“Our Same = Safe equation takes over and we stay in jobs we hate, in unhealthy relationships, and repeat patterns of behaviour that sabotage our dreams because the uncomfortable familiarity of what we do still feels a safer bet than making changes.”
~ Anne Burton
Hey, y’all. It’s been a minute…taking a moment to update everyone as my summer sabbatical is officially over. Being a teacher, July means prepping for the new school year (I just ordered the cutest camping theme wreath from Etsy!). For various reasons, the last couple of weeks have not gone to plan and I haven’t been able to post. That said, I am happy to announce I have a new project in the works related to my pets; I’ve been deeply enmeshed in web design…more news coming soon!
Anyway, I am honored to offer you my first guest post on This Coffee Life by up and coming author, Anne Burton. Anne is promoting her new book, Being Human – A User Guide and has contributed a long read on getting out of our comfort zones. May I just say I’m way out of mine at the moment? Web design isn’t necessarily my wheelhouse, but I’m hoping this side hustle will lead to early retirement (FYI I don’t hate my job; being a teacher is very rewarding, but 13 sounds a lot better than 17 in terms of years remaining). Without further ado, here is our guest author with some words on why discomfort is necessary for growth.
All Too Familiar?
For a long time now, we have been hearing about the “Comfort Zone” and how we must get out of it to effect any change or learn something new and experience life to the full. On the occasions when I have heard someone say “You need to get out of your comfort zone” my first thought has been “What comfort zone?! I’ve spent most of my life feeling anything but comfortable, where is this place called Comfort Zone? I think I need to get in it, not out of it.”
To me a comfort zone is that place where you are in your element and doing something you have a passion for. The best example that comes to mind for me is when I’m training a group of people. I feel a mix of nervousness and excitement before hand and then, once we have got all the introductions out of the way, I just feel like I’m where I belong and doing what I’m here for. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable in a way that means I don’t want to move forward and learn more. One of the joys of teaching is that it’s a two-way process and there is always something to challenge me, and that I can learn from. I’m comfortable because I feel a sense of belonging and I want to spend more time in that place.
If a comfort zone can still be exciting and challenging, is it really a place of comfort that prevents us from making a change? If we take a while to think about how our brains work, there may be another reason why we don’t step into the unknown more often than we do.
For all the amazing things our brains are capable of, their primary purpose is to keep us alive. Survival, not happiness, is the top priority. We are wired up to respond to an equation that says Same = Safe and Different = Danger. It’s a simple enough, and sane enough, equation designed to keep us safe by creating caution in an unfamiliar environment or new experience. This equation developed in times when a new experience might be an encounter with a large hungry animal or any number of life-limiting experiences, and even though our life challenges have changed our brains have not changed significantly and the equation still applies. We apply this to situations that we find ourselves in and to the people we meet too. We like people who we perceive to be like ourselves and are wary of those who aren’t. We like situations that we know how to negotiate, even if there are things about the situation that don’t work for us.
Seeking similarity for safety is then amplified by the way that we learn new things and internalize our experiences. To truly have learned something we must be able to do it unconsciously because the part of our brains that does all our conscious thinking would be overloaded if we had to think through everything that we do step by step. Driving the car, taking our usual our route to work, walking, breathing, what brand of grocery to buy, even where to put my fingers on the keyboard as I write this, all gets managed outside our conscious awareness.
We have to step into the conscious thinking part of our brain to make a decision or to learn a new skill and once we have, we let our unconscious mind take over. We repeat what we have learned on autopilot and we just don’t think about it anymore. The only time it will come back into our conscious thinking is when something blocks the path to doing it exactly the way we did before.
So, our brains seek patterns and then consolidates those patterns into what we experience as our reality, our normality if you like. When a pattern is repeated often enough it becomes the norm and our brains look out for similar experiences to deepen our belief that what we experience is normal and expected.
What it does not do readily is question whether our normality is what we want or just what we have become accustomed to. Our Same = Safe equation takes over and we stay in jobs we hate, in unhealthy relationships, and repeat patterns of behaviour that sabotage our dreams because the uncomfortable familiarity of what we do still feels a safer bet than making changes. Our unconscious processes recognize what we are doing today is what we also did yesterday. We get a sense of normality and stability that confirms to us that this is indeed the way we do things around here, and that sense of familiarity keeps us repeating the pattern. All without conscious consideration of whether it’s the right thing for us or not.
It is quite simply that our brain; the way we process and make sense of information, has not changed while the world in which we live has, and in amongst the rapid rate of technological and environmental change, we still send each other messages that urge us not to create change of our own but rather to stick with what we know;
“Better the devil you know”
“Better safe than sorry”
“The grass isn’t always greener”
“If it’s not broken don’t fix it”
Sound familiar? And of course the one held in reserve for anyone who does set out to do things differently is “Who do you think you are?” because not only to our brains not feel comfortable with changes that we make, they don’t like change in others either. Once someone starts to change it rocks the foundation of how we recognize them and who we think they are. The quicker we can get them to change back again the sooner the familiar stability will be restored. Even if it’s a positive change it’s different and there for a danger sign to our brains processing mechanisms.
So, in this way we collude with the brains love for “sameness” by trying to prevent anything from changing whilst talking about getting outside of our comfort zones…. small wonder we find change so difficult to create and successfullyincorporate into our lives.
So, are we doomed by our own thought processes? Thankfully I don’t believe we are, if we take our focus away from getting out of our comfort zones. Our familiarity zone and tendency to run on autopilot is where we need to focus if we are to create what we want instead of replicating what we have.
Give it a try. Take a different route to work. Buy a different brand. Question why you do what you do on auto pilot? Are you really in your comfort zone or just familiar with your level of discomfort?
Kudos to Anne for giving us so much food for thought this week. Doing something new is a great way to break out of depression and get those endorphins flowing.
Have a lovely week,