Snowflake Syndrome: The Cost of Avoiding Difficulty

Man looking over desk

“Easy way feels good but fails to elevate you. Difficult way is overwhelming but guarantees to rise you.” 
– Hiral Nagda

In an era where facing a mild inconvenience is considered a full-blown crisis, where the mere thought of a challenge sends people scrambling for their emotional support teddy bears, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we are skating on thin ice when it comes to resilience. It is as if we have collectively decided that the path of least resistance is not just a suggestion but a sacred commandment. I fear that we are turning into a world where “toughen up, buttercup” has been replaced with “well done for showing up” or “be kind to yourself”. It is as if we have become so accustomed to the cushy embrace that we have forgotten what it feels like to truly challenge ourselves and grow.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a staunch advocate for kindness and self-compassion. However, escaping responsibility and discomfort is NOT what self-compassion means. In fact, self-compassion means doing that which is good for you even though it is hard! For example, you know exercise is good for you, but it is hard. Just like a compassionate caring mother will not let her child indulge in candy the whole day and watch cartoons, neither should you show compassion and care towards yourself by allowing yourself to escape that which is good for you. Self-compassion honours responsibility and embraces discomfort. Unfortunately, it seems like we have reached a point where any discomfort is swiftly dismissed as an inconvenience, and adversity is about as welcome as a root canal sans anesthesia. 

I often wonder to myself, where has our grit and resilience gone? It appears as if there is a gradual erosion, perhaps even a steep decline, in our ability and desire to engage with anything that resembles difficulty or effortful. Our societal norms and individual preferences seem to be slowly shifting, leading to revised conceptions of ideal lifestyles and expectations. Our proclivity to avoid endeavours that demand significant effort stems from an entrenched reliance on instantaneous gratification and swift outcomes. We are bombarded with messages that make us believe that life should be easy, work should be fun, and any negative emotion needs to signal alarm bells. 

Instead of addressing life’s challenges with the attention and persistence they need, we seek out one-size-fits-all solutions to complex phenomena. For example, we are too quick to treat mental health disorders and difficulties using anti-depressants, benzos, and antipsychotics. Instead of addressing the causes of increased ADHD, we prescribe more Adderall. Instead of addressing the causes of obesity, we just Ozempic it. Instead of unearthing the deeper roots of psychological difficulties, we CBT, DBT, or SFT the sh** out of things. I suppose our modern, techno-driven, click-happy society has trained us in this way — to expect things to be effortless and immediate.

Unfortunately, the most important things in life require persistence, but, for most, persistence is hard. Moreover, any mental difficulty is equated with failure. We forget that mental difficulty is actually a sign of progress, but as soon as people face mental fatigue or they feel that their brain is “fried”, they give up. By not pushing through the difficulty, it not only weakens our appetite for facing difficulty but also weakens our willpower, self-control, and motivation… and if you ask me, that is disastrous darling!

So, when I have a hypothesis about something, what do I do? Research

According to neuroscience literature, persistence plays a key role in strengthening willpower and fueling motivation. A key role player in helping us develop tenacious behaviour (i.e., grit) is the anterior mid-cingulate cortex(aMCC), a small brain region located at the front part of the cingulate cortex. According to the research, the role of this little brain structure can be explained by where it is located. The aMCC sits at the crossroads of various intrinsic networks and has the ability to integrate signals associated with interoception, allostasis, executive function, motor planning, and sensory integration. 

Surprisingly, engaging in challenging tasks activates and fortifies the aMCC. This means that when you push through difficulties it directly strengthens your aMCC, subsequently boosting your willpower, motivation, and self-control. Infamous neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Huberman, elaborates on this fascinating process in several of his podcasts, with one particular episode providing a comprehensive overview which you can find here.

Viewed through this lens, I am firmly convinced that the reluctance to engage with and persist through challenging tasks is a major factor driving the rise in apathy (diminished motivation), impulsivity, and distraction (weakened self-control), as well as the decline in productivity and goal achievement (diminished willpower). Regrettably, scientific literature suggests that simply taking more rest days or avoiding challenging tasks will not miraculously reignite your motivation. On the contrary, you’re likely to feel more motivated by confronting and persevering through tasks you initially resist.

The research on the aMCC intrigued me enough to delve more into existing research on persistence. This led me to the work of researchers, Lucas and Nodgren. According to Lucas and Nodgren, people tend to underestimate the value of persisting in times of difficulty. One of their research studies, published in the prestigious journal, Cell, showed that people tend to overvalue insight and undervalue persistence when pursuing creative tasks. In fact, in one of their research studies, they conducted several mini-experiments in which people were given some creative task which they had to complete within a set period of time. Participants were then asked to continue with the creative pursuit for an extended period of time.

Their findings showed that regardless of the creative task at hand, people believed that they would come up with less creative ideas during the extended period of time and that the quality of the creative ideas would also be subpar. Participants believed that their best ideas would be the ones that came during the initial period of the creative task (i.e., during moments of insight) and not during the second part. They believed that they would “run out of ideas”.Surprisingly, what the research study showed is that not only did participants come up with more creative ideas during the extended period (i.e., they persisted), but the quality of their creative ideas also improved significantly. Lucas and Nordgren called this phenomenon the creative cliff illusion

So, from the above, it becomes strikingly evident that if we decide to throw in the towel the moment things start to get remotely difficult or opt to steer clear of challenges altogether, what we are essentially doing is top-notch self-sabotage. Unfortunately, TikTokkers and Instas keep spreading misinformation and fostering misconceptions about how effortless it is to achieve anything in life, from the generation of wealth, to the perfect body, to some holy morning routine, and even self-actualisation. Because, you know, nothing says “truth and accuracy” quite like a 20-second reel. Who needs peer-reviewed studies or rigorous fact-checking when you can have a perfectly curated snapshot of someone’s day-to-day existence, complete with filters and flawless angles? It is like saying the key to enlightenment is found in the depths of a meme. (*ok, ok, deep breaths, and stops ranting*).

As humans, we are inherently wired to tackle challenges head-on. Embracing difficulty is not just a part of life, it is essential for our growth and fulfilment. When we shy away from challenges, we not only deny ourselves the opportunity for personal growth but also hinder our potential for greatness. Avoiding life’s challenges, big or small, doesn’t lead to a happier existence; instead, it paves the way for a life marked by dissatisfaction and stagnation. By evading difficulties, we inadvertently expose ourselves to the perils of depression, anxiety, and addictive behaviours. These negative outcomes stem from a lack of engagement, motivation, and purpose.

Yet, it is precisely through overcoming challenges that we find meaning and purpose. Think about it — some of the most meaningful endeavours in life require grit and perseverance. Whether it is pushing through a tough workout, tackling a daunting project at work, or supporting our loved ones when we are not feeling up to it, exerting effort is where true fulfilment lies.

So, instead of shying away from difficulty, embrace it as an opportunity for growth and self-discovery. Remember, the path to greatness is paved with challenges, and it’s through overcoming them that we unleash our full potential.

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If you liked this article, let me know by giving it a clap or drop me a comment below. You can also connect with me on LinkedInInstagram, and Medium, or join my weekly NewsletterLessons from the Couch — where I share nuggets of wisdom, psychological research, personal insights and lessons straight from my therapy couch.

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