Stepping Outside Our Comfort Zone

Years ago, when the kids were much younger, our family used to take beach vacations with a close friend and her family. This friend and I shared a similar level of adversity to risk, and while the guys would take the kids to jump off cliffs or snorkel in caves, we would stay behind, congratulating each other on our affinity for the “zone”… the stretch of ocean closest to the beach, where the waves weren’t too high, there were no jellyfish or any other creatures, and we could just float the afternoon away.

The “zone” was perfect. As we often joked, we loved it precisely because “nothing ever happened in the zone.” In other words, we were safe. We didn’t have to think. We didn’t have to be on guard for any real or perceived dangers. We didn’t even have to worry about spilling our drinks, so peaceful was the water there. It was, by every definition, a comfort zone.

As humans, we are programmed to seek situations where we can minimize our stress and risk, to create our own comfort zones. For each of us, this mean something different, of course. For me, the comfort zone is all about a feeling of coziness (unless I am on a beach vacation, in which case see above). As an introvert, my comfort zone often has to do with staying in, not having to make small talk with people I don’t know, and wearing the closest thing to pajamas I can get away with. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of that, of course, and I can argue that it is just who I am, and how is that a bad thing?

The trouble with a comfort zone is that if you spend too much time there, it actually shrinks. Comfortable clothes go from jeans to sweats to actual pajamas. Not wanting to make small talk becomes never wanting to meet new people because of the effort it takes to get to know them and to share something of yourself. In time, new experiences become a risk, and what we categorize as a new experience grows to include anything that pushes or stretches us to be more than what we are now. Because we have so severely limited the stimulation in our lives, any stimulation starts to feel like too much. It is easier, safer, to stay in the “zone”.

In the 1995 movie French Kiss, Meg Ryan plays Kate, a woman whose fear of flying combined with her habitual comfort zone keep her from enjoying a trip to Paris with her fiancé. He takes the trip without her, meets someone new and breaks their engagement. She swallows her fear and flies to Paris to win him back. One thing leads to another and she eventually rejects him after coming to a powerful realization:

“I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to protect myself from exactly this situation. And you can’t do it. There’s no home safe enough, there’s no country nice enough, there’s no relationship secure enough, you’re just setting yourself up for an even bigger fall and having an incredibly boring time in the process.”

In other words, why not step outside the zone? The water is just fine… and you will be, too.

Can a Resolution Be Just to Persevere? Maybe That’s Enough

A show of hands from those of you who have already fallen off the wagon of your New Year’s resolution? Right, I thought so. This post, now two weeks past the date I had set on my schedule – one of my resolutions – is living proof of why my hand is raised high, too.

By mid-February, the newness of a January resolution has likely diminished quite a bit, just as the excitement over winter’s snow has worn thin. With each new snowfall, the wonder of it is replaced by the weariness of having to clear the driveway yet again.

In the same way, the excitement and resolve with which we all begin a new year can become frayed as the hard work of keeping a promise to yourself sets in.

By now, I am over winter and ready for spring, but I recognize that no matter the time of year, there are often “winters” of the spirit, too. There are times when we are weary, overwhelmed with the minutiae of our days and weeks, and just feeling uninspired by life. The sky is cold and gray, and so are we.

This would be a moment to say something along the lines of “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” True enough, but we all know that it isn’t always that easy. Maybe the tough going we face is related to poor health, grief, financial concerns, depression, or the big life questions to which there are no easy answers, and no readily available bootstraps with which we can pull ourselves back to our feet.

It is during these winters of the spirit, that maybe a gentler approach is needed to achieving the goals set with so much enthusiasm in January.

John D. Rockefeller once said, “I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.”

To persevere through the winter in anticipation of the spring, to not give up, but to do your best to stick with it, even if ‘it’ – whatever ‘it’ is – falls short of what you hoped to accomplish – that is the real accomplishment.

So maybe this post is late, but here it is, and maybe that is enough. Enough to do, enough to expect, enough to carry me through until the new habits are formed, and springtime arrives in about a month or so.

Tiny Steps toward Your Best New Year

“And now we welcome the new year.  Full of things that have never been.” –Rainer Maria Rilke

I love the thought of a new year, especially on December 31st, when I think of all I will accomplish now that the calendar page has turned.  Like many perfectionists (read borderline OCDs), however, if I don’t have a clean start on January 1st, I’d might as well forget it, or wait for another “clean start” at the six month point on June 1st, or even the following year.  But at this point of my life, I realize that I don’t have full years or even six month increments to waste waiting for a “clean start” that is nothing more than another unrealistic expectation keeping me from growing and changing in the ways I want to grow and change.

So yes, though I love the thought of a new year, I usually think in terms of a deficiency, another year gone and look at what I haven’t done. But today I am thinking of all the ways my life has changed  over the past twelve months. Think of it. How have you changed in thoughts, attitudes, an actions in the last year?  Hopefully the start of 2018 finds you in a place of positive change and of growth, but if not, no pressure.  Accepting where you are at the start could be the first gift you give yourself this year, and the first step toward a better year ahead.

And what of resolutions? One of my plans was to start publishing something, anything, every Monday morning.  Coincidentally, January 1st was a Monday… talk about a “clean start”!  What could be more perfect?

Notice what day it is?  Today is Friday, January 5th, and there’s no poetry or symmetry in that!  But one of my resolutions is to just work hard toward my goals each day.  I may have a lot of time or a little, but something is always better than nothing.

So with a year ahead “full of things that have never been,” I am going with the mantra of “something is better than nothing.”  By taking the tiniest of steps over the last year, I have found myself in a strong and truly happy place.  Where will more intentional, though possibly just as tiny, steps take me this year?  Where will they take you?