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Friday 23 December 2011

Are You Unsafe or Just Uncomfortable?

A recent workshop by a fellow psychologist reminded me of a useful principle in working with the emotions.

Nothing to worry about.
As humans, we routinely feel the full range of emotions, some of them enjoyable and others less so. When we experience sadness, anxiety, fear, or general unease, the temptation is generally to withdraw.  Fear, for example, almost always shouts the same thing in our ear: get away, get away, get away.

So what should we do? To a great extent, the answer depends on the situation in which we find ourselves.

If we are actually in physical danger, then we should probably obey the temptation and retreat.  The apartment balcony really is shaking as though it is about to collapse, so perhaps we should step inside.

If we know from past experience or from the magnitude of the feeling that we are in some very real psychological danger, then we can sometimes do the same. For example, if I know that the situation is definitely beyond my coping ability, or will put me into a week of emotional recovery that I can’t afford, then I can ease away. If being at a drunken party will put your long-fought-for abstinence at risk, then leave.

But if, as is more often the case, I am simply uncomfortable, but not unsafe, then I need to think more carefully. The route to an expanded life is almost always in the direction of our fears. If I am uncomfortable but not really in any objective danger, then the choice to stay and sit out the discomfort will probably be a more productive one.

If, since being caught in crossfire during a robbery, I have been fearful of shopping malls, then I will almost certainly feel uncomfortable when I enter a mall. I need to examine my fear. Am I really in danger? Is there any reason to think that the mall will once again be robbed today? Will I really lose my mind if I become anxious in the mall? Or will I simply be uncomfortable and unhappy? If I will just be unhappy, then the best course of action is to go to the mall and to stay there for an extended time – long enough for the anxiety to fade.

If I dislike speaking in public, I might ask myself “Am I unsafe, or just uncomfortable?” If it is simply discomfort, then perhaps I can use this as my cue to move toward my fear, volunteering to give talks and pushing myself to ask questions in meetings or propose toasts at dinners.

It has become a part of the cultural vernacular of late for people to say things like “I don’t do that – not in my comfort zone.” But perhaps if something is not in our comfort zone it is where we need to go – or can benefit from going.

We also hear “I didn’t feel safe there” when what is really meant is “I didn’t feel comfortable there.” We have misconstrued comfort with safety. In fact, there are situations that are safe and comfortable, safe and uncomfortable, and unsafe and uncomfortable (as well as a few that feel comfortable but aren’t really safe).

If we confuse safety and comfort we will, almost inevitably, live smaller and more restricted lives.  We will use our discomfort as a cue to close yet another door to larger experience.

So: Am I unsafe, or just uncomfortable? The distinction is important. They point me in opposite directions.

Thank you to Steve S.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Steve
    I just wanted to thank you for your blog. I enjoy reading the posts and appreciate them.