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The Comfort Zone

Hiding in plain sight

By Barry Michels

One of the problems psychotherapists confront on a daily basis is how to get their patients to do things that would be good for them. Dieting, exercising, leaving a bad relationship, starting a new business – these are among the many things people commonly want to accomplish, but fail to take action on. We avoid these things because in one way or another, they all involve different types of pain. If you want to lose weight, you have to face the pain of depriving yourself of the foods you like. If you want to leave a relationship, you have to face the spectre of being alone. If you want to start a new business, you have to face the possibility that it may not succeed.

It wouldn’t matter if we avoided these things once or twice a year. But for most of us, avoidance becomes a way of life. We barricade ourselves behind an invisible barrier and don’t venture out because beyond the wall is pain. This safe space Phil and I call the “Comfort Zone.” In the most extreme cases, people actually hide behind the walls of their home. But for most of us, the Comfort Zone isn’t a physical space, it’s a way of life that avoids anything that might be painful.

To make this personal to you, try this exercise: Close your eyes. Think of something you chronically avoid doing—whether it’s meeting new people, balancing your check book, or having a difficult conversation. How do you organize your life to avoid doing it? Imagine that pattern of avoidance is actually a place you hide in. That’s your Comfort Zone. What does it feel like?

It probably felt like a safe and familiar place, free of the pain that the world brings with it. But the exercise leaves out one ingredient that’s also part of most people’s Comfort Zone. Merely escaping pain isn’t enough for us. We insist that the pain be replaced with pleasure. We do this with an endless array of addictive activities. Examples include internet surfing, drugs and alcohol, pornography, the aptly named “comfort food.” Even gambling and shopping are pleasures of a sort. All these behaviors are widespread—our entire culture is looking for a Comfort Zone.

Whatever your Comfort Zone consists of, you pay a huge price for it. Life provides incredible possibilities, but you can’t take advantage of them without facing pain. If you can’t tolerate pain, you can’t be fully alive. There are many examples of this. If you’re shy and avoid people, you lose the vitality that comes with a sense of community. If you’re creative but can’t tolerate criticism, you’ll never reach people who could appreciate (and fund) your work. If you’re a leader and can’t confront or set limits with people, no one will follow you. By staying in the Comfort Zone you end up relinquishing your most cherished dreams and aspirations. Oliver Wendell Holmes in “The Voiceless” put it best: “Alas for those that never sing, / But die with all their music in them.”

It’s important that patients understand the terrible cost of the Comfort Zone. But as a psychotherapist, I’ve found that this information, by itself, isn’t enough to get people to change. The reason is that information works on the level of rational thinking. But the part of us that avoids pain is completely irrational. It lives in a primitive, unconscious world where all pain—even pain that would be good for us—triggers the same fear: “I’m going to die!” It clings to the Comfort Zone as if its life depended on it.

You can’t fight such a strong, irrational fear with rational thinking—it’s too weak. Instead, you need a force. In this case, it’s called the “Force of Forward Motion” and we’ll talk about it in the next blog.