The Pilcrow

A WordPress developer's thoughts on professional and personal development. Written by Karin Taliga

Comfortable Discomfort

As a dancer, I trained my body to become pretty flexible by normal standards. It’s quite obvious whenever we get to the winding down and stretch part of group training classes. I often feel pretty self-conscious about going in my full length of motion in front of other people that don’t know what to expect. It can come as a surprise to them and I don’t like that type of attention.

Occasionally I hear that people think I was just born like this. Some people are. But I’m not one of them. I’m not naturally flexible. 

All of my range of motion is a result of years of stretching, stretching and stretching. A personal desire to sculpt and train my body to be able to do certain things. And the physical areas I haven’t worked on, well, they are still pretty tight and stiff.

But stretching involves a certain degree of discomfort. This feeling can range from slightly unpleasant to extremely painful.

Extending the range of your physical motion

What the effort of becoming flexible gave me, was a desensitisation of physical pain in general. I got used to staying and enduring in places and positions that were initially painful. I remember one time when I was nine, I was proud over myself for keeping stretching my splits even though the pain gave me tears in my eyes. 

In time, the sensation of reaching and expanding the limit of my range of motion was no longer associated with pain. In fact, it wasn’t painful at all. It became a slight discomfort that I visited almost daily. In fact, not going there made me restless. I felt shrunk and wanted to stretch out.

The discomfort became comfortable. Now being without that occasional discomfort was something that made me uncomfortable instead.

Extending the range of your comfort zone

The same dynamic applies for going outside your comfort zone in life in general. The emotion can range from a slight uneasiness to outright terror and anxiety.

But when going outside your comfort zone becomes a new normal – when you’re firmly planted in the practice of challenging yourself and growing in new ways – this apparent discomfort is something you need and crave.

To make the reasoning easier to follow, let’s call your comfort zone the zone of familiarity. The stuff you already know well and do with ease. The people and things you have a deep relationship with and spend a lot of time with every day.

Those that prefer to stay within the comfort zone want to stick with what is familiar and easy. That is a place where they feel safe.

To go outside the zone of familiarity means a degree of danger, uncertainty and risk. This can be highly disturbing and even frightening, depending on the degree of risk involved.

But just as going to the end of range of motion becomes addictive, so can this feeling of going to the edge of – and expanding – the range of your capabilities in life.

This sense of apparent discomfort, risk and uncertainty becomes your new comfort zone. And your previous comfort zone is a source of discomfort.

Confused? It’s not that strange, really.

Being confined to that zone of familiarity will make you restless. It’s boring and predictable.

If you ever have experienced the thrill of stretching yourself to reach something that is seemingly out of reach and then being able to get there, you’ve had a taste of what this feels like. And if you’ve experienced this enough times, you can never go back to staying within the familiarity zone again.

Your new comfort zone is the constant slight discomfort of growth.

Addicted to growth experiences

Is it a different variant of adrenalin junkie? Perhaps. I don’t know if there has been a study of which hormones are released when we do these kinds of growth experiences. I’m sure there are all kinds of reward hormones at play here: dopamine, adrenaline, endorphins, who knows what else. But it is satisfying for sure.

The interesting thing here is that the addiction is to the activity and not the result of that activity. I’d assume the adrenalin junkie gets the adrenalin surge as a result from skydiving. But the joy of expanding your abilities lies in the stretch itself – not necessarily in what you have accomplished by doing so.

This is when trying something and failing miserably will still feel rewarding. Because you stretched yourself. That’s where the fun lies. That’s what matters.

And just as I start to feel restless and uncomfortable if I haven’t stretched out my body for a while, so will staying in the zone of familiarity for too long become a source of discontent.

Hiding behind the curtain of the need for security

Predictability. A word that sounds safe and secure for some but like a prison for the growth-addicted. Perhaps you recognise the signs:

When you feel like you know how things are done and how things work. When your life is getting a bit too close to repeating itself over and over. When you’re starting to be able to predict what’s going to happen next. That’s when you start to feel like a caged animal.

If you lack the self-awareness that you have this need of growth it can take a long time, even years, before these feelings of unease get identified. And even longer before they get acted upon.

“If everything is running so smoothly, why am I not content? Why am I not happier?”

Perhaps exactly because things are running so smoothly. It’s boring you out, and you need to stretch and flex your muscles. Like the yawning cat that stretches out in the morning. You have to do it in order to feel alive.

Challenging security can be a challenge in itself

Depending on your societal imprinting, this can be extremely counter-intuitive. Some societies, cultures and families spend an immense amount of energy on instilling the value of security in us. To go for the stable and predictable. To always take the secure path.

And there’s value in that too. When venturing outside your zone of familiarity, you can certainly go so far that you end up right in the zone of terror. Something that freaks you out completely and injects fear in every step you take. You can’t live there. That’s not healthy either. 

And taking risks involve, well, taking risks. There are no guarantees. You just might fall flat on your face. That is kind of part of the deal.

There’s good value in having a stable zone of familiarity you can return to, where you can gather energy for your next adventure. In fact, I’d say that is when the actual growth happens.

Growth doesn’t necessarily happen while you’re on your trip outside the familiarity zone. It often happens afterwards, when you’re inside it again and can reflect on what happened. Either by going back to where the familiarity zone previously were, or expanding the zone to include where you are right now.

(This is why doing regular reviews in your life is such a powerful tool by the way. Because that’s when you gather insights and can grow from your experiences.)

So building up a safety zone of familiarity is a good thing. But only as a home base that you return to. Not as the place you want to stay at indefinitely.

Desensitise the uncertainty

If you are new to making explorations outside the familiarity zone, then just small steps outside of it will feel uncomfortable. Keep in mind that discomfort here is usually just another name for unfamiliar. You’re doing something new, and because you’re not used to the feeling of doing new things it will feel a bit weird.

But as you get used to stretching yourself further and further, you will become desensitised to the feeling of awkwardness with the new. Just like physical stretching no longer became painful to me, going outside the familiarity zone will no longer be a source of pain, discomfort and weirdness. 

The feeling of jumping in to completely uncharted territory will no longer be accompanied by a sense of fear. Instead, that thrill of not knowing what will happen next will become a familiar feeling and you want to have it in your life.

The amount of stretch that makes you thrive is individual

The rate of growth that you are comfortable with will be individual to you. Some people seem to thrive more on risk-taking than others so I suspect their growth stretches will need to be larger in order to feel fulfilling to them.

Perhaps it’s a slippery slope thing, where being comfortable with smaller risks means you now need bigger and bigger stretches in order to get that same feeling of expansion and growth.

I think I fall somewhere in between. I am clearly addicted to learning and growth. But I’m a moderate risk-taker. So far 😉

Stretch experiences can come from outside

Sometimes the rate of your growth will not be due to you stretching out but life experiences coming at you. That’s when having a stable familiarity zone is gold. You can stay there in as many ways as possible while life challenges you in all kind of new directions in other areas.

Here, getting used to extending outside the zone of familiarity has more benefits than the growth itself. Because sometimes life gives you circumstances where your whole familiarity zone gets shattered. Everything falls apart.

Whether it’s a relationship breakup, the death of a loved one, or larger societal or economical changes. Everything you take for granted to lean on can change in an instant.

If you have ventured outside of the familiarity zone regularly beforehand, then you know how to deal with uncertainty and risk. You know how it feels and it’s not new to you. 

It’s like when you’re out on a long hike, set a base camp, and go on an excursion just to find when you come back that your base camp have been destroyed while you were away. You just pick up your gear and setup a new base camp somewhere else.

If you have learnt to navigate the territory of discomfort, risk and uncertainty before, you are less likely to freak out and panic. You can be in that space while you build up a new familiarity zone for yourself based on your new circumstances.

The need to grow comes from the inside

Having a zone of familiarity and predictability is important. It serves a great function throughout the journey of our lives.

But if you’re like me and you’ve been there for too long and nothing else is happening in your life, then you’ll start to feel it. That nagging feeling that something is wrong, even though it looks so right from the outside. How come you’re so uncomfortable, when everything is so comfortable?

I know what is wrong. I know what you need.

You need to stretch.

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