Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #112 A Strange Place to Find Comfort
About this episode

This episode of The Gathering Room suggests that you use your “discomfort zone” in a gentle but powerfully positive way. Curious? Come find out!


Martha Beck:

Today our topic is comfort. Isn’t it always? Don’t I wake up every day of my life, going “I just need a little comfort?” Actually, I don’t because I’ve been doing my anti-anxiety measures and they work. But we’ll talk about that many times. Speaking of which, I am writing this book about anxiety, and I’ve done all this research and I put it out in proposal and my publisher bought it and it made me super happy. But only now have they written the contract. So I kind of had January off. It was great. I was making podcasts in a course for later on in the year called The Art of Calm. You should come, it’s going to be great.

Anyway, my point is, I had a month of doing other work and now I need to start writing again. And in case you don’t believe this, if you don’t know this, if you haven’t written a book or you have written a book and it was easy for you, just know this. Writing a book is not easy for me. It’s hard. It’s really hard and it’s scary. You’re afraid of everything. I am afraid of everything. Afraid of getting things wrong, afraid of sounding like a fool, afraid of confusing my reader, afraid of not helping my reader, afraid of my editor saying “That’s not a word.” Which she likes to do occasionally and sometimes we don’t agree, but I always let her go with that. If you’re out there, we’ll go with your words.

Anyway, it’s a profoundly uncomfortable place. There’s always the blank page, and I have a lot of writer friends now, and we’re all terrified of the blank page. Liz Gilbert probably would say she’s not afraid of the blank page, but she still said writing her last novel, every day was a joy ride. And then she’d get up the next day to write and she’d think, “I don’t want to.”

There’s a part of us that it’s just like, writer’s block is a thing because you’re creating something that you’ve never done before. It’s the very first time, and that’s always unnerving. And so I was looking at Instagram today, and I saw this Instagram, actually Roe showed it to me, my social media window on the world. It’s the cutest little Instagram. And I said, “Could we put it on The Gathering Room?” And she’s like, “Not really.: So go on Instagram if you have it and look for a little girl helping her father go down a slippery slide. So it’s this little girl and she’s there, she’s maybe two, and she’s with her dad. And he’s at the edge of the slide and she gently pushes him down into the slide and he slides down and then she sits down and she puts her hands behind her own back and pushes herself into the slide and slides down with her hands firmly clasped to her back.

And I thought, that is exactly what we all have to do when we are facing something in our lives that is really frightening. Whether it’s something wonderful like getting a chance to write a book or whether it’s something really scary like facing loss or whatever. So as I know I’m about to do something profoundly uncomfortable, I get very excited because I know I’m about to get a lot more comfortable. What? Didn’t I just say this is an uncomfortable process? Yes, it is an uncomfortable process. But this is what I know, not only because I’ve lived it for a long, long time, but also because this kind of fit into the research for my topic of anxiety. It turns out that the only place we can go in this life to get more comfort really, really deeply more comfortable in the world, is discomfort. I call it your discomfort zone. Okay, we’ll talk about our comfort zones. Oh, that’s out of my comfort zone. There’s also a discomfort zone, and they’re gradations. There’re like spectra, not spectra, is that the plural of spectrum?

They’re spectrums, whatever spectri. In that your comfort zone, some things are squarely in the middle of your comfort zone, it’s super easy for you to do them. And then as you go outward, things are slightly less comfortable and then less comfortable. And then there’s this place where they’re not comfortable anymore, and that’s the edge of your discomfort zone. Now, if you go way into your discomfort zone, you’re going to get bad experiences like fear and loathing and the abyss. So you don’t want to do that so much. But here’s the weird thing about comfort zones. They’re always growing and changing, they’re getting bigger or they’re getting smaller. And what most of us think we need to do to stay comfortable is stay in our comfort zone, even stay away from the edge of the comfort zone. What happens then, not sometimes, but always, is that the comfort zone shrinks.

Anybody who’s suffered from agoraphobia could tell you this. It starts out with, it literally means a fear of the marketplace. It usually starts out with a panic attack in a public place. Then the person starts avoiding crowds. Then it becomes, there’s a panic attack that happens in a room with just a few people. So at the library for example, so they stop going to the library. Then it happens in the park, so they stop going to the park, finally they’re stuck in their building, then their house, their apartment, and finally the bedroom and it’s still getting less comfortable. They live in their bedrooms in fear.

If you’re one of those people, my heart so goes out to you because I tried to avoid discomfort by staying in my comfort zone for a very long time, and I got more and more and more anxious and uncomfortable. Then I tried doing the opposite. I’m just going to turn around and run squarely into whatever. I’m going to like, instead of going down a slippery slide with my own hands on my back, I’m just going to jump off a cliff because I don’t care what happens to me. That’s really where I had to get, I had to get to a part of myself that was willing to crash and burn. And guess what? It did. It crashed and burned significantly in several areas of my life, personal and professional. And I would not wish that on you. But here’s the deal. If you want to gain more comfort in the world, you go to that place between your comfort zone and your discomfort zone, and you just take a step into the discomfort zone. You can feel yourself “Whrrr.” And then you just stay right there.

You don’t force yourself to open up and push yourself to be more vulnerable, even if it feels horrible, be more. Go do things you don’t know how to do. Go above… Ski the black diamond runs before you can really ski. That’s just a way to get killed. So you don’t want to do that. But going to the edge of your discomfort zone and staying there does something pretty magical. It reconditions your amygdala, the most primitive fear center of the brain, the part that turns on the fight or flight mechanism. And if you’ve ever worked with training or taming a wild animal, you know how this works. So if you watch The Dog Whisperer, he uses this method. A lot of people who work with anxious, frightened animals. If an animal is aggressive, you can keep it from being aggressive and show it who’s boss and get it to obey.

But if it’s anxious and won’t come out from under the bed, it’s a much longer training process. And it consists of getting close enough to the animal to see that the animal is in the discomfort zone, but just barely. So one of my writer friends said today, she has been getting up at eight o’clock in the morning and going to this online writer’s group. Where all that happens is you go on Zoom and you agree, with your presence, you agreed to sit there and write your book for a full hour. And she said, “No problem. I’ve been writing for decades.” So she went and sat down for the first time. She hasn’t been writing for a while, and she said it was like having fire ants all over her for the entire hour.

This happened to me when I started to meditate. It can be really, really hard to just stay. She did it because she wasn’t deep into her discomfort zone. She was on Zoom with a bunch of people who were doing the same thing. Still, it was almost all she could do. And when you get to that point of discomfort that the ants start to crawl, you start to… I was trying to figure out, where is the moment? And it’s the moment you start to fidget. So everything’s fine, everything’s fine.

Say you’ve gone to Thanksgiving dinner with your whole family and the conversation is fine and everything’s good, and now somebody’s talking about something that makes you feel a little uncomfortable and then it gets a little more uncomfortable. And then they’re all agreeing on the thing that makes you uncomfortable, the political position or whatever. And then there comes the part where you just are like… You start moving, because the fight flight response is saying, get away or… Either jump on people or run away from them. You’ve got to move. So you’ve got all this adrenaline and it makes you fidgety. Even if you don’t actively fidget, you might start to jiggle your foot.

That’s the edge of your discomfort zone. And you can see that with an animal. It’s skin will shiver like a horse or whatever. And if you stop right at the place where the fidgeting happens and don’t go any closer, but you just stay, stay, stay. So the next day my friend gets up, she does another version. The fire ants aren’t quite as vigorous. They’re still there, I’m not going to tell you this is easy. The amygdala is very conditioned to this and it wants you running or fighting or fainting. And it’s kind of a wrestle to stay in the discomfort zone. Now, what do you do with the animal? You stay in that moment where it’s fidgeting until it gets tired and stops fidgeting. The moment the fidgeting goes down, what you do is walk away. You don’t give yourself a big treat, you don’t have a bubble bath, you don’t eat a bunch of chocolate or whatever it is you think of as a reward.

It might not hurt. But when you’re training an exotic animal like Shamu, the killer whale, you really can’t use those tricks. So what you do is you pull back. So the reward for the animal tolerating your presence is that it no longer has to do it. So that’s how you grow comfort in this entire big production we call life. You find a place where you would really like your life to be bigger, but you’re scared. And then you go to the edge of your discomfort zone, you go to… You want to get out more, but you’re afraid of people, just judging from my own experience, extrapolating from that. You go to a place where there are a few people and you sit with them like a coffee shop or a poetry reading group or a jam session at a jazz bar or wherever. And you go there and you sit there and if you fidget, you know this is perfect. This is perfect. Hold the course, stay put, stay put, stay put.

And then once you calm down, once nothing really happens, what you want is a massive anti-climax. You want nothing to happen. This is what I did with meditation for months and months and months. There were fire ants and then finally I was just like, “Ugh.” And I calmed down. Then you get up and walk away. So you edge in, you stay put, and once nothing happens, you get up and go. So I was thinking these thoughts and talking about them to Roe, and she sent me this meme from Susan David. I told you, Roe is my only window on the world. She’s allowed my comfort zone to be… Boils down to me sort of lying in bed going, “What’s happening?” And then she tells me about the world. But she sent me a meme by Susan David, which I love, and it would be a great motto to take away from this topic.

Susan David says, “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” I love that, because your life is not just going to give you your mission, your purpose, your full exploitation of your ability to do good and experience joy in the world. That does not fall on you. You have to actually go toward it. And I guarantee the really meaningful things, the really purposeful things are in your discomfort zone. And as you are further and further into the parts of the discomfort zone that lead to the things that actually interest you, like I’m not going to do skydiving because I have no interest in it. But writing I have a lot of interest in. So I’m going to go to my discomfort zone and I’m going to get used to that and I’m going to get more comfortable. I’m a lot more comfortable than I used to be writing books. And that’s not saying much, it’s saying something and I plan to get a lot more comfortable in the months ahead.

So whatever it is for you. Sit on the slide, put your hands behind your little back, push yourself down the slide and keep your hands there to pat yourself on the back because you can do this. You can not only achieve things you didn’t think you could achieve, but you can grow your comfort zone at the same time.

So now I shall do some questions. All right. So Rose says, “I’ve been doing this a lot recently and sometimes I feel very overwhelmed or even terror. Is that what happens when you’re pushing yourself too far or going in the wrong direction?” It’s not necessarily you’re going in the wrong direction, but you have gone too far. So you pull back, pull back, pull back. And what you want is just the fidgets. You don’t want paralyzing terror. But I did this for years too. I would go into something way, way too huge. I mean, I would sign up for advanced classes in things where I hadn’t had the basic classes. I signed up for third year Japanese at Harvard after I had been in Japan for two weeks. I did not do well. I tried though, I learned quite a bit, but I didn’t really learn as much as I would have if I’d just gone into a beginner’s class.

So yeah, I crashed and burned. And what that does is it increases discomfort. It makes you more fearful. It actually is a really, really bad idea. And this is what when people say they get triggered, it’s because they’ve been caught in or forced into a situation that was beyond their ability to regulate their emotions. And that’s that feeling of terror. And when you feel that, if you can find a way to unblend with it, sit in a room alone, say, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. Remember, you’re dealing with a scared wild animal, your amygdala. So you just stay in the room with what happened in your memory and say, “Look, nothing’s happening here.” Nothing’s happening. This is the key folks. You have to get nothing to happen.

It’s amazingly easy to get nothing to happen. We try so hard to get things to happen. It’s a real relief to turn to getting nothing to happen. And it turns out that’s really, really a good skill. So try that Rose, try get into a place that’s scary and a little bit fidgety, and then make nothing happen. Boom, you’ll be off to the races. Okay. Donna says, “After you walk away, how do you overcome the self talk that says, don’t do that again you coward?” I think I would have that part sit in a chair in front of me and say, “I get that you’re trying to protect me from something, but you’re not going to make the rules for me. So you can say mean things all you want. That is not my truth. And how can I help you?” Because this is about a part of you that’s split off and it’s trying to protect you against other people’s criticism or the scary experience or whatever by scaring you into submission.

And that’s its very best effort at keeping you safe. But it’s counterproductive. It makes you miserable, and it’s not the truth. You know you’re not a coward. And maybe you do want to do that again. So talk to it, write it a letter, let it write you a letter, and then analyze the letter to see if it’s actually making sense or if it’s not so sensible. Maybe it’s just a scared baby. Okay. Jen says, “How long does this take to work? My discomfort zone is wrapped around timing.” That’s a really interesting question because again, we’re dealing with a part of your brain that doesn’t really see long stretches of time, it’s very immediate. Animals don’t remember. They can associate, so if you show an animal a red balloon and then poke it with a needle, it will be afraid of red balloons later on. And so will you be, if somebody shows you a red balloon and pokes you with a needle in the doctor’s office, you will not like that. You will just become afraid of red balloons, right?

But with an animal, it’s not like it talks to itself about the red balloon. It’s just that when it sees a red balloon, it gets triggered. And when people say, by the way, “Oh, I got so triggered when you said I was…” Like when I was growing up, to compliment a girl they would say you were a fox. I don’t know if they say that anywhere but Utah. But that was what they said. So if I said, “You told me I was a fox and I took it as a compliment, but I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t like being compared to an animal. So I got really triggered by that.” That’s not triggered, that’s just getting upset. Triggered actually has a specific meaning in trauma psychology. And it is where some stimulus shows up that reminds you or is associated with the trauma, and then your amygdala fires, bang, and suddenly you’re in panic and you literally don’t know why.

Sometimes you do. Like I hate the sounds of fireworks because they’re like guns, and I’m a vet and I once went to this 4th of July celebration with a vet who could not enjoy it. But the triggers are really short and animal. So if you’re going to retrain the animal, you have a space of time to do it. And it’s usually pretty small. It’s like five, 10 minutes. And actually if it takes longer than that to calm down, then back away a little bit and get more into your comfort, or get a little bit further toward your comfort zone. So you should be able to calm down within five or 10 minutes, and then you go a little bit, then nothing happens so you walk away. The next day, the next time you do the thing, you stay a little bit longer, seven minutes, eight minutes, nine minutes, 10 minutes, 11 minutes. Keep it going up.

Stay in a place longer. And then when it gets boring to stay in that place, go deeper into the discomfort zone until it comes back to five to 10 minutes. Really interesting. And by the way, slow really is fast. If you use this method on your life, you actually will gain comfort amazingly quickly. You’ll be shocked at how fast you become more comfortable when you start slowing down and taking time in the discomfort zone. Okay, so Jessica says… Oh, wait, I missed one. Abby says, “So does this train the brain that it’s safe?” That’s exactly what it does. And it trains it at a very, very deep primordial level. So not only will you feel better, like I feel safer about writing. And that really was a primordial fear that I had. The first time I had to write something that was going to be entered in a poetry contest in my high school.

I think I told you this before. I went into a panic attack so extreme I didn’t sleep for five days, and they put me on Valium. And I finally was able to write a poem, drugged to the gills. And then it won a little prize, and it really helped, it built up my confidence. But it was a long time before I could write without really, really feeling panicky. So now my brain having gone through it again and again and again and again, I feel safe not only about writing, but it extrapolates to all other areas of my life. So I’m more comfortable just sitting around. I’m more comfortable traveling. I have something that I can refer to say, oh, I was in the discomfort zone, and comfort came from that. So I actually start to associate comfort with what used to make me uncomfortable.

Why am I doing The Gathering Room? I’m very comfortable public speaking now, which used to be my biggest phobia. Your weaknesses really become your strengths when you do this. It’s super, super rewarding. Okay, so Sophia says, “What about situations where you can’t pull back or turn off the overwhelm, such as with difficult bosses, family members, et cetera?” Well, I think if you’re in a situation with a boss or a family member where you are overwhelmingly uncomfortable, where you cannot find comfort just by quieting down and observing the situation, saying, okay, I’m going to just watch this as a compassionate witness. You need to rethink that relationship. You can’t be living in that kind of terror, and you shouldn’t be gracing someone with your presence who puts you into that level, like a traumatizing re-traumatizing level of terror.

So see what you can do about calming your breathing and not participating much in the conversation and watching the other person and see if you can get yourself to calm down, your heart rate to come down. You can start to breathe regularly. And you could say something like, “Well as long as I’m not in the conversation, I’m okay here.” And then you can move forward and start trying things that are a little less comfortable, a little less comfortable, until you can sit with someone. I mean, I often talk about this episode of Oprah before she was really famous where she was just in Chicago, I think at the time, but I’ve seen video of it. And she had an entire audience of the worst white supremacists you can imagine. And she was so calm, and I was terrified for her.

She was in a room full of horrible, violent, racists. And she was like, “Mm-hmm, tell me more.” Putting the microphone in their faces and going, “Well, I disagree.” She was so calm. I don’t know what it took. Maybe she was just born without that fear, but more likely she sat in room after room of people she was frightened of and held her calm and watched until nothing happened. And then all she could go all the way up to being in a room that would’ve triggered the crap out of anyone I can think of and not get triggered. So it’s really like this will build you into a new person. It really, really will.

Okay, so now Jessica says, “This is amazing. Can you give an example of how to create an anti-climax in a scenario where action is required? Like feeling social anxiety, but needing to go to the grocery store? Does the anti-climax happen in the parking lot once you arrived?” If you’re afraid of the parking lot, it can, and you can just sit there. I’m in the parking lot, okay, nothing bad is happening. What I would do is just walk toward the grocery store until you feel the fidgets coming on.

And maybe you get it right inside the door, maybe you get to the produce and then just if you start getting fidgety and like, “Ugh, there’s people around.” Just stay in the produce aisle, like examining carrots or whatever. So you can not meet people’s eyes until nothing happens. And then leave and order groceries from your house. I’m actually, not even joking, I once had a client do that and it worked. But she had to go over and over and over to the grocery store and then leave before she could actually go in and buy something. So she edged up on it, but it sure made her more confident in every area of her life. If you’re out there, I’m very proud of you.

All right, Burmie says, “How can you deal with stage fright? I sat down to play the piano in a recital and nothing happened as I froze.” Yeah, there are the moments when you’re supposed to do something and nothing happens. I used to have paralyzing stage fright about playing the piano when my dog came in. I taught myself to play the piano when I was like 28, and I did not do it well. I tend to start things without teachers, bad idea. I started with a Beethoven sonata that I really liked, bad idea. Took me two years to learn the first pages, first two pages. But my beagle loved it. And I got to the point where I could sort of plunk my way through little songs and stuff. But when I played that Beethoven Sonata, wherever he was in the house, Cookie the beagle would wake up and I’d hear his toenails, click, click, click, click, click, click, click. As he came to sit under the piano and listen to that sonata, he loved it.

Well as soon as I heard his toenails, I would mess up. “Argh! I have an audience.” So when I say that I have experienced anxiety and stage fright, that’s the level folks. That is the level. That was not even a smart dog. Anyway, my point is that you have to go into the performance zone and wait for nothing to happen there. Make mistakes and make nothing happen. What saved me from a lot of my stagefright stuff was doing karate. Because I have no confidence in being able to move my body and being coordinated. I’m a total klutz, can’t dance, any of that stuff. But once I started karate, I had to do the kata, the forms. I had to do these little choreographed things in front of judges. Who would tell me if I was messing up. And it was horrific. And I remember my Sensei telling me, your hardest belt to get is your yellow belt. Going through those first kata because you’re afraid of being judged and doing it wrong. And you will do it wrong, and we will judge you and nothing will happen, and you’ll do it again.

And we’ll just keep doing that until you get through it. And each and every time you don’t get through it, nothing bad will happen. We’re all going to love you. We’re all going to just keep on doing our drills and everything and it generalized to other things. So I was able to overcome a whole lot of discomfort in many, many fields when I finally had to move my body in front of judges. So if there’s a performance thing going, find a way to do it that’s low stress, low risk. Hire yourself a dance teacher and have them teach you the mambo or whatever it is. Have a small risk and then wait until nothing happens. Then bump it up a bit.

“Does this condition our bodies and minds to being able to accept the discomfort better?” It makes our bodies and mind love the activity. There’s this feeling of “I did it”. And you see that with the little girl, I bet that little girl who pushed herself down the slide was like, “I did it.” It’s wonderful to feel comfortable in a place you once felt uncomfortable. There’s such a feeling of mastery and self-efficacy. And they’ve shown that the opposite of depression is self-efficacy. Knowing that you can make something work for yourself, it is awesome. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Deedee says, “It feels to me like all of our nervous systems have been altered by the pandemic, much more anxious and reactive, how to handle this?” That’s why I’m writing this book, because anxiety went… It just skyrocketed all over the world during the pandemic. And the way you handle it is you sit with the way it is. Pandemic’s still going on, COVID is all over the place. Some people have died. Some people have had it and lived, all right, okay, nothing’s happening right now.

And you take the risks that you have to take. If you want to keep washing your hands all the time and wearing a mask, you go. If you feel like you don’t need that and you’re comfortable risking not wearing a mask, do it until nothing happens. Anyway I don’t want to run into… People have very strong feelings on this, so I don’t want to run afoul of any of those, but I’m just talking about your comfort level here. I’m not making judgments about what you should or shouldn’t do. Yes, we are all more anxious and more reactive since the pandemic. And yes, we can bring that down from the enormous heights it has reached, and as we do, we’re going to get so much more comfortable in the world.

Okay, last but not least, Jeanna Beth says, “I’m going to pretend I’m examining carrots when I’m in stressful situations with my boss now.” I would take a bag of carrots to the office and then literally study them while your boss is talking to you, until nothing happens. And then you know your boss is really willing to accept almost anything. And you’ll be less afraid. All right, so everybody, this sounds kind of simple and basic, but it is a game changer. So get up there on whatever slide you want and put your hands behind yourselves and push yourselves all the way down the slide, and then stand up on the other end going, “I can do it!” Because you can, you can do it. And thank you so much for joining me here on The Gathering Room.

Read more