Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Living Uncomfortably

"A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there." - Unknown

            My first memorable lesson on leaving my comfort zone happened in high school. I was the captain of my color guard team, so I was able to attend a leadership camp at Chapman University two summers in a row. The director had us all participate in this activity that involved pairing up with someone you didn’t know. There were two different groups of pairs. The activity was to lead your partner down two flights of stairs, across the campus, into the dining hall, and help them eat their lunch. The obstacle was that Group 1 had a partner whose hands were tied behind them, and Group 2 had a partner who was blind. We did this activity twice, so that everyone was either a helper or helpee at least once during the weekend.

            My first year at the camp, I got paired with this guy who didn’t talk a whole lot. He had his hands tied behind his back, which made it easy to help him around the campus. But then when we went to the dining hall, he had the option of choosing a sloppy joe, or some other dish that involved using a fork. He chose the sloppy joe. Why did he choose the sloppy freaken joe? I had the task of helping him eat it. Needless to say, it was incredibly awkward, messy, and didn’t go well. At all. It was actually such an uncomfortable experience that very early on, he chose to not take my help and just dug his face into the burger. He occasionally let me wipe his face. I felt like a failed helper.

            When we went back to our group meeting to discuss the activity, the director explained that it’s important to leave your comfort zone, because you can’t help people if you don’t leave it. As a leader, we are the ones expected to reach out to those who need our help, because they will most likely be too afraid or uncomfortable to ask for it. Up until that point, I don’t think I ever had a good enough reason to leave my realm of comfort, but his point made sense to me. So much sense that it inspired a lot of risk-taking from me throughout my life. I studied abroad, submitted short stories and poems for publication, and talked to strangers fairly often. These didn’t all involve helping people, and also may not seem like a big deal to some, but for me all of those were huge.

            To sum me up with just a few labels, I have anxiety, I am introverted, and I am a highly sensitive person (someone who is easily over stimulated by their surroundings and other people; cautious, inward, and need extra time alone). My comfort is, and has always been incredibly important to me. On the hierarchy of things I value most (including security, love, and food), comfort is pretty up there. One of the things I look most forward to throughout my day is to go back to my bed to be alone in my room to read, write, or watch Netflix. Going to social events freaks me out. Speaking to very extraverted people is hard for me. While looking for new places to blog, I was terrified walking into a new atmosphere. Even though I’ve now been blogging at the same place for over a year, I still feel a knot in my stomach every time I approach the building, because I’m afraid of how crowded it will be inside. I think you get the point.

            Despite my fears, I’m proud to say that I’ve made a choice to consciously leave my comfort zone ever since that camp years ago. In fact, I discovered this nifty test to calculate your comfort zone score, and I got a 78/100. The average is 66. Yay for me. Despite my progress, I know that leaving your comfort zone is a difficult thing no matter who you are. There’s a few reasons why we find it so difficult, and there are things that can help.

            Alan Henry wrote a great article on LifeHacker called, “The Science of Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone.” He defines our comfort zone as, “a behavioral space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk.” It’s neither good nor bad, but simple a natural state we fall back to a lot. It’s a safe, and well, comfortable place. But it’s not the place you want to live your life, because “comfort kills productivity.”

            Instead, we should try to live in the “optimal anxiety” zone, which is “a state of relative anxiety—a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal.” This isn’t a state of high stress, because if you are too stressed all of the time, it’s unhealthy and you'll be unproductive. Just enough stress and anxiety will get you motivated to act. I thought about my procrastination during school when I read this. I would never want to write an essay until I reached that time frame where I knew I’d finish the essay probably a few hours before class started. I cut it pretty close a lot, but never learned my lesson. If I had too much time to write an essay, I wouldn’t feel anxious enough to write it yet. Slight anxiety plus stress equals motivation.

            There are a lot of good benefits to leaving your comfort zone, but I’ll only touch on a few. Henry explains that the more you push yourself, the more you will be able to handle unexpected obstacles that occur throughout life. One of my favorite things he points out is, “Even in the short term, a positively uncomfortable experience can help us brainstorm, see old problems in a new light, and tackle the challenges we face with new energy.” Leaving what is familiar and comfortable will help you grow.

            In Carolyn Gregoire’s article, “6 Ways to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone,” she adds, “Reaching new heights involves the risk of attempting something we might not succeed at.” To her, staying in your realm of comfort means you’re afraid of risk-taking and failure. She quotes John Gardner, who says, “We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure… 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.” The opposite of staying comfortable and safe is taking risks.

            Both Henry and Gregoire point out that trying new things can open us up in many ways. Gregoire says if you continually take calculated risks, challenge yourself, and try new things, you’ll cultivate your openness to experience. Openness to experience is “characterized by qualities like intellectual curiosity, imagination, emotional and fantasy interests, and a drive to explore one's inner and outer lives [and] has been shown to be the best predictor of creative achievement.”

            Of course, it’s not good to live in a constant state of “optimal anxiety.” You’re supposed to come back to your comfort zone once in a while to, as Henry put it, “process your experiences.” It’s good to reflect on the risk you just took and how it affected you. Coming back to your comfort zone will also help you not get bored of whatever new thing you are trying, because we are all prone to hedonistic adaptation, which just means that we can get used to anything after a time. Then the new exciting thing will become ordinary.

            Henry says, “Everyone's comfort zone is different, and what may expand your horizons may paralyze someone else.” Though many people talk about the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone, I want to also address how to respect it. As I made clear earlier, my comfort is very important to me. Though I try to challenge myself often, I still know where my boundaries lie, and I don’t appreciate when I’m forced to do anything I don’t want to. Leaving my comfort is my choice, not anyone else’s.

            There are many areas of life where our spheres of comfort will affect us differently. For example, I’m very picky about food, and everyone who knows me accepts this, but I’m pretty sure it’s their least favorite quality of mine. I mean, I have so many amazing qualities that I have to have a few bad ones too, right? My mom, my friends, boyfriends, and strangers have all tried to force various weird looking things down my throat (maybe not always force). I’m a creature of food habit, and I like to stick to what I know I like. But I admit that trying new food is something I can be more open to. Except seafood. I won’t eat that. Or strange meat. Regardless of what I’m willing to try, I don’t appreciate anyone trying to force me to eat something I really don’t want to eat. For others, they can love trying new food and greatly appreciate being offered something different.

            A more serious sphere of comfort comes with anything sexual. This is something that I think is important to almost everyone, though there are definitely those who are open to anything. For me, there are a lot of things I’m unwilling to do, and the most important thing to me is someone who respects and understands that. Obviously, being forced into something sexual is far more serious than someone forcing strange food down your throat. Each person has their own comfort boundaries when it comes to sex, and it’s important that you respect those boundaries and also find someone else who respects them, too. If you do not want to do something, you do not have to do it. End of story. I’ve been in enough situations where guys I dated asked too much of me, and it led to a lot of emotional harm for me. I would stop dating those guys quickly, but always walked away from the whole experience feeling like I didn’t like myself very much.

            On the other side of those awful experiences were the good ones with guys who respected me. These were the ones I chose to stay with, because they didn’t pressure me. Without the pressure, I would feel more open, comfortable, and safe, which is the environment all sexual activities should happen in. Sometimes when you feel the most comfortable, you can open yourself up the most.

            Everyone’s comfort zone is different, and though most of the time it’s important to leave it, you’ll also have to decide when it’s important to stay. If you do want to leave it, but you’re having trouble, there is a lot of information on how to help you overcome it. Since I really don’t like writing how-to’s, links are provided on the bottom of the page. Kathy Caprino writes on Forbes.Com that nothing is secure in life, “The only thing that is secure in life is you – your spirit, your heart, your talents and gifts, and your ability to contribute at a high level to something that matters to you in life.” So if you’re staying comfortable to be safe, your life will not always stay that way, so you might as well get used to being uncomfortable.

            Even though that leadership camp in high school was the catalyst that enabled me to choose a life outside of my comfort zone, there are other things that have helped me along the way. One of my mom’s life motto’s is often in my head, “If you’re afraid to do something, then do it.” My mom seems fearless to me, and she’s had to tell me about all the things she’s afraid of because they are not apparent in the way she lives her life. She’s chosen to tackle her fears head on, which has been an inspiration for me.

            With her motto in mind, I chose to become a server at a restaurant. Why? I knew that it would be challenging for me because of my anxiety. I didn’t want to let my anxiety determine how I live my life. Since I started three months ago, my personality tells me constantly that I shouldn’t be doing this job. For the first month and a half, I would have to get to work fifteen minutes early so that I could breathe and calm down in my car before I walked inside. To this day, every time the host seats my first table, I approach with a twist in my stomach, but a smile on my face. Talking to a new group of people every hour is socially exhausting because of how introverted I am. On my first day out of training, my trainer was watching, and I was so nervous that I made a lot of mistakes. He told me that he was surprised by how little I retained in training and how horrible I was doing (maybe he didn’t use the word horrible, but it’s what he meant). Jerk. His words only made me feel worse, and I wanted to quit that whole first month. But I stuck with it, not because this job is easy (because it’s not in any way for me), but because I needed to know that I can challenge myself and succeed. That won’t happen somewhere I’m comfortable. Now, I get tipped a lot better, I rose to the top wine seller for a couple weeks, I score high for selling extra items, such as appetizers and desserts, and I get a lot of good comments from guests. It makes me feel very proud of myself, and like I can take on bigger challenges.

            Stepping out of your comfort zone is a choice. No one should make you do it, but plenty of people can help motivate and support you. It may be hard and scary, but it’ll probably be the best thing you ever choose to do for yourself. I like this quote that I stumbled upon in one of the articles I read: Steven Kotler wrote, “Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often.” Taking risks may be uncomfortable and may lead to failure, but it’ll be completely worth it.

What is my Comfort Zone?
The Science of Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone
6 Reasons to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
6 Ways Pushing Past Your Comfort Zone is Critical to Success

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