Research is pretty clear in terms of the links between our willingness to feel discomfort and mental well-being. The less willing we are to experience sadness, the more likely we are to experience depression. The less willing we are to experience anxiety, the more likely we are to experience a clinically diagnosable anxiety disorder.
We don’t have to look much further than Olympic athletes, creatives and leaders across the fields of business, sports and the arts to see that those who are most willing to break out of their comfort zones often make the biggest impact.
Last October, together with my partner Trish Leonard, a fellow psychologist, I launched 5 Minute Breakouts, a global movement with the objective of helping people break out of their comfort zone for just five minutes each day.
It’s something anyone can do. Here are five areas to focus on if you’d like to try breaking out yourself in 2017.
1. What has staying in your comfort zone cost you?
For most of us, it’s far easier and more automatic to engage with questions and activities at a heady intellectual level than it is at a deeper, more connected level. With these questions, it’s a case of low investment, low return. If you engage at a head level, you’ll likely get a little benefit for a short period of time. Yet, if you engage at a deeper level where you’ll most likely need to acknowledge unwanted emotions and judgments head on, then you’ll likely get more benefit. High investment, high reward that lasts. So if you’re willing, the invitation is to reflect on the arguably simple question: what do you tend to avoid addressing in your personal life and in terms of contribution, be this in paid forms of employment or otherwise? As best you can, be as specific as possible. What specific tasks, items, people, relationships, conversations and emotions do you try your best to avoid? Honestly and gently reflecting what has this cost you? What have you lost? How have you inadvertently made matters worse for yourself through the very tempting and seductive pattern that is avoidance?
2. Compassion often takes the most courage
Looking at costs almost inevitably brings up a whole host of unwanted thoughts and emotions that we most likely would prefer not to acknowledge. It can be so tempting to start beating ourselves up about our internal reactions. We very easily get caught in a shame cycle where we notice we’ve been avoiding or procrastinating and then we feed ourselves the story that this is solid proof that we are fundamentally a terrible person, which then leads to more cycles of avoidance and procrastination. Not exactly a recipe for success, to say the least. The balm that can alleviate the chances of this cycle going on repeat like an annoying Spotify play list that just cycles over and over again is to have the courage to extend compassion toward ourselves. In my experience, it often involves more courage to treat ourselves kindly and to give ourselves a chance to pause to acknowledge common humanity than it does to push forward and keep moving.
3. Connecting with a big enough 'why' to justify feeling discomfort regularly
We need to find a persuasive enough argument to have the courage and conviction to feel the emotions that often feel unbearable to feel. It’s important that this intention isn’t just automatic and feels like it’s got about as much depth as a thin-crusted pizza. It’s easy to rattle off a number of intentions we think we should/must have in order to be a worthwhile human being. It’s harder to really dig deep and tune into the real impact that breaking out of our comfort zone would have on the most important people and relationships in our lives. What and who in your life is important enough that you’re willing to put yourself in the potential firing line where rejection and failure are very real possibilities on a daily basis?
4. Balance doing with being
We all need to recognise our limits. The key to long-term sustainable success and breaking outside of our comfort zone is to learn to identify when we need to move and when we need to stand still. This sounds fairly simple. Yet, it’s often difficult in practice. The more your mind and emotions tell you that you need to keep on moving and that you can’t possibly take a break, that’s generally a solid sign you need the very break your mind is telling you not to have. We could all benefit from making a list of the various activities that nurture and nourish us in the long-term. Many of us will start to crave sugary and stodgy foods and drinks when we are overstretched. Yet this is often our body’s way of telling us we need to nourish ourselves. This could be through taking a walk, watching a movie, stopping to taste our coffee. Yet what our body needs is something that will make us feel better in the long-term rather than a short-term gain, long-term pain scenario.
5. Break it down and hold yourself accountable
We’ve all had these exciting projects in mind. That thing that when we do it, we’ll feel worthy, complete and as though we’re fulfilling our potential, whatever that even means. Yet, most of us know what it feels like to fall off the wagon. If you’re serious about making any change in your life that’s going to involve you feeling discomfort more often, then research shows it’s essential that you break your overall goal down into manageable steps and that you have some form of accountability.
Accountability is essentially a complicated way of saying you need to say what you’ll do, when you’ll do it and what the consequence will be if you do or don’t follow through. It sounds simple, yet most of us struggle to maintain a level of accountability, particularly if we’re left to our own devices.
Aisling Curtin is a registered psychologist, co-director of ACT Now Purposeful Living and co-creator of 5 Minute Breakouts. She will host a public workshop entitled 5 Minute Breakouts for 2017 on Wednesday January 11th from 6.30pm to 8.30pm at the Psychological Society of Ireland Headquarters, Dublin 2. The workshop is on a "pay what you can" basis. See www.actnowpl.com or call 01-4433307.