The phrase comfort zone means different things to different people, so yours may not be the same as mine, but when we each step out of ours, the result is generally the same. It’s called fear. And fear is scary. But some types of fear are imagined and over which we have some control.
Scary can mean being in no man’s land or living in limbo, both of which are the basis of fear, but these can be temporary. Once you leave your comfort zone behind, life eventually gets better because, believe it or not, fear can set you free and freedom can lead to a more successful and happier life.
Years ago I made a pact with myself to do something scary every week. My plan was to break the log jam of complacency in my life.
So while I took little steps at first, they were still scary. A typical response to fear is flight or fight. I chose fight because I had an objective. I wanted to slowly build up my courage muscles in order to change things in my life because I wasn’t happy.
The first week of my fight I drove to San Francisco for the first time by myself, and was so nervous that the back of my dress stuck to the plastic seat cover. The second and third times got easier, and with some new-found confidence, driving alone became no big deal. Not only did the size of my world grow, but opportunities opened up. Driving by myself enabled me to sign up to take the EST training in San Francisco, even though my husband strongly objected. This 1970s popular two weekend self-help course was designed to train people to take responsibility for their lives and stop blaming others. Although this type of self help was considered controversial by some, I credit the EST training for helping me take bigger steps outside my comfort zone. This once a week pact thing seemed to be working. At least I thought so.
But suddenly I was doing something really scary every day not just once a week!
This happened when my husband told me he loved someone else and wanted a divorce. His words definitely broke my complacency log jam. After twenty years of hitching my wagon to my husband’s star, our relationship was over. This time I didn’t intentionally step out of my comfort zone — I was shoved out and thrown into limbo where the world, as I knew it, changed quickly and dramatically. Fear occupied every part of my inner being because I didn’t know who I was anymore, nor did I know what the future would bring. Up to this point in my life I had been number two making number one look good. But now number one was leaving number two. Everything I had learned from the EST training was being tested.
Not knowing what’s on the other side is called FEAR
As my life changed, I remembered that I came from a lineage of strong survival genes. At the age of 14 my dad snuck onto a ship as a stowaway and sailed from Athens to New York City where he didn’t know anyone. How scared he must have been. All he had was a phone number written on a piece of paper that he tucked in his pocket. After changing his name from Pisperikos to Perkins (thank God), he learned English and after he found his bearings (and eventually my mother), he led a productive and meaningful life for many years. So Instead of falling off a cliff, I dangled a while in no man’s land until I could remember to take responsibility and break myself free.
And guess what happened next?
I thrived. Fear became a positive force in my life. I was scared stiff when I opened my first checking account and got a credit card in my name. I was petrified when I paid my own bills, and at the same time proud that a check never bounced. I was frightened when I negotiated my first car purchase and made a down payment with some money I’d saved. Fear gave me the confidence and assurances that it was possible to make it on my own. These newfound feelings turned my life around, especially for a person who thought her role in life was number two making number one look good.
I was now number one making number one look good.
Fear didn’t seem so scary anymore. Not only was that revelation powerful, but it was also the basis behind my making meaningful decisions! To provide temporary stability, I insisted on remaining in the house until we found a buyer. Not wanting to change my standard of living, I changed careers and found a better paying job, so I could eventually say I will never be financially dependent on a man ever again (and I never have). My new career lasted for twenty successful years until I had sufficient funds to retire and continue my financial independence. The comfort zones we live in are cocoons that protect us from the big bad wolf called FEAR. And yet fear can help us grow and become a stronger and happier self.
Another example of remaining in our comfort zones might mean never taking a solo vacation because you are afraid to fly alone, eat alone, or be alone. So ask yourself this question: “What’s the worst that can happen?” Usually nothing serious or nothing you can’t change.
I asked myself this question as I left my comfort zone at San Francisco Airport and flew alone to New Zealand. My itinerary was to bicycle around the South Island with four strangers, which seemed pretty adventurous at the time. This solo trip made such a positive impression on me that my work colleagues worried I might not come home. Traveling by myself gave me enormous confidence and satisfaction, but I also realized it would be more fun to meet someone with whom to share the joys of travel. That meant taking another brave step. I joined Match.com and on the Internet I met Bruce, the best traveling companion ever. Now with him as my husband, we have been to 75 countries since 2001. Sometimes I just have to pinch myself. No, I’m not dreaming.
“I am thankful for my struggle because I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength.” Alex Elle, inspirational author.
When fear comes and goes —
It’s astonishing what can happen.
Several years ago I took a four-day landscape photography workshop in Yosemite Valley. On day three the group was to meet in the motel parking lot at 6:00 a.m. for a thirty minute drive into the Valley to capture a sunrise in Cook’s Meadow, a scene that Ansel Adams made famous. After organizing all my clothes and gear the night before, I set the alarm and fell sleep.
Hours later while in a deep sleep, I heard someone bang on my door and ask if I was ready to leave for the Valley because it was 6:03 a.m. and everyone was ready and waiting in the van. I sat up in bed still half asleep and looked at the clock. Yikes!! I’d overslept. Why didn’t my alarm go off? There was no way I could make it and there was no way they would wait. The man said the group would meet me back at the motel later in the afternoon. I was stunned, but mostly devastated because that morning’s shoot was the pinnacle of the weekend, and because I screwed up, I wouldn’t be there. I walked around my room trying to figure out my alternatives. Yes, I could go back to sleep and call it a lost cause, but that wouldn’t work for me. My adrenalin surged. My head cleared. I had a plan.
I would hitchhike to Yosemite Valley!
I threw on some clothes, grabbed my gear and ran to the parking lot hoping to hear something or see someone. There had to be people wanting to get to the Valley early, I thought, but there was silence. I walked out to the road, ready to stick out my thumb when I heard an engine start. When I began to yell, the brake lights went on, and as he stuck his head out the window, the driver saw me.
My anxiety level was so high I never questioned whether I should be getting in a car with a stranger. “Can I hitch a ride into the Valley?” I asked the man. Yes, he was going there, but neither of us knew how to find Cook’s Meadow. After mentally beating myself up during the 30 minute ride, I recognized our group’s black Suburban van parked in a lot near Sentinel Bridge. “There it is,” I called out. “That’s the meadow. I think I see my friends with their tripods. You can pull over here and let me out.”
The driver handed me my tripod and leaned over to give me a hug.
When he saw my tears, he said, “Hey, you’re gonna be fine. Have a wonderful time!”
I waved to him as I ran towards my group, extending the legs of my tripod at the same time, something that had been extremely challenging even when I was standing still. My newfound friends looked surprised to see me, but they continued taking pictures since the early morning light was rapidly changing. I attached my camera to my tripod and tried taking pictures too, but my emotions were so highly charged that it was difficult to hold back the tears and focus. Here’s a photo I took in Cook’s Meadow. It’s not one to brag about, but I’m sharing it to demonstrate my determination.
When the folks in the workshop learned of my resolve to join them, they gave me high fives. A few said they wouldn’t have considered hitchhiking because they weren’t that brave. They’d be too scared. One person said she would have gone back to sleep, but that would never have worked for me. I’d learned too much since the days of living in a cocoon called my comfort zone where I hitched my wagon to someone else’s star. The fear of missing out and being judged by my new photography friends became the powerful force behind my willingness to hitch a ride with a stranger, and have an experience in a heavenly place called Yosemite Valley!
Despite my fear, anxiety and humiliation that day, I persevered, and now, three years later, I call myself a photographer.