If you haven’t read my last blog post please let me encourage you now to, before you read this post, go back and read “The Comfort Zone, Part I.”  What I’m discussing here builds upon that post. 

As I hope I made clear in my last post the Comfort Zone is nothing more than a set of defenses designed to wall off from our attention a problem-turned-crisis in our thinking.  We can’t tolerate the endless stress of the Flight or Fight response attempting to solve a problem morphed into a crisis (physically, emotionally or psychologically), so we drive the issue from our mind and set up warning signals to prevent it from coming back to our notice.  That doesn’t work perfectly of course – the world doesn’t usually cooperate with our boundary-drawing 100% of the time, and in addition we often find that we’d like to do something about the shielded issue, even if it scares us. Which is more than good – it is often the beginning of our attempts to re-engage the issue. 

At the same time the Comfort Zone is no easy thing to undo.  It really can be described as a powerful protective mechanism, and its only goal is to keep you SAFE.  It is not a discriminating protective mechanism either – if you’ve decided something is scary that’s enough for your Comfort Zone.  Are you afraid of barking dogs?  Your Comfort Zone is keeping you away from barking dogs.  You say you don’t like clowns?  The Comfort Zone is keeping you far away from clowns.   Are you anxious about losing your job?  The Comfort Zone will work very hard to keep you away from this subject and this thinking – it’s just too scary for you – even if the one thing you need to be thinking about is what might happen to you if you’re downsized.  Notice that I used the word “thinking” – NOT the words obsessing, worrying, panicking or pouring over potential frightening futures.

In an earlier post I discussed Anticipatory Anxiety – that stage of chronic worry where fatigue and stress drive us to avoid the problem as well as the attendant physical sensations and feelings.  We put a lot of energy into essentially running from the scary issue, and this energy goes directly into the Comfort Zone.  This results in some powerful and effective Comfort Zone defenses!  It has been an amazing journey of discovery in the last 5-6 months for me, talking to people about their fears, and realizing just how subtle and effective our Comfort Zones can be in diverting us from the thing that scares us.

These diversions can take many forms.  We can find ourselves distracted away from the scary issue from a number of directions.  We may begin to obsess over unnerving or painful physical issues.  We may get anxious, angry or sad, and focus on those feelings instead.  We may find it hard to focus or concentrate, or suddenly find ourselves tired and needing a nap.  We may get restless or edgy, and find ourselves engaging in frantic physical activity.  We can focus our attention on issues that are way, way too big and abstract for us to solve, and give our energy to worry and endless discussion about those issues.  We can rationalize ourselves away from the issue or fear, finding reasons to support our avoidance and then blaming circumstances, lack of resources or Implacable Fate as the limiting factor. 

Let me give you a metaphor for the Comfort Zone.  Think of it as a series of defensive positions (picture machine guns in bunkers) inside your head that make a circle around you.  These defensive positions are not aimed outward –they’re aimed in at YOU.  As long as you stay in your Comfort Zone you have no worries.  It is when you make a move towards your Comfort Zone boundaries that things get scary, because those defensive  positions open up on you!  The ironic part is you’re not at risk for really getting hurt – the Comfort Zone is all about your safety, after all – but it sure FEELS and SEEMS scary.  The minute you step back you’re OK.  But if you keep pressing forward the guns just keep firing over your shoulder, at your feet, determined (from your own efforts!) to get you to retreat.

Those guns may be your physical sensations (clenched stomach, sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, etc.)  Those guns may be your feelings (fear, anxiety, terror, anger, guilt, etc.)  Those guns may be the thoughts racing through your head (what am I doing, things aren’t that bad, this is crazy, etc.)  They can be all those things.  And when you’re in this situation almost any out looks good to you.  But facing the guns and running this gauntlet is infinitely worth it.  Because you’ll reach that metaphoric bunker in your head, and suddenly you’ll realize you’re not under fire any more.  Oh, you’ll still be shook up – no question – and the “aftershocks” (or Comfort Zone spasms as I call them) can last for hours or days afterwards.  But you’ll now be looking the scary thing in the eye, and, if you’ve engaged this process, you’ll realize that the scary monster was only in your head – nowhere else. 

And you’ll also realize just how cramped and how restricted in movement you’ve been until that moment.  In the next blog post I’m going to wrap up this discussion of the Comfort Zone and talk about both what happens when we refuse to engage our fears, and what’s possible when we do.