Friday, January 9, 2009

Your Comfort Zone

We all have a sense of what makes us uncomfortable. Things that make us comfortable are generally within our comfort zone and everything else is outside. This means we gravitate towards events, people, places inside our comfort zone and tend to avoid things outside our comfort zone.

Your comfort zone might include certain people like friends or neighbors, types of movies, books, or music and specific forms of information. When we are outside our comfort zone we want to get back quickly. When are inside, we don't want to leave.

There is a lot of variation among people. For some, their family is right in the middle of their comfort zone while others have families that remain light-years away from their comfort zone. Some people look forward to going to work because of the people they work with. Others may dread contact with only one person at work who makes them extremely uncomfortable. They will do everything in their power to avoid this person. If they pull this off, then the work day was pleasant; if not, the one person can ruin an entire workday.

Books, like the classic Catcher in the Rye, remain firmly in some people's comfort zone while others find it so disagreeable they don't anyone to read it and want to ban its existence. For some, acid rock is within their comfort zone while opera makes them nervous. There are others who find the reverse of this in their lives. Action movies sell well so they must be within the comfort zone of many people. Nevertheless, there are others who would rather be thrown into a pit of rabid rabbits than watch this type of movie.

I think you get the picture. The enormous amount of variability is due to many factors such as age, cultural upbringing, gender, personal values. Some people enjoy talking about politics, religion or sex while others feel extremely uncomfortable with some of these subjects.

Comfort zones come in a variety of sizes. These sizes can expand or contract with time. Their size can be strongly influenced by our brain chemistry. For example, people who experience panic attacks can live in a very small world where a comfort zone is often narrowly defined. Any movement toward the boundaries of the comfort zone can trigger a panic attack which is caused by an immediate and excessive surge or adrenaline.

Habits can make the boundaries of comfort zones very strong and impermeable. Brain cells are tightly connected for the habits in our lives and it often takes specialized techniques to weaken and disentangle them. Breaking habits can be one of the most difficult behaviors we face. If the habit of staying within the comfort zone is very strong, people will do almost anything to not leave.

Leaving the comfort zone often means taking a risk. Some people's brains are hard-wired for taking risks — they have huge comfort zones. Others, with small zones, are risk-aversive. It is hard to remember, sometimes, that taking healthy risks is about life itself. Life is about change and growth and without these processes, we live as humans incapable of reaching our full potential and experiencing the wonder and awe of what life has to offer. This has been wonderfully summed up in a poem by William Arthur Ward called "To Risk."

To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.

But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. People who risk nothing, do nothing, have nothing, are nothing. They may avoid suffering and sorrow, But they cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live. Chained by their servitude they slaves who have forfeited all freedom. Only a person who risks is free.

The pessimist complains about the wind; The optimist expects it
to change; And the realist adjusts the sails.

Discomfort is meant to teach us something important, namely that something is wrong with us. Physical discomfort means we need to take action to make something better. If we break a bone in our leg, the pain is telling us that we could live a better life by doing something to help the leg heal.

Emotional discomfort that we feel when we leave our comfort zone has the same purpose. Our brain does not like pain and tries to get rid of it as quickly as possible. The best way to get rid of the pain from a broken leg is to take enough medication so that we can no longer feel the pain. As we all know, this short term solution may not be in our best interests.

When we leave our comfort zone, the quickest way to get rid of the discomfort is to quickly run back to our comfort zone as soon as possible. This short term solution will keep us trapped in our never expanding life. Pain outside our emotional boundaries is intended to push our boundaries in order to grow.

Think of a boundary that keeps you locked into running your life the same way you always have. Maybe you have difficulty talking to a friendly stranger on an airplane or in a store. Or you may be frightened when people around you start talking about politics or a religion that is different than yours. Perhaps, you might find it difficult to confront people when they mistreat you. There are many examples that illustrate the things that keep us from growing.

This week, think of something you could work on this year to open a new part of life for you. Ponder this, read about it, talk to a friend and then take some small risks in the direction that will eventually push you outside your comfort zone.

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