Navigating the ‘ick’ of life

Navigating the ‘ick’ of life

WorkLifePsych News 009

Hi there,

Last month, I was delighted to be a guest speaker at a Coaching Psychology conference hosted by the University of Chichester.

Organised by Dr. Ian Tyndall, the day brought together a variety of experts in various aspects of coaching, including behaviour change, existential coaching, outdoors coaching and ACT (acceptance and commitment theory). I was part of the latter group and explored how we address the topic of psychological discomfort in day-to-day coaching scenarios.

(And before I go any further, huge thanks to Ian for organising the day - I really hope it becomes an annual event!).

‘Psychological discomfort’ is an umbrella term to describe all the thoughts, feelings and other internal, private experiences we don't want to experience. These internal experiences can be very captivating and draw our focus away from what matters, driving us into futile attempts at minimising or removing the discomfort, or avoiding the situation completely.

While our natural tendency may be to avoid psychological discomfort, regularly doing so merely constrains our lives in unhelpful ways, making it harder for us to be the kind of person we want to be.

"...when your primary motivation is the avoidance of unpleasant thoughts and feelings, this drains the joy and vitality from what you are doing". Russ Harris, 'The Happiness Trap'.

The avoidance of psychological discomfort is a major reason for why we engage in procrastination, for example. We just don’t want to engage with the task, we overestimate the discomfort involved when compared to the benefits of completing the task, and we push it into the future.

This unhelpful pattern of avoidance of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and the situations that are associated with them is referred to as experiential avoidance:

“… experiential avoidance is the process by which we run from or attempt to control our personal experiences (thoughts, feelings, sensations) and the external events that give rise to them” . Steven Hayes, 'A Liberated Mind'

So how we respond to discomfort is what matters - whether our focus is on a goal or a desired behaviour, or whether it's on the avoidance or minimisation of discomfort. This is key to understanding our relationship with it. If we can begin to see discomfort as a given in life, the question moves from how we avoid it, to how we can sustainably navigate it when we encounter it.

Persisting through the discomfort allows us to feel a sense of satisfaction, while avoiding the discomfort simply brings a sense of very temporary relief. Just consider that little blip of relief you feel when you decide to push a bothersome task into tomorrow’s task list. Yet often, the source of the discomfort remains, leaving us in a cycle of noticing and attempting to avoid the discomfort. Rather than making progress in the direction of what really matters to us.

It’s ultimately unsustainable, not to mention exhausting.

What can we do about this discomfort?

When bringing ACT to life in coaching, I help clients effectively live with psychological discomfort through several steps, which I shared at the coaching psychology conference. In the absence of a formal recording of the event, I made a short video summarising my presentation, which you can watch here.

Normalising the experience of discomfort
Frequently, coaching clients will focus on how ‘weird’ or unusual their discomfort is. This can lead to unhelpful emotions like guilt or shame. To combat this, we explore how discomfort is something that happens to everyone, based on how our minds have evolved.

We’re wired to notice actual or imagined discomfort and to avoid it where possible. Additionally, some discomfort makes sense - like the slight anxiety before giving a presentation. This serves to remind us that what we’re about to do is important, not to be avoided. So here, I’m helping clients understand that discomfort may be a given in a lot of important situations and it’s like that for everyone.

Discussing workability of their responses
If telling someone ‘just do it’ worked, then I’d be out of a job! There would be no need for us to research coaching processes, or learn more about inflexibility and avoidance. If you’ve ever been told to ‘cheer up’ or ‘calm down’, you’ll realise that not all well-intentioned advice is actionable - or even welcome.

Instead, I approach my clients like the adults they are, and explore what it is they've been trying before the day we meet. We look at how well their tactics have served them, and whether it’s worked out in the longer term - or merely set them up for more problems. This helps us both recognise what isn’t working for them and opens the conversation to exploring some radical alternatives.

Exploring the discomfort intentionally
Given how we’re wired to attempt to avoid or minimise discomfort, actively exploring the thoughts and feelings isn’t likely to have been one of the tactics my clients have attempted before. So we look at what it is that’s showing up for them, whether it’s thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, memories - or a whole mix of 'stuff'.

By exploring the discomfort, we can begin to see it in a new light. Not necessarily to be avoided, but also not fun or pleasant either. We can see it as a temporary emotional experience, not a catastrophe to be avoided. There’s no need for unhelpful toxic positivity either - we can both agree that the task, situation or context is unpleasant. But it’s not a nightmare or a risk to their physical wellbeing.

Learning to label the experience
This is all about learning to see the thoughts and emotions for what they are and apply labels to them. In practicing this form of cognitive defusion, we learn to see thoughts for what they are - not what they say they are. We can categorise them objectively as memories, predictions, ideas, judgements, reminders etc.

By metaphorically stepping back to look at the thoughts, we’re not looking through them - and the world can look very different indeed when we do that.

Reconnecting with values
If we’re not taking our behavioural cues from fleeting thoughts and volatile emotions, then what can guide us on a day to day basis? The answer is something much more fundamental and long-lasting: our values. Much like an internal compass, values give us a powerful sense of direction.

Once we explore these aspects of ourselves, we can identify how we’d like to behave in a variety of contexts, and bring these qualities to life when they’re needed.

Exploring options as towards and away moves
So much of the discomfort we experience forces us into some form of ‘binary thinking’, like pass versus fail, successful versus failure, right versus wrong. This is actually the easiest way for us to evaluate a situation or its outcomes. But it’s worth taking a step back and exploring our options from another perspective.

In ACT terms, we can call these our ‘towards moves’ - the actions that are aligned with our values, and our ‘away moves’ - the actions that serve to minimise or avoid discomfort. Clients learn to explore their options through this lens which helps them connect behaviours to values and see the avoidance of discomfort for what it is - a short term win, with longer term consequences.

An experimental mindset
Coaching typically takes place over a number of months, so it’s key for clients to practice these skills in between sessions. One perspective that can really help here is to adopt an experimental mindset. This simply means looking at our practice as a series of small life experiments.

If something doesn’t work out as planned, this isn’t failure - it’s data. If something does work out as planned, it’s not success - it’s data. Clients learn to notice the pattern of their behaviour and the direction it’s taking them in, learning to make subtle adjustments to what they’re doing along the way.

Since psychological discomfort is woven into the very fabric of life - the workplace alone is full of the stuff! - learning to navigate it sustainably is a key life skill and one that I see my clients use effectively every week. To learn more about my coaching approach and the theory underpinning it, keep reading!

Getting flexible?

My podcast series collaboration with the excellent Ross McIntosh continues, as we explore the concept of psychological flexibility - and how to develop it.

In this series, we want to demystify the concept and make it available to as wide an audience as possible. So if you’re finding it useful, please think about who you could share it with.

So far, we’ve looked at what it means to experience inflexibility, or psychological rigidity. We’ve explored the importance of being aware in the present moment, rather than simply go time-travelling in our mind. We’ve taken a look at the critical skill of Cognitive Defusion, where we learn how to see past our thoughts, rather than struggle with them. And most recently, we’ve discussed the importance of getting clear on what really matters to us: our values.

All the resources mentioned in the series are available online on a dedicated Psychological Flexibility page. I’ll be adding to this page as we progress through the series, and as other digital resources become available.

Don’t forget, if this series is of particular interest to you, you can join Ross and I for free online Q&A sessions each month. The next one takes place on May 29th at 12pm UK time and you can get all the details by joining my free online community at

All of these episodes are also available on my YouTube channel, where you can enjoy watching our facial expressions and, I hope, the genuine fun we’re having in making this series.

Coaching, with impact

I ran the latest of our quarterly coaching webinars last month and the focus was on getting the most from your coaching experience. The focus of these free events it to demystify coaching, explore it through an evidence-based lens, bust myths and answer your questions. As always, I recorded the session and you can watch it on our YouTube channel.

The next webinar will be on July 31st when Dr. Rachael Skews and I will be exploring how to support employees living with chronic health conditions - a sizeable yet frequently ignored population in the workforce. Rachael recently spoke about this topic at this year's Health and Wellbeing at Work conference.

You can reserve your free place by visiting our event page here: