There was a point during my former marketing career when the company I worked for asked me to relocate to Atlanta, Georgia from my home in Charlotte, North Carolina.
I appreciated the vote of confidence to move into a market I knew very little about to help build a strategy to establish a particular brand as a hometown favorite.
But, I remember feeling perplexed at my employer's failure to offer a cost of living increase to help set me up for success in a more expensive city. Perhaps, I should have simply been satisfied with not getting laid off. Or, maybe I should have made an agreement to prove myself for a few months and then revisit my salary with my boss. But, I decided to take on the uncomfortable task of asking for more money.
Today's evolving workplace offer countless opportunities for women to take risks, whether it be asking for a raise or promotion, taking a lead on a project, or challenging the status quo.
Research shows, however, that women engage in risk-taking less often than men. And, a key reason why is because they feel uncomfortable about potential rejection, failure and humiliation. That discomfort drives many women to play it safe and show up small in professional spaces.
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While avoidance may help women maintain a sense of safety in the workplace, it also usurps their ability to realize their potential. Learning to be OK with feelings of discomfort plays a major role in realizing your value and articulating your worth.
As a courage coach, I'm often asked how to make being uncomfortable more comfortable. The answer is that there isn't a quick fix, but there are steps women can begin to take to tame discomfort and take more risks.
On the surface, acknowledging the presence of discomfort may not seem like a necessary part of the process. That’s because, for many women, this step seems to happen automatically. They readily notice heart palpitations, tense shoulders and butterfly swarms in the gut as they conjure up worst-case scenarios about the risks they want to take.
But, intentionally becoming aware of discomfort is a foundational step in gaining power over it and stopping it from triggering additional stress. For example, let’s say you want to share an unpopular perspective with your colleagues. It’s important to clearly say to yourself, "I feel uncomfortable." It may seem silly and even a bit futile.
But, research says the formal naming and acknowledgment of what you’re feeling is effective at diminishing the intensity of emotions. David Kessler, an expert on loss, also said that it's important to name what you feel because when you name it, you allow the feeling to "move through you" rather than consume and paralyze you.
But, acknowledging discomfort is just an initial step. Next, women must learn to settle into what they feel.
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Settle into discomfort
When discomfort arrives, our biological tendency is to, as quickly as possible, create as much separation between ourselves and the stimuli that caused it. That's because our brains can register discomfort as a threat to survival, whether real or imagined. On top of that, we're controlled by homeostasis — a biological process that aims to maintain internal stability. So, there's a bit of deliberate work required to entertain discomfort.
Part of the objective of absorbing or settling into unease is to help women become more familiar with the feeling so that it becomes less intimidating. Researcher Angela Duckworth said that the "familiar is more comfortable, almost by definition, than the novel." So, unless their lives are truly at risk, women should resist the urge to flee from discomfort and, instead, give themselves permission to occupy the feeling.
For example, sitting in discomfort before setting up a meeting to ask for a raise or give difficult feedback can be challenging to do when discomfort is perpetually processed as a negative emotion. So, it's important for women to put effort into balancing negative thoughts with equally positive mental images, or better, to not judge discomfort at all.
Remember: Settling into discomfort takes repeated practice.
After women acknowledge and settle into discomfort, they position themselves to be able to reframe and disarm it. Reframing is the act of shifting a point of view while the facts remain the same. It is a process that can allow women to register discomfort as a unique opportunity to learn something about themselves in relation to what they are experiencing.
For example, a woman who wants to raise her hand to take on a high-profile project for her company may initially be burdened by thoughts of not being smart enough or being rejected by her team. She may focus on her lack of tenure as a liability or consume herself with fear of failure.
But can she reframe to interpret the data around the risk differently? Could being at the company a shorter amount of time than other potential candidates be an advantage? Reframing allows women to adopt a way of thinking that is inspiring to them. And, when they do that, discomfort becomes more helpful than a hinderance.
I used these steps to settle into my own discomfort and asked my boss for a cost of living increase. I was initially fearful that requesting more money would land me in the pile of personnel who had just been laid off. I acknowledged my unease, which helped me to gain a sense of power over it. I allowed myself to feel the physiological responses I had to fear and tried not to judge them.
The biggest leap came when I decided to reframe. I must have been an asset to my company if they trusted me with a brand new market. They had to believe in my abilities to ask me to relocate. Now, it was time for me to believe in my abilities, too.
I wrote out a case for why I was asking for a 6 percent cost of living increase, and I delivered it to my manager. After a bit of back and forth, I was given a 10 percent raise — more than I had asked for.
Women in the workplace who want to take risks like speaking up, standing out and staying true to themselves — actions that are often bear the risk of rejection, failure and humiliation — need to build up their ability to be uncomfortable. There is no shortcut to taming the unease that often shows up alongside risk, but there are steps women can repeated take over time to help them avoid getting stuck and playing safe.
Candace Doby is a speaker, author and coach who works with universities and organizations to help emerging leaders activate personal courage to perform to their potential at work and in the world. When she’s not speaking, she’s working on new designs for her greeting card and gift company, Pep Talker.