You’re probably familiar with the maxim-turned-image-meme about Your Comfort Zone and Where the magic happens. It’s true that the biggest adventures and successes will generally only happen to you when you step out of your comfort zone, and immerse yourself in the boundary-pushing environment of the unknown and unfamiliar.
But that’s only half the story, focusing on the active role you play in it yourself. What about the forces attempting to pull you out of your comfort zone? What maxim do we have for that?
With the advent of democratized publishing platforms giving everyone a voice, activism became increasingly less dependent on existing mainstream publishers to get their messages out to people. Now, more than ever, activist voices are reaching us from everywhere, attempting to better us, and it often feels like being pulled out of your comfort zone.
That’s where, as individuals, we can sometimes be… resistant.
We’re resistant because being uncomfortable is unpleasant—it’s literally right there in the word itself—and so we naturally work to avoid it. But sometimes it is inevitable, especially with outside forces. For instance, when you get called out for a mistake you made.
When you say something offensive, like a racist joke or a remark that punches down instead of up, you may get called out for it and find yourself in an uncomfortable position.
This is the moment you have a choice. You’re outside of your comfort zone, and how you deal with that situation says everything about what kind of person you strive to be. (This is true regardless of how fair or aggressively the calling out was, which is a topic worth discussing all by itself.)
Our natural defensiveness to accusations or uncomfortable situations is understandable, but we often cling to it too strenuously. And I say the following to myself as strongly as I could address it to anyone else:
It’s okay to be uncomfortable for a while.
We often take things well beyond mere defensiveness, and spend much time and energy fighting aggressively to stay within our comfort zone, so as to not even acknowledge that small thing that would make us uncomfortable.
It took me a lot of years in life to respond better to this kind of experience, and even still I have areas in my life where I like it a bit too much in my comfort zone. But as I’ve unlearned this behavior when it comes to the more social justice-oriented criticisms, I know it can be unlearned for everything—and by everyone, for that matter.
An example of this: the other day I got called out for using ableist language. The calling out was done in a fairly kind tone, which helped my fragile male ego not to react too defensively to it, but more importantly I already understood these two important rules of thumb about it:
It’s not meant as a personal attack just to make me feel guilty; it’s a form of criticism meant to hold me to a higher standard, to help me be a better person than that; How I react to the experience of being called out is significantly more important than whatever offense it was I got called out for.
In the past, a younger me no doubt would’ve reacted with angry defensiveness to some of these experiences. Nowadays, I am armed with the above two rules, so I let myself be uncomfortable about my mistake. I then asked for an alternative that wasn’t ableist. I accepted it and thanked my critic for keeping me sharp.
I was uncomfortable about it for all of a few minutes.
Our feelings of discomfort in such scenarios is often only brief, found at its greatest intensity right after it happens. That moment is when our response to it will be most visceral, most defensive. And it is that moment wherein you have a choice to decide how to react.
I recommend taking a deep breath and thinking about the two rules above. Because even when the first one, for some unusual circumstance, doesn’t apply to the situation, the second one remains useful advice.
There is also a third one you can keep in mind, something which I’ve personally found to be true even in the cases where a confrontation with an uncomfortable truth about myself left me in a prolonged state of reassessing and re-evaluating a lot of things in my life:
Your being uncomfortable, however long it may last (and often it will only be very brief), is something you’ll get over.
You will get through it, and hopefully, you’ll learn from it. You will be fine.
It’s entirely okay to feel uncomfortable, even when you’re not the one taking the steps to put you there.
Your comfort zone is overrated.