Survivors of 9/11, who had fled the second tower after a plane hit the first one, reported that colleagues stayed at their desks, and even went into meetings, rather than accept that the current situation necessitated a change in behaviour.
The psychotherapist Stephen Grosz has written of this *1:
We resist change. Committing ourselves to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation… We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even—or perhaps especially—in an emergency.
In a very real sense, people would rather risk dying than accept that they are in a situation which requires them to act differently. And, in the case of 9/11, they did die.
It’s not enough to explain this by saying people don’t like being pushed out of their comfort zone. ‘Comfort zone’ is just a metaphor for ‘staying the same, having things like they were before’. That’s just saying what we already know.
It’s not that people object to the new situation which beckons—whether it is relative safety from attack or whether it’s a new job or home. When people resist change, they are objecting to their lack of agency in the decision, in the first place, that the situation will change; and they object to their lack of agency in determining how and when the change will be effected. They are affronted that their fantasy of controlling their lives is being questioned.
In any book of quotations, there are a zillion insights into how nothing ever stays still, how the only thing constant is change, and so on and so on, yet we still feel we have to make a big deal of this.
Here’s a way not to make a big deal of it.
Draw, on a piece of paper, your comfort zone. Most people draw a circle, but it doesn’t really matter what shape you choose.
Inside their comfort zone people are, well, comfortable. But what’s outside that comfort zone?
Many people will write, in big letters, S T R E S S. And, they’re absolutely right. If they want to believe that outside the comfort zone is stress, then that is what they will find there. This is because many people have a considerable attachment to being right about things so, if they believe it’s going to be stressful, then they’ll make damn sure it is stressful—just so they can congratulate themselves on being right about that one.
(So, you can write ‘stress’, too, if you want, but leave a big gap between it and the comfort zone.)
These are, after all, just beliefs.
They are only worth holding if they suit us. I suggest these don’t.
So, with your word S T R E S S well away from your comfort zone, draw another circle (or polygon of choice)—a much bigger circle—around the comfort zone and write inside it, S T R E T C H, so that the stress is outside that circle.
Now, notice that, if you leave your comfort zone, you do not immediately hit stress but, rather, a space where you can stretch yourself. Where you know you can rise to challenges and, even if these are new to you, you find that, by facing them, you overcome them. In the stretch zone, your heart rate may be higher, the adrenalin will be running, but this is fine, it is to be welcomed. You are actually empowering yourself to be more effective than you would have been at the same tasks in your comfort zone.
Think about a musician performing on stage. We are more compelled by the performance if we sense an edge, a risk, than if the performer is half asleep and just going through the motions.
How do you get into the stretch zone? By volunteering yourself to do things which stretch you. At work, and particularly in your personal relationships.
After a few weeks of this, you will begin to notice that those tasks which were a stretch are now a breeze: they are now in your comfort zone, which has mysteriously got larger. And, your stretch zone has got larger too.
I wouldn’t stress yourself if you find yourself occasionally slipping into the stress zone. Sometimes that deadline has to be met, that difficult conversation has to be had. We can reward ourselves afterwards by relaxing in our comfort zone.
The more you stretch yourself, the larger your comfort zone gets. But, if you don’t stretch yourself, your comfort zone shrinks. This is, sadly, what afflicts many old people who bitterly lament their isolation but cannot see that it is, in part, a consequence of their not showing up—and cannot, or will not, see that the solution is easy: show up a bit more.
In his great novel, The leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi has a character say *2,
Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi.
If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.
Rather than feel the ‘victim’ of change, how much more empowering to be its instigator!
[*1] Stephen Grosz, The examined life (p 121)
[*2] Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The leopard, translated Archibald Colquhoun (p 19)
© 2019 Jeremy Marchant . image: Free image
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