Stepping Outside of the Comfort Zone

photo credit: mami hasegawa

photo credit: mami hasegawa

"In truth, comfort zones are not really about comfort, they are about fear."- Cylon George

"We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure — all your life. It’s as simple as that." – John Gardner

As an animal species like any other, bent on our own survival, we are predisposed to seek safety; hence our natural inclination towards the comfort zone.  In the comfort zone our activities tend to minimize risk and stress; we create a rut of routine behaviors, a place of stasis and neutrality.  We can predict outcomes, because change is minimal; we’ve seen it all before.  By stepping out of our comfort zones, by challenging ourselves, and attempting new things, we’re running a risk; anything could happen.  That said, taking risks is how we grow, how we stretch ourselves, and how we master new tasks.

"Did you ever do something you were really proud of when you were in autopilot mode?" - Carolyn Gregoire

 Creativity is inherently linked to novelty and experimentation.  There can be no surprise that it is also linked to happiness.  And creative people, who regularly risk failure and vulnerability, when counter-balanced with the joy of flow, also have increased opportunities to build emotional resiliency. 

As children people tend to take risks: everything is new, everything is a challenge, and our minds are designed to explore, experiment, soak up new information, and make new associations.  During this period, we develop in body and mind at an amazing rate.  At some point we start to make the connections between actions and consequences, and to project future possibilities.  We learn to inhibit our actions to avoid potential failures, and the resulting blame, shame, or pain.  In so doing, in creating these buffered comfort zones, we protect ourselves, but we restrict our growth as well.  The tendency is for these comfort zones to solidify as we grow older, limiting our experiences, and our access to the world.  If we could consciously make the decision to break down those self-imposed barriers, I believe that our lives would be more fulfilling in the end.  After all, it is the peak experiences in life that we remember and treasure.

“In becoming a person who regularly takes calculated risks, challenges yourself, and tries new things, you'll cultivate openness to experience, one of what's known in psychology as the "Big Five" personality traits. Openness to experience -- which is characterized by qualities like intellectual curiosity, imagination, emotional and fantasy interests, and a drive to explore one's inner and outer lives -- has been shown to be the best predictor of creative achievement.” -  Carolyn Gregoire

 There is a difference between failure and fault that's important to distinguish. The Oxford English Dictionary defines failure as a “lack of success in doing or achieving something,” a rather neutral definition.  In contrast, it uses the adjectives: unattractive, unsatisfactory, misguided, and dangerous to define the word fault.  In reframing the idea of failure, you lose that sense of intrinsic judgment.  In many ways we learn as much if not more from our failures than we do our successes.  The fact is that if we try new things, we are destined to eventually fail at something.  Getting comfortable with the idea seems a worthy effort.  Mistakes and failures can even be funny in the right light.  The most embarrassing moment I’ve ever had is now my favorite story; I can’t tell it without cracking up, and I take every reasonable opportunity to tell it.

 I’ve just given a bunch of reasons to step outside the comfort zone, but maybe you have some of your own to develop and contribute.  It might be worth it to take some time to think about them, and write them down… maybe put them somewhere visible for when your determination falters.  Having this list easily accessible could help you manage stress, and maintain motivation.

 The next question is how does one actually do it?  The inertia is real!

 I have a bunch of ideas I’ve gleaned from life, from conversations, and from articles I’ve read on the subject: 

 The first step might be to identify what it is that you want to do but are afraid of.  If you’re aware of the things you desire but avoid, then you will have some concrete goals to work towards.

 Then perhaps figure out what specific fear lies behind the avoidance.  Is it fear of failure, disappointment, physical harm…?

 What is the positive possibility, the answer to “what if this works?”  How would conquering this fear benefit you?  Answering these questions will on some level reframe fear into opportunity, turn nervous energy into excitement, and create a new narrative.  This might sound like an “easier said than done” moment, but it’s one of those things that would become easier with practice. (AND once this perspective is well thought out, a little EMDR would probably be very helpful in working through the fear).

 In making changes, I would take baby steps, small changes that are easy to make.  It doesn’t even matter how small as long as they are heading in the desired direction.  Whatever is doable without being too stressful would be fine.  If it’s too stressful, it becomes difficult to maintain, so it’s better to make small easy changes towards overcoming fears. Each small successful change will lead to increased comfort when attempting the next.

 When things do become uncomfortable, as they inevitably will, it might help to try to rest in the discomfort, and breathe through it.  Really, we’re talking about a kind of exposure therapy, exposure to discomfort.  Over time, with the afore-mentioned baby steps, it would become more comfortable.

 More important than the size of the step is the frequency of the efforts. Remember, in stepping outside of the comfort zone you’re trying to build a habit out of change itself, and habits are the product of repetition.

 We all have our comfort zones, (mine is alive and well).  It’s lovely to have them as a retreat, a place to rest and regroup, a place of comfort and safety.  That said, it seems like too much time spent there means denying oneself a lot of the richness life has to offer. 

Photo credit: mami hasegawa

Photo credit: mami hasegawa

Cultivating Happiness - Creativity & Flow

photo credit: dean hochman

photo credit: dean hochman

I’m currently thinking about happiness: what leads to it? Is it the goal in life? Why is it easier for some to achieve than others?  What makes a happy life? 

It turns out that money certainly isn’t the answer.  Once people have enough to get by comfortably, money doesn’t add much to happiness. 

I’m really intrigued by the idea of flow.  Flow is a state that you achieve when your challenges and your abilities are both high: when you lose yourself in your work because you are so engaged in it.

For many people this happens when in the process of creating something new; I’ve realized that for me this happens when creating art, or cooking.  This is the reason that adult coloring books are becoming so popular; it’s a kind of meditation.  You don’t have enough attention left over to focus on your problems, your body, or even your existence.  In a way, you disappear, lose yourself in the activity, or you merge with your work.  This state has been described as effortless, spontaneous, and ecstatic.

Experts who study flow have described it as a state where an intense focus leads to a sense of ecstasy and clarity; time disappears, and you forget yourself because you feel part of something larger.  You know that you can be successful at what you’re doing; you know exactly what to do from moment to moment, and you receive immediate feedback from your process.  This is effort for its own sake.  It’s a passion for doing your best and enjoying your work.

Given all of this, it might be worth a few minutes thought, no? 

What activities can you lose yourself in?  How often do you create opportunities to do so? 

Cultivating Happiness - Rituals

photo credit: Ana-Sofia Arizpe

photo credit: Ana-Sofia Arizpe

Our daily lives are filled with rituals, many that we're not even aware of.  They create a tempo, a pace, as we pass through our daily activities, and a space in time where we can breathe and turn inward.  Some might serve as an escape, and some might bring a moment of peace to savor.   Perhaps it's the first sip of coffee in the morning, or that moment when the kids have gotten out of the car, for many it might be that first drag of a cigarette (we can talk more about that later).

Recognizing your rituals, is a way to further come to know yourself.  What rituals are compulsive, what ones do you want to cultivate in your life?  Are your rituals solitary, or do they connect you with other people?  How long have you had them?  Are they part of your family culture, and passed down through generations?  Or are they creations of your circumstances, and forged in the moment?  Do you enjoy them?  When you think of them and scan your body sensations do you feel light and yearning, or heavy and dreading?

What rituals do you dread?  This is an excellent EMDR topic, by the way!  Can you think of any ways to eliminate them?  If not, then your work might be to try to eliminate the feeling of dread. 

What are some of the rituals you enjoy?  Try making a list of all of them and then increasing the time you spend doing them.

Cultivating Happiness - Happy Place

photo credit: Brian jeffery beggerly

photo credit: Brian jeffery beggerly

A fun exercise, and one that I do with all of my clients, is to take a moment to imagine:

What does happiness look like?  Where would you be? This could be someplace you've actually visited, someplace you've seen in a photo, or someplace you've imagined.  What's important is that calling it to mind brings up feelings of tranquility or joy.  What other feelings would you experience while there?  

Would anyone be with you?  Here, it's a good idea not to include people with whom you have a difficult relationship; if anyone is there with you it should be someone about whom the overwhelming feeling is positive, from whom you feel connection, love, and support.  

What sounds would there be: birds in the trees, waves, children laughing in the distance?  

What would the weather be like: warm, or crisp? Would there be a breeze or stillness in the air?  Maybe it would be raining?  

Would there be any scents: the ocean, perhaps, or flowers, or food cooking?  

How would your body feel: relaxed, exuberant, weightless?

It sounds simplistic, but spending the time to truly develop this "happy place" in your imagination can lead to big benefits, in that it can become an imaginal "mini vacation" that you can access easily in moments of stress.  Doing this activity by itself is relaxing; doing it in conjunction with EMDR is even more so!


photo credit: martin

photo credit: martin




A matter of life or death is worth a conversation.

There are myriad reasons why someone might feel suicidal (isolation, powerlessness, pain, hopelessness, brain chemistry, escape, illness...), and at the end of the day there is only one person who can make the decision.  My concern about suicide is that oftentimes people in those situations are feeling so desperate that they are unaware of their resources, or unable to access them, and because of this the situation might appear worse than it actually is.  I don't judge people for their feelings, but I do hope that they can reach out for help with their feelings, before any drastic action is taken.  My concern is that for many people it can be a permanent solution to what would otherwise have been a temporary problem, and that is just a loss for everyone; we are all more connected than we think.

Another reason for concern is that I have frequently heard from survivors that the suicidal attempt was regretted as soon as it was made:

In the words of one survivor, "I instantly realized that everything in my life that I'd thought was unfixable was totally fixable - except for having just jumped."  K. Baldwin

In the words of another, "What the hell did I just do?  I don't want to die."  K. Hines

"Dr. Seiden's study, "Where Are They Now?," published in 1978, followed up on five hundred and fifteen people who were prevented from attempting suicide at the bridge between 1937 and 1971.  After, on average, more than twenty-six years, ninety-four percent of the would-be suicides were either still alive or had died of natural causes.  "The findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature," Seiden concluded; if you can get a suicidal person through his crisis - Seiden put the high-risk period at ninety days - chances are extremely good that he won't kill himself later."  


Language - Mantras

Many therapies are based on the premise that our automatic thoughts, our self-referential stories have an enormous impact on our experiences of life.  This might seem obvious, but I just wanted to put it out there as a preface to talking about mantras.

We have tens of thousands of thoughts a day.  They flit through our minds so quickly that we hardly notice.  Most of these thoughts won't ever register as memories; there's no emotion or importance attached to them so they just come and go.  

We speak aloud approximately one thousand sentences per day (it's true that men speak less than women).  These thoughts are more important: we've chosen them, arranged them into sentences, and their very importance means that there is some degree of attachment or emotion tied to them, also they are now connected to the physical actions and sensations of speaking and hearing.  As you involve more senses in the creation of a memory, you're activating more areas of your brain, and building more neural connections to that memory.  The interactions of the multiple regions in our brains necessary to speak mean that these thoughts stand a better chance of becoming memories; the more connections the easier the memory retrieval.  That said, most of what we say is pretty fluffy; "hi" and "what's for dinner?" are unlikely to stick around long.

The thoughts that stick around as lasting memories are the ones that either repeat frequently, or are deeply important and therefore emotional.  There are evolutionary reasons for this, which are connected to community stability, safety, and survival.   If something is dangerous and scary, or invites the displeasure of people upon whom you are dependent, you don't want to forget and accidentally do it again.  So out of necessity, we've evolved to remember these things.

This has both negative and positive implications:  

Negative thoughts carry about three times the psychic weight as positive ones.  This is important to remember in child-rearing, or teaching, because children are especially vulnerable as they are forming their worldview, and sense of self.  A careless criticism takes a lot of repair to fix, and can have long-lasting consequences.  

The positive side of this is that we can choose to actively repeat certain thoughts, or better yet say them aloud.  We can make thoughts take up more mental real estate by repeating them, feeling them, investing in them, and we can consciously choose what we want those thoughts to be.

An interesting exercise is to take a moment to think about what you want to believe.  Keeping in mind that you can't trick your subconscious, you want your mantra to be rooted in reality.  In this exercise you want to come up with a positively phrased sentence that acknowledges the truth of the situation, but also voices the preferred thought.  Once you've created the right mantra for your situation, you then want to ritualize it to give it gravitas, and so that you'll remember to use it.  Something like "I'm nervous about riding in cars because of the car accident, but I want to be comfortable riding in cars again," said aloud every time you get into a car.  It's worth a shot at any rate; I've seen it be very useful in conjunction with therapy when working with PTSD.