I was recently talking with a friend after Improv class, telling her about some of the activities I do. She was impressed, saying something like, "it's great that you do so many different things--dancing, aerials, Improv--that take you out of your comfort zone. Or maybe you just have a very big comfort zone . . ."
So I wondered, do I have a big comfort zone? I thought about my many activities, and felt out my reactions in each of those places and situations. And I realized that the truth is exactly the opposite: my comfort zone is very, very small.
I am uncomfortable in nearly every interaction I have with another person. Every time I venture out of my house, with the inevitability of meeting someone else, I am uncomfortable. When I walk through a store and see people I might come face to face with. As I walk down the street, wondering if I'll run into a friend, or think about talking to someone I haven't met. Every time I pick up the phone. Every time I strike up a conversation. Every time I write something that another person will read. I go dancing at least once per week, and nearly every time I ask someone to dance, I am uncomfortable. Going to the gym, going shopping, meeting a friend for dinner, going to a show . . . uncomfortable. Going to Improv class or performing it on stage. And yes, trying a new activity like the aerials lyra class I've been taking makes me uncomfortable. And if I even think of approaching a woman I'm attracted to . . . Discomfort even comes up when doing solitary activities: Patent work (irritation, self-doubt), photography and photo editing (anxiety--what if I mess it up?), practicing music (disappointment if I don't sound beautiful), meditation (fear of loneliness, and experiencing the full range of human emotions).
The concept of a "comfort zone" is ubiquitous, but it's one that never resonated with me much. Now I know why--I am so sensitive to discomfort that I experience it in almost every place, time, and activity. When I was much younger, the discomfort was so intense that I couldn't handle much interaction at all. In second grade, I couldn't speak out loud in public, not even to a close friend. All through high school, I rarely said hello to anyone as I walked through the hallways. Facing and challenging the discomfort took too much energy. But eventually, gradually, the desire for connection started to overpower the fear and pain of discomfort. I worked hard to develop social skills and made close friends. With some caring guidance, I learned to dance. I pushed myself to take on leadership roles. And I have branched out into new activities.
Discomfort is still a big part of my daily lived experience. I try to see it for what it is: my body's and mind's physical, mental, and emotional reactions to situations--a bundle of sensations. I try to remind myself that it doesn't carry any meaning. It doesn't necessarily tell me the truth about a situation, or tell me what I should do. Knowing that I'm hyper-sensitive to discomfort, I have to remind myself that it is usually not a signal of danger. I still have a tendency to withdraw or hide. I often avoid engaging with people the way I want to because it feels as though it takes more energy than I have. And I am disappointed in myself when I hold back, and wonder what opportunities and connections I might have missed.
And still, I dance, and write, and play music, and share my photography, and do Improv, and try new things. I engage with people. I face the discomfort. I don't know if it has diminished over time or if I have just become more accustomed to and accepting of its presence. Either way, I am determined not to allow it to control me or rule my life. I find joy through dancing and creating and playing and simply being present, by myself and with others. Happiness and discomfort can coexist. And I am extra grateful for the moments when discomfort drops away. I wish everyone more of these moments, and I hope that I can help bring them about for all of us.