I teach ‘being out of my comfort zone’, but do I really do it?

I’ve been talking a lot recently about practising what I teach in workshops. And last night I took it to a new level…

At the start of every Power of Uke workshop I ask who would like to come up and play a solo to the group. The room falls silent. Awkward giggles. Then — FEAR. She’s not serious. People look at each other — have I actually got to do this? Eventually someone can’t stand the silence any longer and gives it a go. Usually, it’s pretty good. Not a technical masterpiece, but embracing the fun.

Once people realise it’s going to be okay, the energy lifts and people gradually embrace the fear… At which point I tell them that in 3 hours time they’re all going to perform a self-penned piece on the ukulele in front of their colleagues.

When I create a space to do this activity I try and tap into the fear they may be feeling, to make sure I’m holding it safely. But the thing is, I don’t feel fear around playing music anymore — so am I able to truly empathise with what they’re going through?

For many people, playing music in public is one of the most deep-rooted fears they have. The fear of being seen, exposed: it’s like they’re walking naked. Most people I work with can describe in excruciating detail about that choir rehearsal at school where they were told to mouth the words because they couldn’t sing. It can be really painful to return to that, especially in a work context.

I asked myself recently, what would be the equivalent fear factor for me? What activity, if asked to stand up and do it in a workshop in front of 40 strangers, would I not do in a million years?

And I realised it was intimacy. Being seen to be romantically intimate in front of others.

That would be horrendous.

That would be so out of my comfort zone I would not even stay in the room.

But if I want people to step into a space of deep fear in my sessions, I HAVE to be prepared to go into MY fear places myself, right?

So last night, I finally plucked up the courage and went to an intimacy workshop run by Togetherness.

I couldn’t find the venue so arrived anxious and was thrown head first into the ice-breaker: walking around the room smiling at people.

Already this felt so difficult. How was I supposed to smile? If I made eye contact with someone would they think I liked them romantically? I wasn’t sure I was going to get through even the first 5 minutes.

Something as simple as walking around a room, suddenly became the most exposing thing I’ve ever done.

People find it weird when I tell them I find this hard. But you perform! But you run workshops! But you meet people all the time! Yes, in a context where me connecting in a certain way is expected. Not at a free-for-all without rules and conventions. I am sure I am drawn to facilitation partly because it allows me to connect with people safely.

But am I REALLY connecting as a facilitator? Or is it enabling connection between others, while I stay on the edges and manage the energy of the room. From years of being excluded socially as a teenager I know what it looks like to be on those edges: I got very good at knowing what a group needs. It sometimes feel safer not being part of it.

But this — being thrown into a group and being like anyone else — this takes me right back to those teenage discos…

A few activities in and I was starting to feel a bit better. And realising how amazing it was that so many people, who seemed like me, were taking time on a Wednesday evening to connect with each other.

We then had to find a partner, and took in turns to tell the other person how we would like them to touch our arms.

Oh god…

This seems strange but importantly there were clear boundaries: 3 minutes and we could only touch up to the shoulder. And we could say no at any point. And they could say no.

This was so liberating.

To be able to say no and it not be offensive. To not second guess whether someone was pretending it was okay, because they would tell us. In the simple act of touching someone’s arm for 3 minutes, I learned more about my attitude to boundaries than I have in a year of therapy.

We then had to have an honest chat with the partner about how it had been — another thing I’d usually find horrendous, but this time it was quite nice. To have had such intimate connection with a complete stranger and for it have felt safe without any expectation for any more to happen, was revolutionary.

After the break we sat in groups of 6 and shared ‘why we don’t ask for what we need’ and ‘what we do instead to get our needs met.’ When do we ever have these types of conversations with strangers in London?

One person shared that they’ve got so used to meeting their needs by themselves, they’ve stopped creating space for anyone else. Their need for intimacy has been ignored. I felt myself welling up in agreement. Others around the group nodded.

I had felt for so long that I was really alone in having shut off this part of my life. I throw myself into my projects, my creativity, my friendships. I feel so alive in so many parts of my life, but I have not given this part much attention.

In the same way that I have seen a group of auditors’ masks melt away by acknowledging that they feel fear at work, and the sadness that they have not played their guitar in 20 years; there was such power in this moment of being with a group of people like me, all saying ‘yes, I feel like that too, and it’s not too late.’

So I survived and actually enjoyed it! It’s a reminder that if we can move through our fears there is huge reward on the other side.

It’s also a reminder that you don’t have to go the whole hog to experience a transformative shift. In the same way that after playing one chord I had a participant say, ‘this is already the most positive musical experience of my life’, touching someone’s arms for 3 minutes has made me feel so much more confident embracing intimacy.

Thank you, Togetherness — this won’t be a one-off!