Waging War Against Fear

I step into Sunglass Hut, surprised that my wobbly legs have gotten me this far. The girl, lost in her phone and unaware of my impending panic attack, stands behind the register. Avoiding eye contact, I stagger towards the Ray-Ban section adjacent to her, but I couldn’t care less for a pair of sunglasses. I’m here for one thing: I’m going to ask her for her number. As I stand before the stocked aviators and Clubmasters, I can feel the anxiety choking me like a boa constrictor stiffening its hold. As my body injects adrenaline and cortisol, both stress hormones, into my blood stream, I feel my chest pound and heart rate spike. My vision narrows into a tunnel, restricting itself to the aviator frames displayed eye-level, and all others surrounding fade from reality. My analytical mind suspends its reasoning, replaced by what I can only describe as a fuzzy mental haze. Crippled by this “fight or flight” response, I keel over, leaning on the display ledge to support my gasping frame.

“Can I help you pick something out today?”

I spin towards the counter, where the girl leans in toward me emanating a compassionate smile. “No, no just browsing for now. Th-thanks, though,” I muster, turning back towards the display and forcing a curious expression to fake the impression of a customer lost in thought. Rather, I’m lost in fear; I’m suffocated by it. As I try on a pair of glasses, further stalling the process, I note the inherent irony of my predicament. This could be all over in a minute with one question, with one interaction. Fuck! I peer through a pair of wayfarers, paralyzed by indecision and fearful of uncertainty. What if she inquires why I want her number? What will I say? What then? Worries flood my conscience. What if I stutter over my words? I move on to the next pair down the ledge. Reaching for the sunglasses, I peek behind me. She’s peering right at me! Her mesmerizing blue eyes and warm smile for a split second calm my distressed state. Fuck it, I’m gonna go for it, I resolve. The glasses fall back onto the shelf, and I stride over to the register.

“Hey, I actually have to bounce to meet a friend, but I was wondering if I could have your number?” The words flow from my mouth almost instinctually. I forget all physical discomfort that had plagued me a second ago, and my mind releases its futile clutch on uncertainty. For the only thing that matters is now, our exchange — this is why I had came here in the first place. She recoils in cautious surprise, and, through an expression that now resembles slight annoyance, responds, “No thanks. I’m flattered, but no thanks.” I nod, smile, and bid her happy holidays. Striding out of Sunglass Hut, I feel like a million bucks.

This challenge was the culmination of my Comfort Zone Challenge “workout” for the day. Within the Mall of Columbia, thirty minutes from home, I had asked a security guard at Apple to trade iPhones, requested a manager position at Pacsun during my two weeks remaining in winter break, and stared silently for ten seconds at a stranger while I small-talked with them among several other bizarre challenges.

Around two years ago, I began to explore Comfort Zone Challenges. Discovered via TEDTalk, these sessions condition and numb the participant to their fears of being judged, rejected, or embarrassed by acting outside the realms of social customs in public settings. In middle school and early high school, I wasn’t just scared to act outside social customs, I was hesitant to act within them. During in-class debates, I cowered in the corner of the classroom behind my binder. I faked a cold to avoid going to Homecoming Dance. I frequently flaked on events utilizing “I have too much work to do” as my trustworthy crutch. While I gradually overcame many of my anti-social tendencies thanks to my leadership role on the varsity soccer team and an outgoing friend group, Comfort Zone Challenges every couple months or so pushed me to new frontiers. Whether I lay in the middle of Baltimore Harbor for 30 seconds, stared intensely at passing New Yorkers in Times Square, or howled in the cafe of Barnes & Noble, I had to overcome my anxieties and take bold action to get the job done.

Now two months into Stanford, I am incredibly fortunate to have found a great friend, Ray, who shares the same passions for self-development as me. Every Sunday afternoon — essentially the only handful of consecutive free hours that college affords us — we bike fifteen minutes out to Palo Alto and complete our Comfort Zone Challenge workout together. Every session we push each other outside of social norms, sometimes to a fault. But with every rejection, every “no, we don’t give lifetime supplies of macaroons”, “sorry, I have a boyfriend”, and “bro, I paid 300$ for these Jordans, why the heck would I give them to you for free?”, our discomforts lessen and our pride swells that much more.

Comfort Zone Challenges have unlocked doors to perspectives once hidden from the safe haven of, well, a comfort zone. We discover the predictable narrative of every challenge. During the rising action — as I hyperventilated within Sunglass Hut — you have the panic, the paralysis, the worries. At the climax — approaching the cashier and popping the question — the fear fades, replaced by a flow-state and an almost serene presence. Lastly, the falling action — striding confidently out of the store — culminates in a feeling of triumph no matter the outcome. We unearth realities that, while logical on the surface, defy the acknowledgement of emotion. When I do jumping jacks in the middle of the Chipotle line, everyone, while caught off guard, are really only worried about the burritos or tacos that they will soon devour. The construction worker, initially bothered by my audacity to ask for 100$, resumes his work merely seconds later. If I could separate emotion from the process, accepting that I’m simply a blip on every stranger’s radar, these challenges would be anything but.

Try Comfort Zone Challenges out!

Comfort Zone Challenges have taught me how to live in a civilized world with a body designed for the life-and-death threats of the ice age. Every challenge nails down the lesson that rejection is nothing to be afraid about; every panic episode reminds me that emotions fail to grasp the physical insignificance of embarrassment. Nonetheless, Ray and I have begun to acquire a firmer grasp on the reins of our impulses. With each challenge and workout, the bar is raised. Actions that had initially warranted, “nah, that’s way too tough for me” become events that provoke, “nah, I need something scarier”. Our journey has reframed daily life. Ray has acquired a free gym membership, airplane wifi, and a ride home on a party bus (thanks again for that bro) by speaking out and asking. He tells me that he has become much more outgoing than his hometown friends since embarking on this crusade against fear. Personally, I’ve noticed how putting myself out there fails to warrant the same hope-I-don’t-mess-up discomfort that I succumbed to a year ago. Even when I do feel that apprehension, I go for it. Just before Winter Break, I took a leap of faith by telling my close friend my growing feelings for her. Whether or not we take our relationship to the next level, I felt more pride than I have after any Comfort Zone Challenge for choosing honesty and openness over the “safer” path of inertia.

I hope that Ray and I never stop doing Comfort Zone Challenges, or rather, that we never stop challenging our comfort zone. I hope that we never stop challenging each other. Because for the rest of my life, I want to face my fears and bridge the gap between the adversity of emotions and the ease of logic. I’m gonna go for it.