The Will to Bear Discomfort: A Key Character Trait

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Some folks make a mess of their own lives as well as the lives of others because they haven’t cultivated the will to endure and work through uncomfortable feelings or circumstances.

I remember very vividly the moment our youngest son first entered this world. He emerged from the womb literally kicking and screaming. He wailed so loudly and for so long while his vital signs were being taken that everyone in the delivery room was chuckling and a nurse only half-jokingly commented: “Boy, he must have been really comfortable where he was because he’s sure not happy about where he is now!” My wife, making a pitch to get her arms around him as quickly as possible, insisted he was simply cold, afraid and in need of a mother’s warm embrace and reassurance. But the nurse responded with something like: “I’ve helped deliver hundreds of babies and there’s a difference between fearful cries and angry cries. Trust me, this little guy is pitching a fit right now. But I’m sure he’ll be okay once he gets used to things.” Fortunately, the nurse was quite right, and our child would turn out to be one of those individuals who early on acquired a capacity for something that some of his friends and acquaintances still, to their detriment, have not been able to cultivate: the will to bear discomfort.

I’ve come to believe that one of the most important aspects of developing a sound character is learning to endure the unpleasant and deal with it in an adaptive manner. Unfortunately, I’ve known far too many individuals who failed to acquire the skills to do so during their formative years. Some were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder because of their apparent inability to sustain their attention, most especially on tasks they didn’t find sufficiently stimulating. Others were diagnosed with various disorders of impulse control, largely because they couldn’t tolerate a moment of boredom. I’ve also known many — both children and adults — who unfortunately fell into problematic patterns of substance use, many of whom were attracted to the substances as a means of escape. When I looked carefully beyond both the symptoms they presented and the various diagnoses that could rightfully be conferred upon these folks, one thing appeared disturbingly common: an intolerance of feelings or circumstances that distressed them in some way, and an excessive readiness to alter their mood swiftly and surely.

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For a long time, researchers thought that some impaired characters, especially those who might qualify for one of the “Cluster B” personality disorder diagnoses, had a sort of built-in “inability to delay gratification” as well as a deficient mechanism for exercising inhibitory control over their impulses. But it soon became evident that such a perspective had its flaws. Moreover, we now know that some of the most seriously disturbed characters among us, such as the antisocial personalities and psychopaths (whom I refer to in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance as predatory aggressors), are actually quite capable of delaying gratification, even though they’re often unwilling to do so. For example, a veteran thief might carefully and methodically “case” a bank for weeks, waiting and watching for just the right time to make the hit. Or a sexual predator might “groom” an intended target for weeks or even months, making only subtle, careful approaches and then backing off quickly so as not to arouse suspicion before they feel confident they can make their play. If such folks had a constitutional incapacity to delay gratification or moderate their impulses, such restraint and artful predatory behavior would not be possible. So it’s clear such folks can delay, and they can exercise control, but they simply choose not to much of the time. When they choose not to wait or not to moderate, it’s generally because they’re experiencing more discomfort than they’re willing to bear and want to escape. Some disturbed characters have more than mere intolerance for discomfort, harboring an outright loathing of it. Such folks are the most prone to seeking immediate relief from distress by immersing themselves in various pleasurable sensations (a pattern often referred to as “chasing highs”). This tendency is often accompanied by a fair degree of hedonistic thinking. (For more on this pattern of thinking and behavior see “Hedonistic Thinking”.) But the bottom line is this: some folks make a mess of their own lives as well as the lives of others because they never cultivated the will to endure and work through even a moment’s worth of uncomfortable feelings or circumstances.That’s why I believe developing the will to bear discomfort is such a key aspect of healthy character formation.

I’ve recently provided some counsel to a few young persons who were really struggling in their bids to become responsible adults. It’s always a bit disconcerting to witness how difficult it has been for some of them to grapple successfully with the issue of bearing discomfort. Some were over coddled for much of their lives, rarely having to face or deal with much in the way of unpleasant circumstances or hardships on their own. Others have been all too quickly “rescued” and thus also “enabled” by their parents when the consequences of their mistakes brought some pain into their lives. While some pain can indeed be destructive, pain can also be very constructive, especially when a person learns an important lesson from it or acquires the skills to deal with it effectively. So, in my work with these folks, I’m always encouraging them to reinforce themselves for every effort they make to face and deal with the things they find uncomfortable — even the smallest of things. It’s in facing and dealing with life’s little discomforts that they build the strength and the skills to deal with its bigger pains. While their parents might have coaxed them into therapy because of concerns over their symptomatic behavior (i.e., the outward manifestations of their stress intolerance such as substance use, academic failure, social misbehavior, etc.) I’ve grown in confidence over the years that once a person learns to face, endure, and deal effectively with the things that distress them, some of the other problems — especially the problems that arise directly out of their frustration intolerance — naturally resolve. Generally, the clients are quite relieved that not too much negative attention gets focused on the behaviors that first gave rise to their parent’s concern. But the biggest benefit of focusing on the core issue is that they solidify an aspect of their character that will serve them well for the rest of their life and in a wide variety of situations.

There are several qualities a person must acquire on the road to forging a strong, healthy character. Patience, endurance, and perseverance are definitely among them. But before they can acquire these virtues, he or she must first cultivate the will to bear discomfort. In the absence of that, we all kick and scream and want to retreat to the womb in a way when things get tough. But once we make peace with the idea in our hearts, the big bad world doesn’t seem so intolerable anymore and we find the strength to truly live.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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