JULY 2015 – Desirable Difficulties

I recently heard about a study that compared students taking notes in class with a laptop versus students taking notes with pen and paper. When the two groups were tested they did equally well remembering facts, but the group who used pen and paper scored significantly higher on comprehension.

The students who took notes on the laptops were mostly transcribing, but the students who took notes with pen and paper, by necessity, had to pay closer attention and make choices about what was the most significant information to record. They called this “desirable difficulty” and it got me thinking.

I once wrote about obstacles and how learning to stay and work with them can lead to growth. I think that learning to stay is harder part. We have such aversion to staying with difficult emotions and situations. We have little tolerance for discomfort. Our brains often react with fight or flight or we just numb out. Most of us are not truly grateful for our struggles until long after they are over and we understand the growth they brought.

Our struggles can offer opportunities to pay closer attention and to make choices about what is most significant. I’ve known people who have gone through illness, injury, substance abuse treatment, financial disaster, death of loved ones, imprisonment and many other struggles that forced them to re-examine their priorities and directions. Until the “difficulty” they were simply transcribing; moving through life mindlessly and often destructively. The struggles offered opportunities to stop and re-examine, to make conscious choices in the direction of healing and growth, and often toward greater connection with themselves and with others.

But learning to stay is difficult. We want to make the suffering stop. We want to turn away from the struggle or to control it. Let me be very clear here. Learning to stay is NOT the same thing as apathy: far from it. Learning to stay is learning to stop for a moment, to calm our bodies and minds long enough to see what is and is not in our control; to figure out where there is opportunity for effective action and where we are simply ruminating and amplifying our suffering. Learning to stay means reaching a point of equanimity, where we can reach a calm acceptance of what is and make clear and effective choices about our actions.

When clients are experiencing depression because of chronic stressful and toxic people or environments, even if an antidepressant is necessary to improve functioning, I caution them not to ignore the message of their suffering. Often the body is trying to tell us something; that it is time to move on, or stand up for ourselves, or engage in self-care. But we can only hear these messages if we can learn to stay, calm, listen and engage in our “desirable difficulties.” 

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