider the losses as well as the gains in our decision-making, we position ourselves to intentionally makchoices based on what represents our core values while giving ourselves permission to incur and own the losses that push us further away from our priorities. 

Learn more about Deb’s latest release, Embracing Uncomfortable: Facing Our Fears while Pursuing Our Purpose.