So this post is a little late for Halloween, but after a couple of coaching conversations around this subject I thought I’d revisit this discussion. It’s time to once again pull the sheet off the scary Comfort Zone and expose it for what it really is –

Here’s the thing: our Comfort Zones will stop at nothing, NOTHING to get us to step back from our fears WHEN we are anxious about them. It can take on (when we’re seeing it through our calm and rational minds) almost comic proportions. There is no blow too low, no thought too wacky, that the Comfort Zone won’t pull it out and throw it at us if it has any chance of getting us to flinch away from facing our fears.

Ooohhh – Scary!

It goes like this: you decide that you want to face into an anxiety/fear that has been holding you back. Let’s say that you’ve been wanting to take on your fear of driving on the highway (a pretty common fear for us anxiety-fighters.) You miss your freedom, you’ve been reading the blog, you realize that you’ve been afraid of what MIGHT happen on the freeway, but you’re ready now to stop letting your fear get in your way.

Bravo! You rock! You make a plan to just get on the freeway for one entry-to-exit trip – just a test drive. You get your car keys, you adjust your sunglasses, you’ve picked a great, slow time of day for freeway traffic, you’re patting yourself on the back for pushing back on your anxiety, and –

Suddenly you hear the voices in your head say “what if THIS time you blow out a tire on the freeway? You’ve worried about this in the past – what if it happens now?”

You feel that little (or big) jolt of adrenaline course through your body, and suddenly you have Flight or Fight responses – heart speeds up, you get sweaty, you get butterflies in your stomach, you pick the responses – and now freeway driving doesn’t sound so smart.

Of course reading this you know what happened – you asked that crazy “what if?” question, and your mind went immediately to the worst possible outcome. You didn’t just blow out a tire on the freeway – you blew out a tire, the car careened completely out of control, you spun three or four times, and you finally ended in a fireball that consumed most of the downtown core of your city. 🙂

Except, of course, that it is highly unlikely that you’re going to blow out a tire on the freeway (unless you’re driving on bald tires – might want to check those first.)

What is most likely is you’ll get up on the freeway, heart pounding, drive to the next exit, get off the highway, and presto! You’ll have confronted a fear. You’ll be a little rattled, you’ll be a little agitated, and you’ll also have just done some nice expansion work on your Comfort Zone restrictions.

That Didn’t Work? OK, How About THIS Scary Thought?

So let’s say you worked through the blown tire scenario. You shook your head, you took a deep breath, and you said “forget blown tires. My tires are fine. I’m getting on that freeway.” You climb in the car, start the engine, put your seatbelt on, and you notice it is getting cloudy.

Suddenly you hear your brain shout “hey! What if starts to rain when we’re on the freeway? THAT can’t be good! Let’s go back inside and wait until the sky is completely cloud-free, THEN we’ll try driving on that nutty freeway.”

That sounds like great advice in that moment, since your heart is pounding again and you’re getting that warm feeling in your face and hands and… wait a minute. It isn’t even raining yet.

And who says that the freeway will become a death trap if it starts to sprinkle? Sure, if the heavens open and it’s raining an inch of water a minute you might be smart to pull off, but…

And once again the Comfort Zone shows it has NO shame whatsoever, desperate to keep you safe from that nightmare – wait, correction, no big deal – freeway. Of course it has no shame. It has the single mission of keeping you away from whatever scares you. Except that the fear of freeways is nothing we developed in nature –

Are you REALLY Sure You Want to Do This?

OK. You’ve muscled your way past two Comfort Zone pushbacks, you’re pulling out of the driveway, and while you’re feeling somewhat anxious (or even a lot anxious) you’re reminding yourself that those reactions are natural, you’re just experiencing Flight or Fight responses and they don’t mean anything.

You get down the street, you make the light, you’re heading towards the freeway, and then it hits you – you didn’t call your boss back this morning like you said. Or you forgot to feed the dog. Or you might have left the iron on, or the stove on, or the milk out of the fridge… and you feel the overwhelming desire to go home RIGHT NOW.

Only now you’re getting a little suspicious. Why can’t any of these things wait 5 minutes? You’re only zipping up and off the freeway for a little anti-anxiety practice.

Nobody is going to die, right? But your Comfort Zone is shouting at you that you really SHOULD go home first, feed the dog, call your boss, make SURE that iron is off – THEN you can do this crazy/dangerous/foolhardy freeway thing.

Isn’t it remarkable? We can find almost any reason to not take on our fears. You shake your head again – you’re almost at the freeway on-ramp – and you decide you’re going for it. One last burst of adrenaline hits you, you head up that ramp, and voila! You’re on the freeway!

Whoo-hooo! You cruise along and before you know it you’re at the next exit. You cruise off that freeway, and your Comfort Zone is strangely quiet –

For about a minute. Then it starts with “well, that went OK I guess – good thing nothing bad happened THIS time. We shouldn’t do too much of that though – what if something bad DID happen…”

Fear Does Not Have to Run Our Lives

Any of this seem familiar to you? Of course it does. We anxiety fighters hear this stuff in our heads every day. That’s why it is important to remember that your Comfort Zone, your history of being afraid, will work very hard to keep you from pushing your own boundaries – as long as you’re afraid of something, the Comfort Zone will work to keep you away from it.

This is why confronting our fears is so useful to us. The moment you move through a fearful experience and manage it, whatever happens, that’s the moment your Comfort Zone starts to get that this thing isn’t as scary as you were thinking. It will probably take more than one exposure or practice session (although sometimes just one confrontation is enough to make this work.)

What fear could you confront today, even in a small way? What would you like to do that you’re not feeling comfortable doing? What dire warnings is the Comfort Zone shouting at you right now as you read this? All of that is useful information to knowing what you need to do next.

Wrestling tigers naked – probably a bad idea. Listen to your Comfort Zone if you’re thinking about doing this. 🙂 Driving on the freeway for the purpose of getting your freedom back – that’s a good idea, if those tires are looking OK. Go for it. You have nothing to lose but your fear…