Comfortable Dysfunction

I recently had the following (partial) conversation with a client during a coaching session:

Me: So, what keeps you from making the change?
Client: I’m comfortable. This situation is comfortable for me.
Me: And, dysfunctional (as she had stated earlier in our discussion).
Client: Yes, but it’s more comfortable than dysfunctional.

I call it comfortable dysfunction. I’ll spare you the details of her situation; however, suffice it to say she was remaining in a dysfunctional and somewhat toxic situation because, as you read above, it was comfortable.  This is not rare. In fact, I find it quite common amongst many of the people I coach, my friends and colleagues. And yes, even for me.  We remain in dysfunctional situations because they are comfortable. Yet, that seems like an oxymoron. Dysfunction in and of itself creates discomfort.  Think about it… the job you dislike, the relationship that was over months ago, but you keep hanging on to – all of those things create feelings of discomfort for us. They create stress and anxiety and frustration. So, why do we become so comfortable with them?  Because they are familiar. We know what to expect. We know how to deal with them.

Change can be uncomfortable; therefore, we opt for comfortable dysfunction over uncomfortable change. And yet, if we could only nudge ourselves to feel a little uncomfortable with making the change that would break us free of the dysfunction, we could release the stress, anxiety, frustration, and a whole range of other emotions that accompany being comfortable in dysfunction.

Many years ago, when I was still working in my corporate job, I was a living example of staying in a dysfunctional situation because it was comfortable. I spent the better part of two years knowing that I needed to leave an environment that had turned toxic for me. I was over stressed, overworked, overwhelmed, and I spent most of one whole year sick. Nothing serious, thankfully, just an endless round of colds, flus, bronchitis, laryngitis, etc.  My immune system was suppressed because of lack of sleep and high stress. My body was telling me in every possible way that it was time for a change. I even knew what I wanted to do (start my coaching business), but the idea of making that big change created so much uncertainty and discomfort for me that I chose to stay in the dysfunction of an environment that was no longer working for me instead of stepping into a bit of temporary discomfort.

We know how this story ends; thankfully, I decided to become temporarily uncomfortable and leave my corporate job to start my business instead of continuing to live with the dysfunction.  Was it easy? Not at all. It was scary and caused me to repeatedly step outside my comfort zone into new and unchartered territory. However, the discomfort of making the change was only temporary. The dysfunctional environment I had been in was constant. I did not realize it at the time, but I actually traded my continual uncomfortable feelings of stress and anxiety for a short-term round of uncertainty.  And, the end result was far beyond what I could have imagined

Here’s the thing: the longer we stay in our comfortable dysfunction, the longer we keep ourselves from thriving.  Yes, change can be difficult and scary, but staying in dysfunctional situations because they are familiar can be detrimental to your physical and emotional health.   As I told my client who I referenced earlier: you are more than capable of dealing with a bit of short-term discomfort that accompanies making a change…. Think about all you’ve tolerated in your current dysfunctional situation.  Trust me (I speak from experience) – despite how comfortable you think your familiar dysfunctional situation is, it is actually a heck of a lot more uncomfortable than what you will go through to make a change that positively impacts your life.

Take one step and you will be on your way.


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