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So how is that Comfort Zone construction work coming along? 🙂 Got some great emails and a couple of comments in the last week – thank you all. Kudos to the Fear-Buster here who two weeks ago faced into her fear of writing query letters for articles she wants to write – that was a real victory because it scared the crap out of her!

And kudos to the Fear-Buster who did some fear-unplugging and finds herself leaving the house for the first time in 9 months. Can’t say it enough – well done. I know you’re not feeling out of the woods yet, but you’re doing the exact right work to get there, and already you know enough that your anxiety can’t run the show anymore.

These successes come at a great time for me as I work on these blog posts. I’m talking today about how, however much our Flight or Fight Response wants to scare the snot out of us when we challenge our Comfort Zone boundaries, it just can’t hurt us…

The Comfort Zone Isn’t Dangerous!

I wish in some respects I could just end the post with that sentence! The truth is however most of us have learned to have a way-more-than-healthy respect for our Comfort Zone walls. But here’s the bottom line: our Comfort Zones can’t hurt us. Stronger: our Comfort Zones WON’T hurt us.

Yes, those boundaries scare us. No doubt about that. But fix this in your thinking to get free of your anxiety: we can’t get hurt, however much our bodies and feelings scare us, by challenging our THINKING.

And that’s all this work is about, really. Sure, that can entail eventually DOING something physical that worries or scares us – leaving the house, for instance, when we’ve been afraid to go out, or going to the store when we had a big panic attack there once.

But here’s the big news – we only HAD that being-housebound problem or that panic attack in the store BECAUSE of our thinking.

You And This Thinking Thing!

If you’ve been reading this blog you know this is the center of all this work – identifying what is rattling our cages in our thoughts and assumptions, then facing into those thoughts and converting them back to problems (issues you can address and solve over time) from crises (holy crap, this is terrible, I have to run NOW).

Combine that with two things – first, as I said in my last post, the Comfort Zone needs some serious persuading before it will back away, and second, that the Comfort Zone tends to spasm or convulse when we push on it – and there’s no doubt that the work is hard, unnerving, something we’d rather not do.

But that’s just the point: we’ve spent years, even decades telling ourselves this or that topic is just too scary to face down or deal with. Why in the world would our Comfort Zones just step aside and say “sure Chief! Whatever you say!” We have fed so much energy and concern to our boundaries that it WILL TAKE SOME WORK AND TIME to get them moved.

And Speaking of Spasms…

The other issue we need to get comfortable with in this challenging of our fears is the spasm-like response our Comfort Zones seem to have when we push on them. This is one of the things I REALLY wish someone had been able to tell me when I was doing my own confronting of my anxiety –

In case it isn’t clear from my writing here, I was a MESS in the winter/spring of 1995. I was deeply anxious and afraid – so much so that when I first met with a therapist I told him frankly that I was ready to end my life – I just couldn’t do any more of this fear thing.

As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog he gave me some very basic, temporary tools to help give me a little breathing space, and I’ve discussed those tools here in the blog as well. But when we began the trial-and-error work of taking on my fearful thinking I was completely unprepared for how much my Comfort Zone would convulse after I had done some of that confronting work.

I would be sitting watching TV, or playing a computer game, or taking a walk, and suddenly I was overwhelmed with anxiety… All of my Worry Engine and Indefinite Negative Future thinking would crash in on my brain… I would feel dizzy, my heart would start to race, and all I wanted to do was MAKE IT STOP. And I wasn’t even doing any fear confronting in that moment!

Muscles Get Sore When You Use Them

It would have helped so much if someone had simply said “hey Erik – this is normal. You are challenging your fearful thinking, and the boundaries that have mostly kept that from your thinking are shook up (metaphorically) that you’re taking them on. They’re giving you grief. It’s OK. Just means you’re moving in the right direction.”

It would have helped because it would have made it much less mysterious. The mystery had me thinking maybe I couldn’t do this work, maybe I was doing it wrong, maybe something terrible WOULD happen if I kept at this… you know the thinking, right?

Our bodies ache when we use them. And they REALLY ache when we haven’t used them in a while. We even get cramps and spasms, yes? Good metaphor to use when we push on our Comfort Zones.

Steady As She Goes…

I know it gets tedious, scary, exhausting sometimes when we wrestle with our fears. Hell, it happens most of the time. But we can either be exhausted and scared and not do anything (because our fears and worries are still with us) or we can be exhausted and scared and know we’re getting someplace.

What would you prefer? Dumb question, right? (Remember, I’m asking YOU – not your Comfort Zone. We know what THAT would prefer…)

Next up here at the blog – a clean, concise list of the basics you need to bust out of your fear, or the skill set needed to do the Fear-Busting work (what I call Triad Work) effectively.

In the meantime, all the patience, stamina and self-care in the world to you as you think about or engage in confronting and unplugging your fears and anxieties. May today find you taking excellent care of yourself, and being very patient with yourself.

The last two posts here have been about what I call the triad of elements that are necessary to disrupt and unplug the fears and anxieties that we acquire, and which we shield ourselves from with the Comfort Zone.  What follows in this post are some specific examples of the use of those triad elements, along with suggestions on how to start such work with yourself.  

As I said at the end of the last blog post I am VERY, very clear that this is often anything but easy to even think about, let alone do.  Having a clear and articulate map of the nature of fear and anxiety is one thing, facing into those fears is something else – something often frightening, even terrifying.  I believe this is why so many of us (including myself) find the idea of a medication or technique that can take away the fear, or quickly and painlessly “fix” our fears, very attractive.  Many  of us have lived with various levels of fear and anxiety for so long that we can’t imagine deliberately stirring it up, even with the goal of shutting down the causes of that fear and finding our freedom as a result.  It is much more attractive to let sleeping dogs lie, leave those fears where they are, out beyond our Comfort Zone walls, and keep things status quo – however much we limit our lives as a result.

And, of course, our fears activate that part of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle I call the Indefinite Negative Future when we consider challenging the Comfort Zone.  What if I feel this way forever?  What if this doesn’t work?  What if I do this work and all that happens is I can’t stop being even more afraid than I am now?  Etc.  I know that for some people reading the last couple of sentences  has made them a little anxious.  Ugh! 

Let me repeat myself from an earlier blog post: the way out is through.  And moving through the Comfort Zone walls we’ve created does not need to entail years of work or endless hours of fear and anxiety.  Like any set of skills it will take a little practice and a little time.  You probably won’t do it perfectly the first 2-3-4-5 times you do it.  Who cares?  Nobody masters bike-riding in a single session, nobody learns to type in an hour, and nobody will be perfectly adept at facing and moving through Comfort Zone fears out of the gate.  Resolve that you’re going to experience a learning curve, pick a fear you’d like to unplug, and give it a first try…

An example of facing a fear with this triad of elements in mind is something I did this past winter.  In case you don’t know I do communication skills consulting for work, and yet I have never been very comfortable (read: very UN-comfortable) soliciting new clients.  As I worked on the Fear Mastery framework and writing this last 12 months I realized that this was a great opportunity to practice what I was preaching.  I resolved to spend some time every day during the week (an hour, no more) reaching out to people I had worked with in the past, and soliciting from them potential leads for new business.  Even making this decision made me anxious – what if nobody said yes?  What if people implied (or said outright) that I really didn’t have anything they could refer to colleagues and friends?  (This with 7 years of repeated statements from clients about how my work had helped their team, how they were using the material I had brought them years after the training I had done, etc.)  What if… and so on. 

I first needed to move this out of the mostly crisis frame I had this fear wrapped in (what if I don’t get any more consulting business?  What if I run out of money?  What if I have to work at Starbuck’s?)  and decide that it was actually a series of problems to solve.  That immediately generated some serious anxious feelings and physical responses.  It took some effort just to sit at my desk and calendar the time to do this for that first week the weekend prior.  I began finding reasons why I needed to wait just one more week, began to think of all the things I could do rather than chase down new business, etc.  Isn’t it impressive how the Comfort Zone can quickly steer us away from even considering a fear challenge?

During that process I had some pretty interesting, even unnerving, bursts of fear – all of a sudden I’d think “this is pointless!  Nobody is going to refer me!  I’m crazy for even trying!” and similar highly useful thoughts.  And of course I’d start to feel anxious and restless as a result.  As Dr. Albert Ellis, the Father of Rational-Emotive thinking, said, “feelings come from thinking.”  And they do.  And they did!   In the first couple of days I had to take breaks, start slow, remind myself that nothing dangerous or bad was happening, and that in the worst case (outright rejection, which of course in this context never happened) I could step away and start again the following day.

As the initial anxieties crested and eased I created a list of things to do for this work: develop a contact list, create a schedule for following up with those contacts, develop a method for tracking referrals as they came in,  set up a calendar for contact dates and follow-up with people after a reasonable period of time, etc.  Just that exercise helped shift my thinking – not much, but enough to start the ball rolling.   The first few emails were scary.  The next few emails were less so (with bursts of concern and worry still poking through as I continued this work.)  Yet by that Thursday, of the very first week I was doing this work, I came to my desk and discovered that my worry was significantly less than it had been the previous Saturday, when I first started preparing to take on this project.  By the middle of the following week I was finding it to be more comfortable than I had ever experienced, and (oddly enough) began to generate some new business.

Another example comes from an old and excellent friend who, for a variety of reasons, found himself seriously in debt to the IRS.  (I know, just reading those 3 letters in sequence can be scary!)  He had accumulated quite a debt to that agency, and had dithered (for over 9 years!) about addressing it.  What if they threw him in jail?  What if they took his house?  What if he had to work four jobs and never, ever get to see a movie or have any fun ever again?  He had himself really worked up over this, and attempted a number of things to shield himself from this fear, including some very serious drinking.  He was completely terrified of having to call the IRS and deal with his debt.

Through a series of bumps and bangs that convinced him that he HAD to do something he faced into his fear and called the IRS.  He reports that he was barely able to talk to the agent on the phone, but that when he finally finished his story the agent simply said “sir, please, just file your taxes.  We’ll figure this out once you’ve done that.”  He said his chief emotion when he got off the phone was anger – not at the IRS, but at himself, for having 1) taken so long to face this fear, and 2) all the time and energy he’d burned avoiding the problem.

And that’s EXACTLY the point, isn’t it?  That in our (mostly unthinking, highly reactive) avoidance of what we’re afraid of we wind up giving up time, energy, freedom and room to live our lives, when (compared to what we spend in that avoidance) the facing through and dealing with our fears will take much less time and energy?  It is unfair and unnecessary that we let our anxiety and fear rob us the way they can do.  Next up – more examples, and further suggestions for tools that can assist you in using the triad.

It was an exceptionally interesting week in my work on the Fear Mastery Toolbox.  I had a cluster of conversations with coaching clients, friends and my brilliant sister that led me to a new way of framing the various reasons we tackle our Comfort Zones.  I’ve begun calling those reasons “catalysts”, since they seem to  be how people often start to take on the Comfort Zone, and they seem to set in motion a chain of efforts that can culminate in breaking past a Comfort Zone wall.  This post is a first attempt to describe those catalysts, and how they might help us think on how we can do the same thing deliberately, consciously, without having to wait for random chance or our darkest hour…

The 1st catalyst that leads people to challenge their Comfort Zone is that Comfort Zone shrinking to a point to where they are completely frozen, trapped in place and terrified to move in any direction.  This is the most common description of what people experience when they say they are having full-on panic attacks.  This is the same situation that is described as agoraphobia (really the terminal state of chronic panic attacks.)  Think of being in what used to be a roomy living room that has, over time, shrunk to the size of a small shoe closet.  You can’t move without bumping into something in that closet, or hitting the walls or door.  Now make the door and walls electrified, so every time you move you get shocked.  That’s a mild, understated version of how frightening a shrinking Comfort Zone can feel!  And to make it worse there isn’t any one clear, scary physical thing that is frightening us in that context – instead it seems that everything is scary, and there is literally no-where to go.

In that situation people will sometimes in desperation take a chance, throw themselves at a Comfort Zone wall in an effort to get free.  This is precisely what happened to me in the spring of 1995 when I finally chased down a therapist who specialized in panic attacks and anxiety.  (More accurately what happened is a friend walked past a therapist’s door that claimed to help panic and anxiety, and I was desperate enough to try anything.)  I found myself all but housebound, afraid to go to work, afraid to stay home, afraid that life was going to continue shrinking, and I was running out of (psychological) room.  It was nothing short of terrifying, and while he was a dedicated and compassionate therapist the tools were more art than science, and it took some hard work and time to get a degree of freedom.  If I hadn’t been so frightened I’m certain I would have  not done the work and time necessary to get some freedom of motion in my tiny Comfort Zone.  It is my conviction that just about everyone can sense that this could be the end of all of our backing away from the walls of safety we build for ourselves, and that in itself is scary.  Maybe the working title of this catalyst could be the Last Resort Catalyst.

The 2rd catalyst is when something is so attractive, so appealing that, even though it lies beyond your Comfort Zone wall, you find yourself willing to face your fears and make a move.  A classic example might be when you see a person of the gender you’re attracted to and you find yourself compelled to ask them out, even though even thinking about asking someone out normally sends you screaming from the room.  Your knees are knocking, you can barely speak, you sound like you’re about to have a heart attack, but you just HAVE to ask them out.  Or you might go on vacation to someplace new and realize you HAD to live there, and nothing was going to stop you.  You were afraid to move, you were sure you couldn’t afford it, all of your friends (and co-workers) said you were crazy, but you couldn’t get any peace until you made the effort.  Maybe we call this the Vision Catalyst (and in fact you see a great deal of writing in the self-help literature where the authors work to create exactly this kind of vision to help people move towards what they want.)

The 3nd catalyst that seems to get people to shake loose from a fear is being accidentally thrown into the Comfort Zone by brutal circumstance.  This can come in a couple of forms: a) a situation forces you into an action that you would normally not do, and you find  yourself suddenly on the other side of your Comfort Zone, and b) one Comfort Zone boundary drives you through another Comfort Zone boundary.  An example of the first form might be what a number of people experienced in this last recession – they suddenly lost their jobs.  They were very afraid of being unemployed, but circumstance forced them into that situation.  I suspect too many froze into place and are still flailing in fear (no criticism intended – it can be very frightening, and the temptation in our biology is always to run.)  But some found themselves suddenly outside their Comfort Zone, through no choice of their own, and as they began to try to resolve the problem (notice I use this word, not the word crisis!) they realized it wasn’t in fact as scary or impossible as they had assumed.

An example of the second form (one Comfort Zone wall driving you into another) could be exampled by you being afraid to try a specific activity or behavior (say, try Sushi for the first time, or speak in front of a group) but you’re also afraid of being seen as timid or lame, so one Comfort Zone pushes you through another Comfort Zone.  Of course you always have the option of doing neither and leaving the entire situation behind (and we do plenty of that too) but I have seen plenty of examples of both.

The tools of the Fear Mastery toolkit are what I am calling the 4th catalyst.  It is my conviction that good information and useful tools can help anyone escape past the fears and anxieties we create for ourselves (or allow to be created for us) if we know how it happens, and how we can dismantle those barriers.

The bottom line for all of these catalysts is that in every case the only way out is through – i.e., sooner or later we have to take on our Comfort Zones and move past the restrictions we’ve created for ourselves with those internal barriers.  Repeating – the only way out is through.  In the next blog post I’ll continue to discuss those tools and how we get free.

This blog is all about what I call Fear Mastery – a toolbox for unpacking and dismantling the fears and anxieties that shut us down and restrict our lives.  I’ve outlined the basic mechanism that makes us afraid, and the cycle that we fall into when we attempt to solve problems as crises.  I’ve talked about how, when that cycle continues, our fears wind up walling us into what is often called the Comfort Zone, and how that Zone does precisely what we create it to do – keeps us away from what we’re afraid of, and as a result leaves us frustrated, stuck and unable to move.  And I’ve talked about just how frightening the Comfort Zone can be as it works to keep us away from the things we’re afraid of. 

So what can we do to challenge our Comfort Zone, break out past the walls of our own creation and shake free?  The bottom line is simple.  It requires energy, some time and (almost always in my experience) a good motivating reason to make the effort, but it is simple.   1) You have to make the conscious decision to turn the imagined crisis back into a problem.  2) You have to be clear that your feelings and physical sensations are warning signals ONLY – that they carry no special significance outside of signaling that you’re thinking about something that is scary to you.  3) You have to persist at your challenging the Comfort Zone until it moves back.  That’s it.

 Now let me be VERY clear about this process.  I’m NOT saying this is necessarily easy.  By the time our fears reach the Comfort Zone we have given a great deal of energy and time to creating those boundaries.  Years and decades of investment have gone into some of our Comfort Zone walls.  When we get the courage up to face into that boundary we are going to get serious, energetic pushback.  We’re going to have our Comfort Zone push hard back at us, and it will push back HARD.  It will work to scare the crap out of us, stop our drive past our safety boundaries and get us to back off.

What does that mean for us when we consider challenging the Comfort Zone?  It means that we’d better be ready for some scary moments and scary feelings.  It means that we’ll very quickly find reasons to NOT challenge the Comfort Zone.  (See my last post.)  It means that we’ll get upset, worried, anxious, afraid, you name it.  It means that we’ll get very uncomfortable – one of the reasons we call the Comfort Zone the Comfort Zone.  And, after all, we’ve taught ourselves to value comfort, very much.  We’ve taught ourselves that if we don’t move, if we just stay away from the scary thing we’re avoiding, nothing bad will happen to us.  And we’ve seen some truth in that – we’ve walled off the scary thing and have found a measure of relief from our fear.  But we’ve also limited our range of motion, our freedom.  And of course it isn’t like we’re just afraid of 1 thing.  Every one of us has multiple Comfort Zone boundaries, and every one of those boundaries stops us from moving towards something that we’re afraid of.

And we’ve all been scared by our Comfort Zones!  It is very difficult, even terrifying, to have our Comfort Zone push on us.  All the standard Flight or Fight responses are active when we challenge our Comfort Zone – we’re afraid, and that’s enough for our brains and bodies.  As far as your body is concerned there IS a tiger, and you are supposed to RUN!  Except, of course, that there is no tiger, no real danger.  There may be some daunting problems.  There may be some real challenges.  It may even seem all but impossible to do the thing you’re afraid of doing.  What it is not is a crisis.  And if it isn’t a crisis, it is a problem.  And if it is a problem it has potential solutions. 

And never forget that the Comfort Zone is constrictive.  It is not stationary.  If you’re safe here, you’ll be safer still if you’re 5 feet further back, right?  And if you’re safer there, how about 10 feet back?  It is one of the most important principles of the of the Comfort Zone – it will keep constricting if left to do what it does naturally. And the longer we let the constriction continue the smaller our Comfort Zone gets.    If we want more room, more freedom to do what we want to do, we have to push back on the Comfort Zone.

It is interesting to me how, as I work on this toolbox and write this blog, how often I have people tell me they don’t have any serious fears.  They say it with confidence and certainty, only to tell me, 5 or 10 or 20 minutes later, how they would never do X, never try Y, because it makes them very uncomfortable, or it’s just crazy to think that Y could work, or… well, you know how it sounds.  It is a very effective demonstration of the strength of our Comfort Zone.

Eleanor Roosevelt has a brilliant quote about fear:  “We must do the thing we think we cannot do.”  And she’s dead on with this.  We MUST face into the Comfort Zone if we want our freedom.  Because in that work we find the capacity to do what we want to do, to escape fear and live the lives we want to live..  More on challenging the Comfort Zone in my next post.

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