The Life-Changing Secret of Embracing Your Discomfort Zone (Embraces Ambiguity & Change)


I was 29 minutes into a 50-minute Cycle-Spin class, plugging away at an extremely heavy mountain climb when I first felt the urge to quit. My heart was pounding, my legs quivering with every pedal push, as I pondered doing this for another exhaustive, sweaty 21 minutes. I wasn’t feeling it. No perfect music beat or flashy disco lights were going to trick me into amping up my performance. In the cool darkness of the spin studio, I was anonymous. I could just stop pedaling, unclip my shoes and walk out. No one would know who I was or even care. It wasn’t my first class. In fact, I had been consistently showing up at least twice a week for the last few months. But on that day, I thought I was just done. I wanted to give myself permission to quit. I rationalized. I had completed at least half the class. I must not have been properly hydrated. There was always tomorrow.

At that moment, the potentially psychic ( or psycho-depending on the day) instructor spoke into her microphone above the blaring downbeat and said “Don’t you dare quit on me now. You are in the Zone of Discomfort. You don’t have to go any faster or spin any harder, but you absolutely must not slow down or stop. The Zone of Discomfort is where the change happens.”

Sappy motivational coaching lingo aside, what she said hit my brain like a lightning bolt. I just needed not to stop. For another 15 seconds. And then another 15 seconds more. Soon my 21 minutes was 18, then 12, then 7…then we were done.  I finished what I had set out to do. I felt great, I was glad I didn’t quit.

I wish I could say that each spin class after that has found me spinning my way with less pain, discomfort or more ease. It doesn’t. In fact, it is hard every time I do it. The change that she spoke of, however, has made it easier for me to push past that discomfort zone. Each time I “don’t quit” I teach my body, and most importantly my brain, that I can push through it. Each step that I commit past that zone reinforces my commitment and most importantly, my confidence.

Life is full of Discomfort Zones. Whether being taxed by challenging situations at work, or pushing through daily goals to grow myself, each moment where I mentally or physically hit that painful point, I have a choice. I can find 5-10 excuses why “not today” or “I will tomorrow” but the bottom line is each time I step off that pedal and slow down I teach myself that it is ok to stop. It is ok to choose comfort over discomfort. While there is certainly an understandable day and time where one must take the foot off the gas and coast for a while, developing a pattern of staying comfortable will not help you grow. You may remain on the bike, but you will not change. You will not get better. You will not realize your full potential.

Each pivotal point in my life where the profound change happened was always superseded by entering a Zone of Discomfort. Each challenge, whether instituted by external or internal forces, provided an opportunity for me to clip out, step off and choose to tackle another day. More often than not, when I chose to slip out of play, I regressed. I stalled. It was only when I just focused on not stopping and embracing the discomfort that I found the reward on the other side.

Sometimes this change was immediate, and sometimes it was YEARS later. Finding the where-with-all to postpone gratification was often challenging and led me to wonder what-the-heck-was-I-thinking knee deep in the discomfort zone.

The power and perseverance needed to continue, however, has the supremacy to change the trajectory of your life. It is what separates those who realize their dreams from those who merely have dreams.

These 5 behavioral traits are correlated with sustaining you throughout the challenging moments in your personal or professional aspirations. Learning how to tap into them can in help you to push through the pain.

  1. Courage. Often overused in inspirational messaging, the application of courage (fortitude in continuing despite fear) will enable you to risk more and therefore reap a greater benefit from having taken the risk if successful. Courage does not mean not being afraid. Or tired. Or burned-out. It means continuing despite these barriers. Sometimes one day at a time. Acknowledge when you feel afraid. Say it out loud. Owning the feeling will not let the fear drive your decisions. Quite the opposite.
  2. Resilience. You must be flexible enough to realize not everything planned expertly will play out that way. Variables (read sometimes disasters) not within your control will throw you off course. Your ability to soothe yourself, pick yourself back up, and try again will be the deciding factor that places you back on the path. You will not break. Bending will make you stronger.
  3. Optimism. Believing that you will succeed ( continue or finish) is just as important as pushing forward every day. This is a learned attribute, although some find optimism easier to adopt in their thinking than others. My advice to the pessimists…. fake it until you make it. Pretend you have rose colored glasses. Eventually, you will trick your brain and body into believing in the noble cause that you are passionate about.
  4. Social Connection. Allowing yourself to accept help and support during the most challenging times is crucial to any goal you have set for yourself. After all, what gave me perspective and perseverance in my spin class did not come from myself. It came from the twenty-something coach that had “been there and done that “and knew how to say the right thing to change my perspective. Coaches and mentors have the unique viewpoint of standing objectively outside of our mindsets and can offer insights that we can’t see when in the weeds. Lean in and lean on your tribe.
  5. Confidence is a tricky learned behavior. You must have the confidence to persevere, however in order to persist, you must have confidence. Which comes first? You can’t wait for confidence to organically appear. Spending time in your Zone of Discomfort will begin to build increased confidence. Quit…and your confidence will decline. “I won’t” becomes “I can’t.” You will never achieve your goals once “I can’t” takes hold.

Take a moment to absorb the views above. Is today a day when you stepped off the bike? Did you wish you stayed on a little longer? Pick yourself up and set an intention for tomorrow that incorporates the above. Imagine my words speaking to you through the microphone in a dark crowded room of cyclers. “Don’t you dare quit on me now. You are in the Zone of Discomfort. You don’t have to go any faster or spin any harder, but you absolutely must not slow down or stop. The Zone of Discomfort is where the change happens.”
Eternal-optimist Nursing Healthcare Administrator with a passion for leadership, and change management. Known for igniting and maintaining a motivated work culture, building strong, collaborative, influential work-teams and producing quality outcomes . Influential Leadership Speaker. Blog Author of which is dedicated to growing and empowering women leaders in corporate culture by teaching effective coaching skills to maximize the teams they are building. Independent Contributor for Huntington Post and