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.

Simply Say Thank You: Gratitude Journals

With the cold and gray days of winter lingering, it is easy to fall into a bit of a funk. Winter seems so long sometimes, and everything takes more effort, more energy, and definitely more clothing! It is gray outside and at this time of the year, I often feel gray inside, too. One way to feel hopeful again, and to stay on the brighter side of the remaining weeks of winter is to keep a gratitude journal.

I know, I know, you’ve heard this all before and it seems either too cheesy, too time-consuming or unlikely to be something you stick with for any length of time, so why start? And did I mention it sounds a little cheesy?

But if you can keep it simple, a gratitude journal can be a five minute practice at the end of each day that will change the way you approach your life.

A couple of years ago, I moved into my current home. I had never lived on my own before, and while I was excited and really happy about my choice in a new home, I was also feeling very overwhelmed with the ‘what-ifs’. What if the roof leaked or I had an electrical problem? What if my basement flooded or someone broke in? Was I safe here (and of course that meant physically, mentally, emotionally)? It was easy for my mind to spin out of control as I imagined the infinite number of scenarios in which something bad could or would happen.

I knew that this way of thinking was harmful and that this negativity was keeping me from enjoying my new life. And besides, I was OK. Everything negative was in my mind. It stood to reason that if I replaced those thoughts with more positive ones, my approach to this new life would change, too.

I began a simple habit that I still use almost daily to make sure I stay focused on what matters. I keep a small pocket sized notebook in my nightstand, and each night before I go to sleep, I list five things for which I am grateful. On good days, I can think of specific events to list, good and serendipitous things that have happened. On the rest of the days, I can list the basics: my daughters whom I love so much, my special friends who care so well for me, my health, my job that pays the bills, my warm bed, and if nothing else, the fact that I can go to sleep in a few minutes and forget the day ever happened!

Five things… simple. If I spend a minute thinking about each one, that is enough to remind me of my good fortune, and to make every day, no matter how gray and wintry, one to be thankful for!

Characteristics of a Beautiful Friend

To have a friend is a beautiful thing. To be a friend is as beautiful, if not more so, as it makes the rest of life, no matter how difficult, pretty beautiful, too.

Years ago when I taught second grade, we spent the month of February celebrating friendship. One of my favorite books to read with the class was Judith Viorst’s Rosie and Michael, the story of two friends who take turns narrating what makes their friendship so special.

What they describe are the characteristics of any beautiful relationship, whether it is between two friends, two loves, a parent and a child, or siblings. Here, illustrated by the words of Rosie and Michael, are the characteristics of any beautiful relationship:

* Friends accept each other as they are. “She likes me when I’m dopey and not just when I’m smart.” “I worry a lot about werewolves, and he understands.”

* They rely on each other in times of trouble. “When my parakeet died, I called Rosie.” “When my bike got swiped, I called Michael.”

* Friends are loyal to one another. “It wouldn’t matter if two billion people said she robbed a bank, if Rosie told me she didn’t, I’d believe her.”

* They are trustworthy, too. “If Michael told me a secret and people clonked me and bopped me, I wouldn’t tell what Michael’s secret was.”

* And if necessary, friends are forgiving. “And then if people said ‘Speak up or we’ll throw you in this quicksand,’ Rosie would forgive me for telling her secret.”

* Even if they disagree, friends can still stay friends. “Just because I call him a banana head, doesn’t mean that Michael’s not my friend.”

* Friends support each other, too. “Sometimes I get on the diving board and deicde that I’ve changed my mind. but Rosie wouldn’t laugh. She’s my friend.”

* Friends are honest with each other. “Michael is my friend. When he honest and truly wanted to know if his feet were smelling stinky, I honestly told him.”

* And they always have your back. “She’d hunt for me if kidnappers stole me away. And if I was never found again, she could have my Instamatic. She is my friend.”

* Special friends are the ones we think of first, last and all the times in between. “I’d never move to China without Michael.” ” I’d give her my last piece of chalk.”

To have a friend, to be a friend is one of the best gifts life has to offer. Now is a wonderful time to celebrate and thank those special friends that make our lives beautiful. Thank you…you know who you are.