“Ugh . . . I hate this, get me away!”
It makes complete sense that we are wired to get away from the experiences and things we dislike. This has likely kept our species thriving and prevented us from engaging in dangerous activities and protected us from high risk situations. But is it all good?
Behaviors that were once helpful and adaptive often continue, even when no longer necessary and create big problems, potentially even feeding and reinforcing anxiety, depression and anger. Avoiding unpleasant emotions and situations is so natural and automatic that we may not even consciously recognize we are doing it. The secret to quality of life is to become aware of these urges, block them when necessary, and then open up new possibilities and experiences.
Consider the 4-year-old who is overwhelmed by the energy and unpredictability at a preschool birthday party, and as a result avoids similar situations as she grows up. This reduces meltdowns in the short-term but decreases flexibility and exposure to novelty in the long-term. We often inadvertently trade off immediate short-term relief from distress for ongoing problems with coping! The paradox is that coping skills develop in the setting they are needed, not in the comfort zone.
It happens to all of us. Consider the following examples:
- Parents accommodate their kids so that kids (and parents) don’t experience distress.
- Teachers may lower expectations too much so that they and their students don’t feel frustrated.
- Therapists working with teens may recommend a wilderness program or hospitalization to reduce their own anxiety associated with the risk of treating high-risk teens in the community.
- We may personally opt-out of experiences to avoid the discomfort associated with something new, challenging, or potentially embarrassing.
Ignoring teen distress and throwing them into the deep end isn’t the answer either! We need to strike a balance. Struggle leads to growth and struggle is often uncomfortable.
It’s easy to get complacent. We fall into our routines, doing what we’ve always done, running on autopilot. The way to expand our comfort zone is to be aware of what we are doing, consider our intentions, goals, and values, and act in a way that moves us forward. This requires pushing against the edges of our comfort zones and encouraging the teens we parent, treat or teach to do the same. Lead by example – explain why we push when we do, explain how nothing grows in the comfort zone, and encourage the young people in our professional and personal lives to truly grow and thrive.
Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C