Wait a minute! Isn’t it the other way around, that to grow into our potentials we need to get out of our comfort zones or at least operate at the “top” of them much of the time?
That does seem to be the common belief, yet let me play the devil’s advocate a little. We’re all familiar with the theory, articulated so well by the title of Susan Jeffers’ 1988 book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Surely there’s truth in the notion that repeatedly pushing back the fear and doing things in the face of anxiety can lead to changes — in relationships, skills and self-concept. I think how I learned to speak to large audiences at training sessions and at conferences. The first time I spoke in front of a hundred people my mouth felt pretty dry. Repeated experiences, moving into and through the fear eventually helped me know I could do it, and I could do it well. I became more comfortable and confident.
I can tell the story just this way, but I’m not so sure it’s actually the real story. What seems truer, looking back, is that over time what I did was experience my genuine comfort zone, the one I’d had all along, even before I did public speaking of any kind. My learning had nothing to do with “expanding” that zone or becoming another version of myself. What I experienced, instead, was simply a flow and wholeness, of being in everything, not outside of anything, even a previous me. Sure, it took awhile to let go of my discomfort, but the experience was exactly that; not gaining some special skill or acting courageously so much as letting go of something that was, in the end, not me.
The same thing is true for writing. Some days, you know, it’s a hard to getting going — but that’s when I’m actually most outside my comfort zone. Like a diver I bounce once on the board, rise into the curve and when I do, that’s where the freedom is rediscovered and the total engagement. The beauty of the words, like a million bubbles, suddenly surrounds me as I hit the water — having left hardly a wake. Is the writing perfect? Can I be a better “diver?” Surely, there is always room to improve, but I know what it means to be at the heart of the flow. Am I willing to take more risks to stay there more often? Yes, that is true, too. Is this the place I grow the most, that is my practice? Absolutely.
It’s sitting anxiously on the edge of the pool that seems to me most outside our comfort zones. We palliate ourselves with television, snack food, mindless political discourse, cleaning and polishing and arranging, waiting and procrastinating, listening to our own complaints and worries of all kinds, watching and comparing ourselves to others — a process for me at least that really needs to culminate in a martini. This is not to say that we should all be diving and swimming 24/7, but I’d dearly like to arrest the hypothesis that somehow personal growth is just one long strenuous series of challenges after the next, always uphill, always two-steps forward, one step back, always requiring courage and a hard push against the boundaries of ourselves. This version of hard changes sounds like such a struggle of puritanical proportion, as if wholeness is achieved only through disciplined suffering rather than touching a source of meaning, congruence and love deeper down.
Such notions of suffering detract, I believe, from what I think is a clearer view: we are “there” (here) all along and it’s our conditioning that causes the fear. The state of being afraid of our wholeness is not a comfort zone, but a dis-comfort zone, a dis-ease we may be trying to habituate ourselves to. What we are actually pushing against is what is not-me, a not-truly-me that is indeed lethargic and tense. This not-me is our conditioning, our past learning about how not to be ourselves, and this includes all those privately envious comparisons to others; subtle competitions for whatever we think we’ll get when we finally get there (wherever there is); all those internal performance appraisals we conduct on ourselves — with their judgments and blame and insecurities thrown in. We can become hard on ourselves in another way, too, believing we have not yet discovered our true passion or our gifts. This, in turn, creates more interference, more barriers to being ourselves until we do. Then, not so usefully we go to workshops and seminars to hear we should love ourselves but, for crying out loud, “get out of your comfort zone!” as if discomfort, in and of itself, was valuable.
Ahem. These patterns of thought are not so helpful, or at least not as helpful as they could be because they result in yet another problem, which is incessantly needing to have someone else tell us how to be ourselves, as if we were not naturally imbued with that knowledge. We must learn the techniques for how to do the risky stuff. Learn how to speak up, to write the book, to resolve a conflict, add a good idea to a challenging conversation, to play a song for friends — whatever — as if in some way these things are just like jumping out of an airplane. It’s no wonder we have so much trouble when it comes the more basic stuff, such as standing up in our truth, or leading change in an organization or in a society. It’s the hiding — especially from our comfort zones — that creates the stress.
It’s the not-me we keep dragging around as if the not-me is really-me.
To grow you could ask yourself, “Where is my true comfort zone?” and reject any and all answers that tell you that you are inept, inadequate, wrong, lazy, stupid, disappointing, worthless, useless, difficult, “challenged,” scared, insecure, defective, terrified — or weak in some other way not here named. That’s not you.
What a number, after all, we can do to ourselves.
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