Getting Comfortable with Discomfort

“One can choose to go back towards safety or forward towards growth. Growth must be chosen again and again, fear must be overcome again and again.” So said Abraham Maslow, and he did know a thing or two about personal growth, self-actualisation and the hierarchy of human needs.

Every day we are faced with the choice of whether to take the safe and comfortable option, the familiar path, or whether to do something new and challenging even though it makes us uncomfortable.  If we take the safe option, we know we will feel ok but it’s unlikely we will learn anything new about ourselves or the world. If we take the riskier option, we could fail, but even if we do we will be learning something new and growing our capabilities. To grow to our full potential we need to be challenged and exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking.

A good reflective activity is to think about what we have done in the last few weeks that has stretched us.  I’ve often sat down with clients and helped them map out their comfort zones, stretch zones and panic zones as a diagram.

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The comfort zone is those tasks that are easy, unchallenging and possibly relaxing. My comfort zone is the routine of dealing with my usual work tasks, working with my regular team, relaxing over a TV series with my family, curling up with a good book, catching up with my close friends, my drive to work, my regular yoga class. I enjoy most of these activities but they don’t challenge me.

The stretch zone is the activities which make us a little anxious, because they are challenging or unfamiliar.  My stretch zone currently includes delivering webinars, training managers on new areas of work, going to a new yoga teacher and travelling on my own.  I recently did a zip wire activity high up (with harnesses) with my kids and took my 94 year old grandmother shopping with her new buggy; the activities were challenging in quite different ways. Work activities that I haven’t done for a while often sit here (configuring the annual appraisal process, for example) as do new tasks for which I already have the skills (planning an assessment centre). Receiving critical feedback or complaints is also a stretch; it’s never entirely comfortable.  These activities made me nervous, but in the end I was really glad I had done them, and I felt more confident in my abilities as a result.

My yoga teacher has recently introduced Hanumanasana (monkey pose or the splits) to our yoga class. It is definitely not in our comfort zone but there is something exciting about it and it does create a buzz in the class.

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Every time we do these stretch activities we grow a little. We learn more about ourselves by seeing what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes we find we are capable of more than we thought. When we succeed it is a real achievement. If we get comfortable with these activities through repetition, they become part of our comfort zone and the comfort zone grows bigger.

The panic zone is the activities which are too much of a stretch and we aren’t ready for them so there is high chance of failure.  In the panic zone we can’t think straight so we may not learn so much. My panic zone includes sorting out certain technical problems with the computer, climbing without harnesses (I am a bit scared of heights), karaoke (based on a traumatic experience of auditioning for the school choir 30 years ago – I didn’t say it was rational!), picking up big spiders and dropping back into a back bend in yoga ( even with the teacher holding me, I just can’t do it).  The panic zone is generally not such a useful place for growth, and may even be downright dangerous. However, sometimes it’s possible to build up to these activities in small steps, (holding gradually bigger and bigger spiders, for example) so that what was previously in the panic zone becomes part of the stretch zone.

In yoga there is a similar concept to the stretch zone, sometimes referred to as the edge. Stretching to your full extent is definitely uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. We are always looking for this point of challenge in yoga, and then using the breath to find steadiness and ease at the edge of our current ability.  We bring mindful awareness to all the physical sensations, recognising when to keep stretching and when to back off. We also notice thoughts and feelings that arise (“when can we stop?”, “I think I’m doing quite well”, “why am I so stiff?”, “I used to be able to this better”) and learn to let them go, bringing focus back to the breath and body. The impulse might be to come out of the pose but we learn not to mindlessly follow the impulse but to notice it and then decide what to do for the best.

This can be a great bit of yoga learning to take off the mat and into real life. In our working lives and in making career changes we often need to put ourselves in the uncomfortable stretch zone area to achieve our goals. A young person might need to pluck up courage to travel on their own to an open day. A career changer might need to approach a potential employer to find out about opportunities. A competitive job interview is rarely in the comfort zone.  A new manager will be in the stretch zone as they work out how to relate to colleagues in different way. A manager might need to have a difficult conversation with a team member or introduce changes to their area of work. Organisational change always brings a level of discomfort to everyone involved.  Uncomfortable situations provoke anxiety, and our anxiety can impact on those around us if we are not aware enough to manage it.

This is where mindful awareness of reactions to stretching activities can be so helpful. When asked to do a challenging activity, one impulse might be to make an excuse for why it can’t be done. However, by noticing that impulse as it arises, we can chose whether to respond in that way, or choose another response. In approaching a difficult conversation, mindful awareness of bodily reactions and facial expressions can serve as a reminder to ground ourselves first with some deep breaths and compassionate thoughts before tackling the conversation. We can spot a self-critical inner voice that only serves to make us feel anxious about a high stakes event, and choose whether to believe it or not.

By learning to pay attention to our reactions in uncomfortable situations we can learn to feel our way through them mindfully. We can learn the difference between uncomfortable stretch and the sort of pain or panic that means we should back off. We can learn to notice our thoughts and know that they are just temporary mental events rather than reality. By being more aware of impulses, we can take control of them rather than mindlessly responding to them. Self awareness helps us to find a level of comfort in discomfort.  It is ok to be uncomfortable!

 

 

 

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Self Compassion as a Career Management Skill

Self-compassion is a skill that is often lacking in the workplace. We often drive ourselves very hard to achieve or simply to keep up, even when it damages our health. We don’t always cut ourselves a lot of slack when we struggle to balance our work life and family life or cope with challenging problems. Many people are dogged by a self-critical voice that pipes up every time a mistake is made with variations on the theme of “you just aren’t good enough” or “you should be ashamed to have made that mistake”. When faced with a new challenge, the inner critic reminds us that we probably won’t succeed and may just end up making a fool of ourselves.  Moreover, we often believe that we are the only people who suffer in this way.

Self-compassion is our ability to be kind, forgiving and accepting of ourselves.  It is our ability to care for ourselves in the same way we would care for a child or dear friend: with tolerance, warmth and nurturing. We can  be self-compassionate whilst recognising that we make mistakes and have many imperfections and limitations.

In that sense, it is different to self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence, which all invoke more evaluation of how good or bad a person we are (often in relation to others) or how good or bad at doing something we will be. There is a judgement involved and the positive evaluation of ourselves is often dependent on us achieving certain things.

Self-compassion is a warmth towards our selves simply based on the fact that we are human. We don’t need to be good at anything or successful at anything to be self-compassionate; we care for ourselves just as we are. In this respect, it is rather like Carl Roger’s concept of unconditional positive regard except it is directed towards ourselves instead of others.

There are many meditation practices that help people to develop self-compassion. One example consists of visualising a wise being who sees our inner most thoughts and secret actions and offers us warmth and acceptance just as we are.  You could also try this guided Befriending Meditation by Danny Penman.

In yoga, we learn to cultivate steadiness and ease in our bodies rather than strain, and learn to accept our physical limitations with kindness. It is a good lesson that can be taken off the mat and into our lives.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapists help their clients to be more aware of how their inner critic may be sabotaging them and teach their client to replace this voice with a more positive and encouraging voice. The client can learn to recognise where their internal narrative is critical, unkind or even abusive, and learn to challenge it. So if the inner voice says, “you are going to mess up this presentation” they can become aware of this thought, and consîder what evidence there is that the thought is actually true. There may in fact be evidence, perhaps previous successful presentations, that can be use during to challenge the inner critic.

So, why is self-compassion an important career management skill?  Self compassion helps us to be more accepting of difficult emotions, including fear, shame and anxiety. Most career changes involve some level of fear and anxiety, as we may worry that we could be making the wrong decision, that we might not be up to the job, that we might not be able to make a living, or that we will find it hard to adjust to a new environment. Self-compassion helps us to accept these difficult emotions as a normal part of life, rather than something to be avoided or hidden. If we accept them we can explore what they feel like rather than try to repress them or mask them as something else (possibly resentment, apathy, irritation or stuckness).

Self-compassion can also help us to take responsibility for mistakes,  be willing to listen to feedback and be more accountable for our actions. Instead of beating ourselves up for getting something wrong, we accept that mistakes are part of being human and we learn from them rather than hide them. This willingness to learn and develop helps us to cultivate the growth mindset which has been shown to be an important element for success. Wouldn’t any employer want to employ or develop the person who asks for feedback, takes responsibility for the outcomes of their work, and owns up to their mistakes whilst trying to put them right?

Self-compassion is also closely linked to compassion for others. Warmth towards ourselves is likely to increase feelings of warmth for others too, as we realise we are all on the same journey, experiencing the same range of feelings. Being able to form warm relationships with others is an important skill for networking, management and customer relationships. Warm and genuine relationships can help to generate opportunities, as others are more likely to approach us if they feel there’s is a genuine connection.

Imagine approaching a job interview with a genuine sense of both self compassion and compassion for others. We would accept that we were nervous and understand that everyone else probably is too. Maybe we could even extend that sense of compassion so that instead of despearately hoping that we’ll get the job, we offer the wish to the interviewers that they have the wisdom to pick the  best candidate for their organisation, and we offer the wish to both ourselves and the other candidates that we can all give our best performances. Sounds hard to do but it would probably lower the stakes and reduce our sense of desperation. And even when we make mistakes and don’t achieve our potential, self compassion allows us to forgive ourselves, learn from our mistakes and wish the successful candidate well. With self compassion the experience is less bruising, so we will be less likely to give up.

Self compassion can help us to be more resilient, more able to bounce back from setbacks and more able to ride out difficult challenges.