The Agitation Advantage: Leveraging Discomfort for Transformation

It's natural for us humans to avoid discomfort. I’ve heard scientists say that most, if not all, of our actions are designed to move us away from pain and discomfort. Others argue that we also seek pleasure.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a moot point. We can all agree that we are just trying to feel better.

Scientists also agree that agitation is required for our brains to lay down the new neural pathways for learning.

But wait! Agitation is uncomfortable.

Now we have the tricky balancing act. On one side is agitation and on the other is comfort. Theoretically agitation is a wonderful thing. It’s THE thing that allows us to let go of old patterns, frees us from carrying old burdens, and teaches us how to handle pressure. Naturally, it’s comfort that we seek, especially when the feeling of agitation is coupled with the story that we are making a mistake or doing something wrong. But when I feel stuck in my comfort zone, I also end up not feeling all that great. It’s a vicious cycle!

It wasn’t always this way. As kids, we were much more willing to walk, fall and get up than we are as adults. Anyone watching a careening toddler learning to walk sees the how they shake it off and try again, usually without much fuss.

My pattern for NOT falling started just a few years after I was fearlessly learning to walk. One of my early memories is going to the roller-skating rink with friends. It was a huge deal for us to be dropped off and left at the rink with a group of kids. I felt so grown up! When my mom picked us up, she asked how it went. My answer would color my mindset for the rest of my life: “I only fell down once.” I said it with such pride in the back of the car, so sure that I had accomplished great things. For the rest of my life, I avoided falling on roller skates or anything else – skateboard, bicycle, water ski, snow ski, etc.

What I had done instead was sow the seeds of a mindset that avoided the edges of discomfort and sought to prove myself as mistake-free rather than become more capable. I started recognizing that a lot of my behavior was designed to stop the agitation, rather than to use the agitation as a signal much like we use a tuning fork to harmonize. With that insight, I started calling it my Mistake Button as a shorthand way to remind me that I was operating on auto-pilot. In other words, if my mistake button got hit, you could count on me to get defensive, explain my actions, beat myself up, pretend to learn and change absolutely nothing.

One of the more interesting…errrr…challenging…ok, uncomfortable things about writing this blog for the last 8 years is the vast gulf between knowing and doing. My intention for these pieces truly is to test drive the ideas before I say “Hey, try this. It works.” Writing about what I’m learning as I’m learning it documents both how far I’ve come and how far I have yet to go at any moment in time. There is a part of me that wants to explain, defend, deny or otherwise stay out of the uncomfortable part of learning, that thing I call the “froth”. Just because I “know” how to do something doesn’t mean I can DO that thing, especially under pressure.

Eight years ago, I wrote a blog called “Jump Thinking”. For me, it’s a window into my mindset at that point in time.

Jump Thinking (Originally published June, 2016)

It happened again.  There I am, in the middle of a 19 second, six ball pass through the ski course, and at the 4th ball, my intensity went down.  Letting up was not a conscious decision – it’s such an old habit, that it’s almost “natural”.  Too natural.  This time, the coach watching in the boat could see it on my face and called me on it. Pretty quickly, I understood the cause and was able to correct it on the next pass.
The cause of my lapse is very common and much harder to correct than it appears to be at first glance.  What is it?

Jump Thinking

No, I’m not talking about me physically jumping anywhere.  It’s my brain that makes the leap.  In this case, my brain made the leap from 4 ball to the end of the lake.

I was already doing the post game analysis DURING the game.

Oops.  Lost intensity and almost didn’t finish the pass. My mind jumped ahead said “I’ve got this.”

Jumping ahead is not the only place my mind jumps. More often than I care to admit, my mind will jump from what I’m doing to what you are thinking.  Here’s an example: I was facilitating a leadership session for a new client and asked a very open-ended question to the group. Although I had been warned that the room would be full of introverts, my question was tailored for the talkers.  It fell completely flat.

My thought-provoking, brainstorming, letsnoteveryonetalkatonce question was met with silent stares. 

Then my mind jumped.  This time the jump was not ahead, but “into their heads.” Not really into their heads – that’s impossible – but my fear of what was going on in their heads provoked these thoughts “What is happening?  What do they think of me?  They are not liking this. They hate me.”  You can imagine how ineffective I was while those thoughts were running me. My client later said it looked like I had “left my body.”  Yes, I had jumped!

After a few minutes, I gathered myself and we had a very good dialogue – when my brain stayed put in the present moment with my full attention on the group.

So what is “jump thinking?”  Jump Thinking happens whenever the brain takes you ahead, behind, outside or into the deep (and currently non-relevant) recesses of your own mind. It is anytime your thinking has leapt to the future, the past or onto what you think someone else is thinking.

Ahead:  “I’ve got this.”
Behind:  “Why do I always (or never) do x?”
Outside:  “Why are they looking at me like that?  What do they think of me?  How do I get them to [like me,] [think I’m smart], [think I’m valuable?]”
Deep Recesses: “Look how my hand just moved.”

This does not mean that you cannot think about the future or plan – of course you can.

However, in order to unleash your best performance, it’s best to keep your attention on the moment at hand.

We have incredibly distractible minds – more so now than ever with smart phones and other media temptations – so Jump Thinking is actually the norm. Staying present – keeping your attention on the thing at hand – has become a powerful, yet mostly absent skill.

Train your attention and watch your performance leap to another level.

What kind of “jump thinking” do you do?  Do you jump back to the past, wondering “what if?” Do you jump to the future, doing the post-game while the real game is happening right now?  Do you jump to conclusions, taking things personally even when no ill was intended?  What does it take for you to focus your attention on what is happening now?

Notice that my advice was solid – train your attention – and also lacking a plan for actually how to do it. Knowing vs doing.

Jump Thinking was written the year before my horse accident and two years before I encountered the man who deliberately created agitation. With the “eyes” I have today, I can look at Jump Thinking and see that it stops where most of the advice stops on being effective under pressure. Here are some of the key ingredients to being effective under pressure:

  • Prepare and practice to be ready for pressure
  • Stay in the moment
  • Get in the flow
  • Clear your mind
  • Realize that stress helps you grow
  • Focus on the thing you want to happen

There is nothing wrong with any of that advice. It just doesn't address the root problem: our relationship with mistakes.

Look at roller-skating me at 5 years old. My goal was NOT to fall. In other words, make no mistakes. Be perfect.

But the root of the problem goes one step deeper: agitation. In other words, while I may say I would like to avoid mistakes, what I really would like to avoid is the icky feeling of the froth. In my head, I can say I’ve made friends with making mistakes. But bring on enough agitation, and I all I want to do is stop the feeling and run back into my comfort zone. Sometimes the feeling is subtle, and the behavior is so automatic, I act before I’m even aware of it. In other words, I jump ahead, behind or outside of myself because it’s second nature. It’s what I always do. Again, knowing and doing. I “know” mistakes are ok, but actually doing something new when the agitation is high is a whole different thing.

There are two parts to the agitation. The pressure that causes it and the sensation/froth as a result of it. In between those two things is my reaction to it, or another way to say it is the story I tell about it. That’s actually the only part of this “formula” I can change.

If I start with the earliest signal of pressure – the feeling of agitation, or of something being off – then I can USE the agitation to create new neural pathways and take advantage of neuroplasticity. In my book Dancing the Tightrope, I wrote the following passage about learning a different way to address the froth – while under pressure.

Mistakes (Excerpt from Dancing the Tightrope © 2022)

Finally, Bruce handed me a tool that looked like it might lead to doing something with the horse—a good, old fashioned cowboy lariat. The assignment was simple and clear. Take the rope from its current, unorganized state into a set of equally sized coils with no tension in the rope.

Jen and I were still standing in the middle of the round pen, talking to Bruce, who was sitting in a chair just outside the fence.

When Bruce gave me the Picture (there’s that word again), I was sure it would be easy and we could quickly start working with Trini, the horse I had worked so hard to catch and bring into the round pen. She was still peacefully grazing behind us.

Lariats are stiff, making the assignment a lot more challenging than it appeared on the surface. Lariats are sort of like a garden hose that only loops when coiled just right. In just a matter of seconds, I was in deep shit. I had made several coils and they were NOT equally sized, and the loops looked like my disorganized garden hose at home. I was failing and desperate to cover it up.

As my internal tension rose, the nice, calm horse I wanted so badly to play with started walking in circles around us. With my attention on coiling the rope, I barely noticed. Bruce would say something, and I would feel the heat rise in the back of my neck. Sitting under his stare raised the pressure even more.

Soon, I started to notice the horse. I couldn’t help it. No longer was she peacefully grazing. She had started trotting and then running and now was kicking up her heels. Greeeaaaat. Between the horse, the lariat, and the guy heckling me in the cheap seats, I felt naked and exposed. Now I feared for my life. Horses are BIG and this one was moving faster and faster.

As I watched Trini kick and buck, it never dawned on me that Jen might be getting concerned about the chaos running around us. Nor did I understand how or why my actions might have sent the horse into such a state. It was like I was looking at the world through a rolled-up tube of paper. I did have a flashback to my accident, remembering being on the back of a horse that had kicked me off in similar fashion.

Bruce stopped me and said something about me beating myself up. I fully denied it and tried to keep convincing him (and myself) that “I’ve got this.”None of my bullshit games worked.

He saw me. He saw ME. Now all he had to do was coax the real me to come out from behind the conditioning of my past.

While coiling the lariat, I did not consciously feel like I was making a mistake, nor did it feel like I was beating myself up. Yet at some level, my physiology was responding to my lack of rope coiling skills as a mistake. Once the “mistake” button got pushed, the automatic cycle took me into my past. The unconscious memories and emotions stored in my body came flooding to the surface. I was no longer the grown-up version of me, but the eight-year-old being scolded for getting something wrong.

And yes, I was beating myself up. That’s no way to learn anything.

When Bruce interrupted me in that moment, he gave me a different path to take. Rather than operating from the past, he took my focus into the present moment. As my tension drained out through tears, the horse calmed down and faced me.

Now we could work on the Picture. How does one learn to coil a rope without training?
The use of the word Picture began to come into focus. Bruce said, “You are trying to do everything at once. A moving picture is made of lots of smaller frames, right? What are the frames?”
Still, I stood frozen.

“Break it into the smallest steps. Try stuff. Where is the twist in the coil coming from? What move could you make to release the tension? Would you twist the rope to the right or the left?”
From my helpless Kid Mode state of being, I asked for the answer.

Which way DO I turn the rope?
He said to try it and see what happens.
But what if I make it worse?
You might make it worse. And then what?
I go the other way. But what if that doesn’t work?
Try something else.
But that might not work!
You won’t know until you try.
But I might die.

OK, I didn’t say the last thing out loud, even though that’s what my mind had been screaming from the first, horrible coil of the rope. I might die. It feels like I’m dying here.
It wasn’t death.
It was a path to life.

In that moment I could not appreciate what a profound lesson this would be. As he stayed with me through the messy emotions of wanting to throw the rope on the ground and leave the problem altogether, I began to chart a new path out of my old ways.

I tried twirling the tension out by swinging the rope to the right. It made it worse, yet somehow, I was still alive.

“Let the rope tell you which way to turn it,” he said.

There he was, with his talking ropes again. But this time, something inside opened, just a little bit.
As I tried working with the coils, I began to tune into the rope, which meant I made space to tune out the inner voices telling me what an awful rope coiler I was. When my attention turned to the problem in front of me, it was as if I had a whole new set of resources at my disposal.

My mind quieted and I started working the puzzle. First this way and then that way. Soon my brain and my hands made a connection and before I knew it, the lariat was beautifully coiled.

Tears began to well up as I realized that I was alive. The shame and embarrassment of not being able to do a simple task had evaporated. I had experienced a glimpse of who I was born to be, without the internal noise and drama. It was just me and the rope, patiently working out a problem, listening to it tell me where to find the relaxed path.

On this day, I was not yet clear on what I had just learned. It had nothing to do with coiling a rope. Bruce had provided a safe space for me to solve a problem. For most of my life, I had not been afforded that kind of psychological safety in most of the cultures I had experienced, whether at school or in my career. While he was providing this space for me, my intensity and fear of getting it wrong did the opposite for the horse. Trini’s bucking antics showed me the cost when safety is lacking. Her response was pure, without the usual human cover-up.

More importantly, Bruce had illuminated the key to my own treasure chest of Invisible Tools. It was a magical key that would only turn when I was present.

Being present matters – and it’s difficult to do when pressure creates a lot of agitation. Notable is that at moments like this, when we are melting down under pressure, we tell ourselves (and others) to “be present” or the one we know never works: chill out. Not so here. If anything, Bruce was giving me instructions that added more pressure.

However, along with the pressure was very practical guidance. Use your mental tools, like patience, timing, feel and problem solving. Take smaller steps. Let the rope tell you what to do. Stop beating yourself up. Notice that you didn’t die. It was as if he was helping me install a different internal operating system than the one that I had cobbled together for most of my life. Instead of letting my thoughts and fears run away with me, Bruce showed me how to arrest them and redirect them to a more productive track.

The lariat event happened about a year after I wrote Jump Thinking. My honest reaction to the pressure Bruce applied while I was melting down was that he was a complete jerk, and my instinct was to never work with him again. It would certainly have been more “comfortable” to blame him for making me cry. But that would have been a lie. He did not “make me cry.” He was showing me how to recalibrate my relationship with mistakes, by showing me that agitation is not fatal.

After the lariat event, I had measurable differences in how I responded to the many pressures of life. Driving through a thunderstorm, I was less freaked out and more able to drive one frame at a time. When I tripped and almost smashed into a plate glass window, I was able to control the fall enough to hit the wall instead. When someone called my integrity into question, I was better able to assume positive intent. When landing an airplane at a busy airport, I was much better able to stay with the plane rather than call out for help from the instructor. I’ve avoided countless relationship breakdowns, because I’m not trying to prove I did nothing wrong, but instead am seeking feedback on what would solve the problem.

In the last eight years, had a lot of repetitions of reframing the feeling of the froth. My mistake button still gets hit, and now it’s less likely to throw me off. I’ve come to realize is that agitation equals available. Available to make real change. That’s a much more useful way to frame it than “agitation means I’m messing everything up.” In other words, the feeling of agitation is the key ingredient to rewiring my brain – if I’m willing to DO something differently. Tune in to the agitation as a signal…let the situation tell me what to do…break it down into smaller steps…build my mental tools…reward the effort. Because it’s in the doing that new neural pathways get formed.

What is your go-to strategy for dealing with discomfort? Where does pressure come from for you? What types of pressure get to you more than others? Do you have an ongoing situation that you wish would change? What is one small step you can step to DO something differently?