“Growth demands a temporary surrender of security. It may mean giving up familiar but limiting patterns, safe but unrewarding work, values no longer believed in, and relationships that have lost their meaning.” — John C. Maxwell
We all have one thing in common as humans, the fact that we are here on this earth breathing and none of us know the hell why. We live on an emotional spectrum that ranges from elation to agony. Some of us work our whole lives to understanding it all, trying to reside in one feeling more than another, always proving elusive. Depending on what we find, we either work hard to extend the life experience or work hard to end it. There are others of us that find that our realities and what we really desire never align. What we long for doesn’t appear to come our way no matter how hard we seem to work for it. We read about manifesting and begin to resent the word, writing it off as new age propaganda. We aren’t yet aware that we can never attain a state of being that we long for if we don’t really believe deep down that we are worthy of it or that it can exist for us.
Life can turn us into melancholic prisoners yearning for an understanding of the undeniable “truth” that everyone speaks of: That we are all worthy of love, respect and to be treated with dignity, that we deserve to be happy and successful. Sure, the concept makes sense, but we are living in the reality of our memories, everyday relationships, jobs, and what we interpret to be options. When we keep encountering similar experiences that feel familiar, it seems to speak the contrary to what is possible for us and what is articulated to us through books, guides, leaders, and dogmas meant to help us on this journey. We then start throwing around the slogan, “that’s life.”
We settle in. Into the reality of us, our habits, shortcomings, and idiosyncrasies. At the hint of the smallest connection be it physical, emotional, spiritual, we are excited to find these elusive truths, temporarily in another. We think maybe we have finally found what we have been searching for. It is hard not to feel grateful when someone appears with hints of the answers we seek. Only the hints are a mirage. They appear to be a vision of beautiful lakes and shady palms in our desert of desire for meaning and validation. We give the truth bearer our rations and justify trading one version of hunger for another. We get angry after time passes and we realize that we are still in a desert. But all too familiar with the feeling, we navigate the temperature highs and lows. The desert is our reality and we know how to survive there. We figure a few mirages here and there are enough for us and they will help us make it through the blood, sweat, and tears. There is a faint outline of a rugged mountain range off in the distance, but we doubt we could ever make it there, and even if we did, we have no idea what is on the other side. Maybe we are just seeing another mirage. So, we stay. We stay in our designated “comfort” zone.
The curse of comfort can display itself in many ways, it doesn’t always show up in mom jeans, dad bods, bodily disease, or pay ceilings. Sometimes it shows up in being highly successful and painfully lonely. Other times it rears its’ ugly head as abusive relationship dynamics, setting ourselves up for failure, or as constant discomfort reflected in our need to control everything around us. To remain comfortable, sometimes we even continue abandoning ourselves and our needs, because taking a stand would exponentially compound the loneliness inherent in selling ourselves on our present situation.
How do we give up something that our mind deems comfortable, but something else unidentifiable screams otherwise? Deep down, this “comfort” we feel is just acceptance of the monstrous discomfort that we have never been able to heal but just cover with one band-aid or another. The painful acknowledgment of not being heard, loved, accepted, valued, respected, honored, protected, wanted, or enough. Maybe our father never valued us, now our husband doesn’t value us. Our mother didn’t respect us, so now our wife emasculates us every chance she gets. We were never loved quite right so maybe we stack up possessions and accomplishments to prove others wrong, but we can’t even manage to prove our own mind a liar. When we face the known versus the unknown with only one chip to bet, it seems like an easy choice. But we lose every time when we don’t bet on ourselves.
When trying to understand harmful behaviors, Daeyeol Lee, Yale’s Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Neuroscience and professor of psychology and psychiatry states, “The brain may erroneously decide it does not need to learn more, and bad habits become entrenched. Understanding the nature of neural changes associated with learning might allow us to find remedies to such maladaptive behaviors.” One thing is for certain, getting to the root of what weeds have grown in the gardens or wastelands of our lives is our responsibility. If we truly desire to experience fulfillment on a deep level, because let’s be honest, no one knows how long we have or if we are coming back, we must start with an honest inventory and identification of our pain points and our story. In looking deeper, we can see how negative emotions may be the driving force behind some of our painful comforts:
Comfort in Blame: Blame and denial are close friends. Denial is a failure to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion or to admit it into consciousness, used as a defense mechanism. Blame is to assign fault or hold someone else responsible (many times for our emotions and situations), or self-blame which assigns too much responsibility to ourselves denying a situation or relationship that may be toxic. How to tell: Am I remaining in harmful patterns and justifying them with excuses (also fear)? Am I blaming myself for other’s bad behavior in order to be a prisoner to an unhappy situation? Am I blaming another individual for my lack of happiness or fulfillment? Do I lack the ability to recognize the level of availability in another, romanticizing reality (denial)? Am I rejecting my responsibility, judging others, and projecting my fears? Do I have a lack of empathy for myself and/or other’s experiences?
Comfort in Shame: Shame greatly contributes to the deterioration of self-esteem. When we feel flawed in our core we look to confirm this truth through thoughts and actions. Shame tells us what we are worthy of in this life and it disconnects us from connecting authentically with others through intimacy. It keeps us in harmful cycles that act as outlets for self-punishment. How to tell: Do I feel unlovable or that others will not accept me or where I have been? If so, do I stay in situations even if unhappy because I feel this person is the only one that will accept me? Do I invite others to reject, shame, or express anger toward me? Do I pull people toward me only to push them away (also fear)? Do I project feelings of inadequacy onto people around me? Do I shame others to get the desired result? Do I create situations or make bad decisions to reinforce feelings of shame? Do I attempt to feel superior to others so that I can avoid my own feelings of shame?
Comfort in Fear: There are certain universal truths around fear. There are also unique and individual ideas around fear customized to our personal experiences and behaviors. We can be afraid of failure, fear success, be afraid of relationships, or even fear germs. It is an emotion that motivates action or inaction in our lives. How to tell: Am I afraid to be alone? Am I attempting to conform, obey, and/or people please even if I don’t want to or agree? Am I attempting to govern, regulate, and control others? Am I attempting to suppress, withhold, or evade emotions or facts? Am I being overly critical of others that are attempting to do something I dream of doing? Am I avoiding feeling vulnerable with others? Am I perceiving many people to be threats?
Comfort in Guilt: Depending on how we were raised, we may feel guilty for not being able to be a good enough son or daughter, not being able to save our mother or father from disease, destruction, or death, or not fitting into societal norms that were unjustly assigned to us. We may now play this guilt out in many areas of our lives. How to tell: Am I acting or making choices from a place of low confidence, self-respect, or unhealthy self-esteem, not because I actually want to? Am I overlooking my needs for everyone else’s needs? Contrary to past evidence, do I believe that making changes or putting in more work will change an unhealthy and toxic relationship or situation? Do I find myself more concerned with other individuals, organizations, or group’s feelings, than my own? Am I unable to articulate my feelings or needs, and when I do, I feel bad or like apologizing? Am I overly responsible?
Now that we have identified some of the ways that we may be stuck, what are we going to do about it? In looking deeper within, we can begin to see how some of our core desires have shaped the behavior, identity, and actions that we have taken to build our lives around our unique versions of pain. In order to break free from this, we first must admit how uncomfortable we truly may be. We have to own that we cannot complain, nag, or punish a true feeling of comfort into existence. We also cannot blame others for withholding it or not giving it to us right. The most painful part is acknowledging that we may not even know what it is supposed to feel like because all we have ever known is discomfort. Only after experiencing awareness, are we able to then start working on healthy choices and behavior that may feel unfamiliar to us. If we are not self-starters, we can enlist the assistance of a confidential objective professional to help. We can then create a new framework for ourselves to follow after we have identified some of our true discomforts.
Even if we do not feel we have the understanding or courage to choose differently than we always have, we must summon the strength to try. We may slip up or take a step forward only to take two steps back, and that is ok. The process of venturing out of the desert of our past is a challenging journey, to say the least, but please find solace in the fact that our future self is standing on the mountain range enjoying the view, waiting to thank us.