I find it really easy to talk to you like this. On a public recording. I find it fairly easy to speak publicly to both large and small groups as well. What I don’t find easy is striking up a conversation with a stranger one-on-one. I don’t like small talk, I prefer conversations that are deep and meaningful And if I don’t know someone, small talk, instead of just feeling like a waste of time, can be downright difficult.
Every Sunday, I’m in a role at my church where it’s my responsibility to start conversations with strangers. In a room of about 15 to 25 people, I need to speak to as many of them as possible and establish a relationship quickly. It’s my job to create a warm, inviting and connected atmosphere.
This is not my strong suit. But, I volunteered for it.
It would have been very simple to find another role to volunteer for that would be easier for me. Like holding babies. Or, smiling at the door. Or, making coffee or driving golf carts. But, instead I chose hostessing in room full of new people each week.
Why would I do that? Because, I know that by doing things that I find uncomfortable, I become a better person. Let’s talk a bit about that today.
We hear a lot about the comfort zone, but why are the social media meme-makers constantly prodding us to leave it behind? Your comfort zone is an artificial mental and behavioral space that when you’re within it, you feel a sense of comfort and security and outside of which you’re uncomfortable. Inside there’s little stress and the stress that is there…is familiar, so you know how to deal with it. It’s manageable. Our comfort zone is a neutral predictable state. You have behavior and thought pattern comfort zones, behavior and thought patterns that are familiar and comfortable. You have attitudes and knowledge that is familiar and comfortable. You have biases and beliefs that are familiar and comfortable. Outside of those, things can get pretty uncomfortable pretty quickly.
There’s nothing wrong with familiar and comfortable. Nothing at all. Your brain and your body need it. They process billions of bits of input every day. Familiar and comfortable mean that we can function with ease. We form habits and shortcuts on a neurological level that make it possible to process that amount of data. The problem with the comfort zone is that some of the best things in life are on the other side of uncomfortable. And it’s way too easy for us to give up on them, or not consider them at all because it would involve something scary or uncomfortable.
What if no adults chose to have children because the process of pregnancy and childbirth is somewhat uncomfortable. For someone who was constantly sick to my stomach for nine months, was put on cancer medication to barely contain the nausea, who lost weight for the first half of my pregnancy, spent time in the hospital with dehydration…pregnancy was no glowing picnic. But, the child I held at his birth and the one I laugh with twelve years later makes every bit of that uncomfortable time so very worth it.
That’s a somewhat dramatic example, but there are everyday examples too. One of the things I really love about my life right now is working out with a group of women three times a week at a local gym. I’m a solo, outdoors kind of exerciser. It was not in my comfort zone to contact a trainer. Or, open the door and walk in to that gym for the first time. Or, start working out with people I don’t know. But, over a year later, I’m stronger, healthier and so very glad I pushed through those uncomfortable moments.
We have the ability to overcome the tendency to stay comfortable. And there are good reasons to put ourselves over that edge. Margie Warrell writes in Forbes, “In an increasingly competitive, cautious and accelerated world, those who are willing to take risks, step out of their comfort zone and into the discomfort of uncertainty will be those who will reap the biggest rewards,” The biggest rewards in that context are career-oriented. That’s great. But, what if you’re not aiming for the corner office? What if that just sounds like more stuff to do and you already have that in spades? What if your priorities are elsewhere?
Here are a few personal reasons to spend time being uncomfortable.
You’ll have an easier time dealing with unexpected changes. Change is an inescapable part of our world. Things are going to change. Your capacity for dealing with change (which most people find uncertain and uncomfortable) is a critical skill in today’s world.
You’ll find it easier to push your boundaries in the future. If circumstances bring uncomfortable to your doorstep, and almost everyone I know is forced into unexpected uncomfortable at some point in life, you’ll be better able to handle it.
You’ll enhance your creativity. One of the wells of creativity is new experiences. New is usually related to uncomfortable.
You’ll enhance your mental health and increase your self-confidence. I doubt I need to sell you on mental health and self-confidence, but studies show that both are a result of new and uncomfortable experiences.
You’ll become more resilient. Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Resilience is only learned when you bump up against difficulty.
You’ll find adventure. Abouty 42 percent of Americans can’t remember the last time they attempted adventure, according to a recent survey. Yet, our bucket lists are full of adventurous items. We read books, watch movies, YouTube videos and GoPro commercials about it. We love the idea of adventures, but adventures only actually happen in the realm of the uncomfortable.
Wouldn’t you like to be able to cope more easily with change, be mentally and emotionally prepared for the unexpected, enhance your creativity, mental health, self-confidence and resilience and experience adventure?
Then learn to get uncomfortable.
You don’t need to go rappelling if you’re afraid of heights to get the advantages of getting out of your comfort zone. Take small steps. Learn to recognize when you’re feeling uncomfortable and do things anyway. Over time, your mental and behavioral boundaries will expand because when you actually do the things that make you uncomfortable, they move into the realm of comfortable.
At the beginning of the episode I mentioned that I’ve intentionally put myself in a position each week to flex my “conversation-with-strangers” muscle. It gets easier all the time. It will probably never be my favorite pastime, but I gain a few important things. I gain the confidence that I can do things that aren’t natural for me. But, more importantly, I gain the experiences and the relationships that I absolutely would not have otherwise.
I went to Greece last month and a big part of what I was doing there involved speaking one-on-one with people I don’t know. In this case, not only didn’t I know them, but there was also usually both a language and a culture barrier. The Greeks mostly speak English, so language wasn’t much of an issue with the Europeans we interacted with. But, I was often talking to refugees from Syria, Albania, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. While holding conversations like that still isn’t really easy for me…it was a lot easier than it would have been before I started with my weekly volunteer stint.
The weekly small boundary stretching allowed me to conquer the uncomfortable in bigger doses. It allowed me to function more easily on a trip that was really meaningful for me.
The light area around the perimeter in this week’s artwork represents your comfort zone. We’ve demonized it a bit in the media, but it’s not wrong to have one. We all have one and we need it. It’s restful and there’s good stuff that happens there. Really good stuff. There’s music and wisdom. Do you see the owl in the corner? There are also highs and lows in the comfort zone, clear open space and darker more intense hues.
The piece is a bit like looking into a portal though. Looking through the opening, into the uncomfortable, things look a bit more wild. The colors there are brighter, more intense and vary more. They swirl.
Do you want to step in? Or not? How comfortable are you? Do you value what can be gained through that portal? Enough to step out and try?
There’s light at the end of that tunnel. It’s called Life.
What if you got uncomfortable?
Want to process the ideas in this podcast further? Download the Coffee Talk Worksheet or put this week’s art on your phone: Episode 36 Downloads