The First Law of Change: Find Your Acceptable Level of Discomfort


Each morning I take the T into work. As I wait for the train, I’m serenaded by a Fred Astaire impersonator. A man in his 50’s holding a microphone slowly moves side to side and sings:

Dressed up like a million-dollar trooper

Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper


I’d be less than thrilled to sing karaoke in a bar and would frankly rather eat live bees than sing that song in a subway station to an audience, captivated just as long as it takes for their train to arrive. This Fred Astaire impersonator needs to be okay knowing that people are going to think he’s a little odd (subway performances are the bottom of the barrel for art expression).

He’s going to have to be okay being out of place. He stands out like a sore thumb, no one else is singing decade old show tunes at 7:00 am. I find myself thinking how uncomfortable this would be for me to do. Making me think there was no way this guy was completely comfortable the first time he did his act. Walking down the Harvard Square ramp to his platform for the first time, I imagine him being at least a little bit nervous. He didn’t seem nervous today. He looked like he was having a good time.

We all aspire to be something. Maybe subway singing isn’t your jam but there is something you want to do that you’re not doing. To be something involves doing something. Doing something else and becoming proficient at it typically involves some sort of struggle. Struggling is often uncomfortable.

Coping with Emotional Discomfort that Comes With Health Changes

You need to be okay with putting your head in the butt seat. What? Yes, you need to be okay with putting your head in the butt seat. Meaning, you need to be okay not being perfect the first time you try exercising. More to come on heads in butt seats.

We are constantly trying to present ourselves in ways that minimize or omit undesired characteristics. We want to be seen in a positive light. We want to put our best self out there for the world to see. It gets uncomfortable when we don’t seem like we know what we’re doing. Comedian Kevin Hart made a great joke about this. It went like this:

“I don’t know how to use the equipment either…I was trying to work my legs the other day… you know the leg machine where you sit there and go like (references leg extension machine). Well I get there and it was reclined down, like it was all flat on one level so I thought it was arms. So I was like okay, I’m gonna work my arms. My face was burning and everything. So I’m doing something right. So I got up and some guy sat down right where my face was. I was like hey man, I was trying to tell him, you doing it wrong, it’s arm. He said no, it’s legs…I was so pissed off because I did three sets. He watched me do three sets! He stood by the machine “there you go that’s it, come on now!”

Interestingly enough since then Kevin has become something of a fitness promoting icon. That was years after that joke was made though. What starts with confusion and frustration (putting your head in the butt seat) doesn’t stay like that if you stick with it.

Now, unless you are training at home, participation in exercise occurs in social contexts, it seems reasonable that self-presentational strategies would have an impact on exercise participation. It’s easy for a fit person to go into the gym because they are reflecting fitness. But what does a novice perceive that they reflect?

We don’t want to be evaluated negatively. Negative physique-related perceptions can prompt protective self-presentational behaviors which deter people from being physically active in the first place. The gym is a social setting where many people believe they are putting their body, physical prowess, and skills in front of a stage of their peers. Similarly, with weight loss efforts we don’t like to feel like we are failing. Reducing body weight is challenging and slow. This slowness can make us feel like failure. Even greater negativity will be felt when the scale doesn’t move after a few weeks. Lack of results makes us feel like we’re just no good at this. The simplest way to rid ourselves of these negative feelings is to stop. Stress eating, behavioral inhibition, depression can all make us fall off the wagon and relapse to unhealthy habits.

The sun revolves around the earth, 2 plus 2 is four, and my girlfriend’s dog will love you forever if you give him bacon. These are things that are true. Thoughts on the other hand do not live in the physical realm. They live in the electrical impulses in your brain that give rise to thought. They are only true if actions make them true. So, if an unpleasant emotional though pops up “I am a failure”, “I cannot commit”, “I look dumb and out of place” you are the only one who can make it true. What I would do is examine the workability of that thought. Workability means, if I accept this thought as true will it help me reach my goals. If the answer is no, reject that thought like a friend request from your crazy ex and move on with your awesome life.

The First Law of Change: Find Your Acceptable Level of Discomfort

The first law of change has three subcategories:

    1. Rate of change is a function of the rate of discomfort experienced. If you wanted to lose 20 pounds in 2 months you certainly could do it. It would be uncomfortable. To lose 10 pounds in 2 months would be less uncomfortable. If you wanted to gain 5 pounds of muscle in 6 months you could do it. Gaining 1 pound of muscle in 6 months would be less uncomfortable.
    2.  The best choice for changing your behavior needs to be a function of your accepted level of discomfort. If you’re not okay with feeling a certain level of emotional or physical discomfort then tone it down. Find what you can accept.
    3. If you can’t accept some level of discomfort you aren’t ready to change.