The ability to tolerate discomfort

From The New York Times:

“A lot are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations,” Dr. Jones said. “They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves.”

…And so personal setbacks that might once have become “teachable moments” turn into triggers for a mental health diagnosis.

“Students are seeking treatment, saying, ‘I just got the first C in my life, my whole life just got shattered, I wanted to go to medical school and I can’t cope,’” said Micky M. Sharma, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors and head of Ohio State University’s counseling center.

I spent the past year teaching at a private college that charges $60,000 a year. It was an interesting experience to see how fragile and coddled some of these students were.

THAT was difficult
THAT was difficult

My husband and I are career journalists; his website is here; mine is here.

Maybe it’s the careers we chose — if you not debrouillard(e) — resourceful and resilient — you’ll hate the job and quickly leave the industry.

It’s likely the generation we grew up in.

Maybe it’s having survived three recessions in the past 20 years, times that forced many of us to shelve our dreams and say farewell to some others forever as our incomes dropped and good jobs disappeared.

I do know one thing.

If you are unable to tolerate discomfort, your life beyond college — no matter where you live, what you earn, what career you path you choose — you are going to be miserable.

So are your co-workers, bosses, husbands/wives/partners.

Life has sharp edges!


When someone tells you that your work, or skills — social and/or professional — are weak or sub-standard or do not measure up, these are some of your choices:

— Disagree and ignore them

— Disagree but listen to their input for whatever lessons you can learn from it

— Acknowledge that their point of view is fair and listen to it carefully

— Cry

— Quit

— Never try that path of endeavor again

— Complain to a higher authority and push as hard as possible until they take your side

I have several friends who teach college ready to tear out their hair at the behaviors they see from students who refuse to take “no” for an answer when that “no” bumps up against their cherished self-image.

When life feels difficult and unfair and uncomfortable, here are some of your choices:

— Cry

— Yell at someone

— Run away

— Deal with it

— Use drugs or alcohol to numb your unpleasant feelings

— Talk to someone wiser and calmer, whether a friend, relative and/or therapist for their insights

– Change as much of the situation as possible

— Examine how and why your reaction to this challenge is making things even worse; as the Buddhist saying goes “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”

As readers of this blog know, I do not have children and never wanted to have children.

Drinks help!
Drinks help!

I do nurture and mentor about a dozen younger writers and photographers, one of whom just arrived in Australia for a two-month assignment there. Jose and I are happy to do it.

But they listen! They also have developed the requisite ego strength, even in their early 20s, to hear tough-if-loving feedback and use some of it without a shrug, hand-flap or quick dismissal of anything that challenges them.

I was still an undergraduate when I began selling my writing to national publications. At one of them, an editor was so harsh I’d end up in tears after a phone session with her.

But I learned a lot from her: how to write better, how to listen to criticism (even painful!), how to maintain a calm and professional demeanor. That growing (up) wasn’t going to be all puppies and rainbows.

Decades later, she’s still reading and admiring my work. That’s hard-won and well-valued in my world.

I wish every new graduate the best of luck as they move into the larger world of commuting, low-level drudgery, long hours, too-little money for too-much work.

More than anything, though, I wish them the resilience they most need — not just a shiny new degree or a stellar GPA — to thrive in the decades ahead.

Discomfort isn’t fatal.

39 thoughts on “The ability to tolerate discomfort

  1. you are so on-target with this, caitlin. the qualities of grit/resilience are the best predictors for traveling through life without letting life take you down.

  2. As a recent graduate, I think there are a lot more resilient people in and graduating from college than that article points out. I knew plenty of people who have had C’s or worse, but they roll with the punches, improve, and move on. I also know people who have depression or anxiety, and it’s not because they’ve been coddled. Some people have genuine disorders, and the causes can be many, including being the exact opposite of coddled and being constantly put down or disorders in the brain or living in a tough environment.
    Don’t count out the younger generation. We’re stronger than some might think.

    1. I agree! I also wonder if the place I taught self-selected a particular type of student, which I suspect does happen to some degree. But, speaking from a teacher’s perspective, few things are as exhausting and boring as trying to get students give a shit about their work if they just…don’t. And getting negative feedback (like — read the readings!) just pisses some of them off.

      I also agree, of course, that mental illness is a separate issue and I understand that — I had several students with this challenge. It really depends on the attitude of the student. Some are mature enough to listen to others’ feedback thoughtfully and some just cover their ears and go lalalalalalala, I can’t hear you.

      1. I think the ones that don’t give a shit and go lalalala are the ones who really were too coddled and spoiled. And I think karmically most of them will come to regret their behavior. At least, that’s what I believe. It’ll definitely show in their job performances, and when it does they’ll regret their attitudes when they’re passed over for jobs or promotions and the like.

  3. You always write posts that are relevant and thought-provoking!

    I asked my now-adult son what mistakes I made bringing him up (and he’s a very successful man). Without very much hesitation, he told me, “I wished you hadn’t told me that I was the best at everything or that I could do anything that I wanted to do.” When I asked him to elaborate, he explained how that false identity came crashing down around him when he got to college. He realized that so many other people were so much better than he was at so many things. He had a big comeuppance at a very vulnerable time in his his life.

    His undergrad years were a disappointment to him and me. Now I understand why. He’s making his own way in the world now and is grounded in a truth about himself that is much more realistic. So am I.

    No wonder young people today take disappoint with such devastation. Parents set them up for it! My mom never set me up for a fall like that because she pushed me hard and never told me that I was smart, pretty, or anything resembling positive. She loved me and provided for my every need, but didn’t coddle me. I gave my son what I felt I missed in my childhood and it backfired…but he recovered. Some young people don’t recover as easily (or ever). Parenting is a tricky thing and we leave it up to rank amateurs! And I was among the rankest!!

    1. Thanks for this…

      I came from a tough-love family as well. Never told I was pretty or smart (not denigrated, but never lavishly praised) so I never once expected my life to be easy or success to come quickly. I also attended a VERY competitive university and knew, just looking around my classes, that I was with a smart cohort and I better up my game. I cried in a meeting with my prof in 2nd yr French as I was getting such awful grades — “You had a very weak foundation” she sniffed. I still remember it. OUCH! 🙂

      Mais je parle francais and won a fantastic fellowship 3 yrs post-grad that required speaking excellent French.

      I think that telling kids YOU ARE AWESOME for every little mouse-fart is a terrible disservice, both to the adults they must become — and, speaking personally, creates a nightmare when I was teaching freshmen, some of them told for years they were AMAZING. And some decidedly weren’t. When you’re the only person saying it, watch out.

  4. LRose

    It’s a pendulum-swing thing: Our parents were critical tough-love types (and their parents before them) to the point that we came of age feeling deeply insecure if we were able to accomplish anything. So, we vowed to give positive atta-boys to our kids. The pendulum has swung to the other extreme, creating a weird “everyone’s a winner” culture. I mean, commencement ceremonies for completion of pre-school, complete with cap and gown? Absurd. I’ve seen the “what are you going to do for me?” generational attitude at work border something close to blatant insubordination. Not all, as one commenter said, but many of this generation are saddled with a false sense of entitlement.

    1. Interesting…I never felt insecure, (about work, anyway), and I was off at boarding school at the age of eight surrounded by deeply uncaring strangers, so I just figured, hey, life is going to be challenging and it has been. But I am grateful to have had the self-confidence to get through it.

      I was stunned by some of what I saw this year among the students I taught. But I’ve also met and worked with others who have a ferocious work ethic as well, so I don’t make assumptions in general.

      Luckily, I work alone at home, so I do not have to hire, manage or promote people who think they deserve to run the place right away. I have seen some of this in my online writers’ groups, though — an insane impatience that leaves me annoyed and unwilling to help.

      Paying dues is not wasted energy.

      1. LRose

        And, there’s another t-shirt slogan (you need to go into the biz!) Paying dues is not wasted energy. Love that.
        Keep writing things that keep us thinkin’ and talkin’. Always look forward to your posts.

      2. Thanks much…

        I wish more people really understood that. When they’re in an unholy rush to claim all the goodies it can, legitimately, take years to EARN they’re also spitting in the eye of those of us who..yes…paid dues. It seems a little obvious to me that, yes, working on your skills for a decade or two can actually improve them.

        I appreciate your kind words. 🙂

  5. The author of Grit spoke at my son’s school. His research showed that a certain amount of adversity–not too much or too little–was beneficial to kids as adults. Too much and they could be crushed. Too little and they were like coddled milk. It’s a balance I strive to let my own kids feel . . .

    1. He’s a fellow Canadian and that doesn’t surprise me. I think there are some major cultural differences in how we perceive and process “discomfort.” I was very struck, when my 85 yr father recently had hip replacement — in Canada — at how much LESS coddling and hand-holding (yes, in the U.S. to avoid a malpractice suit, I get it) that I saw here with mine.

      I know I err on the side of tough. Sometimes that’s difficult for others.

  6. I am also astounded at the sense of entitlement I bump into a lot, especially among new writers promoting their self-published works online. Paying your dues is a respected part of the process in many professions.

    1. Good to know it’s not just me who sees and feels that! Now that anyone anywhere can hit “send” or “publish” with the tap of a key on their computer, they think that equals skill. Not necessarily.

      1. I browse the Free section in Amazon’s Kindle listings now and then for fresh reading material. 3 out of 5 times, the writing is badly in need of a good line edit. Then there’s the matter of knowing how to tell a story. What makes people think they can jump in and write a five book series when they haven’t learned how to write a decent short story?

  7. JET31

    Interesting post — Of course, I do wonder about resentment younger folks have for older folks in terms of the economy, unemployment rate, etc. “Paying one’s dues” simply may not be enough anymore.

    1. I take your point. Too many students — certainly in the U.S. — are so burdened by student debt they already feel screwed out of the gate. But to blame that decision on the people who still expect them to earn their skills is a misplaced resentment.

  8. themodernidiot

    Might be helpful if we reevaluate how we measure worth and value? Sending wrong message to people by focusing on so much arbitrary data?

      1. themodernidiot

        Ah, sorry. Was wondering if we partly increase their bad attitudes by focusing too much, or putting too much importance on certain indicators (GPA, etc.) Are these good indicators of real progress or meaningful success? We might be causing some of the irrational anxieties by neglecting other areas of life that people should care about and develop?

      2. I agree entirely.

        I taught one class — that seemed to puzzle my students entirely — using a chapter of Twyla Tharp’s great book The Creative Habit — to discuss the essential need to develop soft skills, like being coachable or having a sense of humor under stress. It’s clear that many students are so trained to simply chase good grades that they don’t even care, or know they need to care, about developing other aspects of their intelligence. I discussed EQ, emotional intelligence — and some just want stuff they can clearly be graded on.


  9. In the UK, we don’t have the same university system as the US: there are no fancy private colleges here. The majority of universities are government-funded with set fee rates and most students take out tuition fee loans to pay for them.

    Undergrad tuition was raised to £9000 (about $14000) per year in England in 2012. Fortunately, I started on the old fee rate; my tuition has been just over £3000 (roughly $5000) a year at an excellent Russell Group (the UK equivalent of the Ivy League) university. It always astonishes me to hear the astronomical cost of studying in the US!

    Perhaps that fosters a different kind of attitude. As American college education is segregated according to financial status, perhaps students at pricey colleges are more likely to consider themselves as consumers who protest when they don’t get the grades they want. Just a thought…I may be wrong.

    The UK university system isn’t perfect, but anyone can apply to any university as long as they have the required grades. Therefore, university cultures are made up of people from lots of different backgrounds, not just students using Daddy’s credit card.

    This has gone off-topic, sorry. I find US/UK differences very interesting!

    1. It’s very similar in Canada — where my alma mater, U of Toronto (nation’s best, always top-ranked) costs about $6,000 a year. Same thing — you get in via excellent grades. That’s it. Not essays someone else wrote for you or SAT tutored to death at $200 hour for years.

      I think there is very clearly a consumer mindset and it’s not helpful to either professors or students. It is very damaging to adjuncts — most of whom now teach becs they’re so cheap to hire and easy to fire — because the only determinant of their “success” is how glowing their student evaluations are. So…suck up to your students and stay employed, or else.

      1. What a horrible system! Completely the opposite of what education should be.

        It’s interesting to hear that Canada’s system is akin to the UK. Well, you might remember that I hope to move to North America one day — I was interested in living and working in the US, but I am increasingly inclined toward Canada instead!

      2. You might find Canada a much better cultural fit. The U.S., where I have now lived for 25 years, is a nation addicted to wealth/status and productivity. No legal sick or vacation leave. No paid maternity leave. It treats people as industrial machinery. I like aspects of my life here, clearly, but the value system? No longer. I hope to retire to Canada/France as an offset to this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s