Ah, the comfort zone. It is such a snuggly place to be.
Things that are in my comfort zone:
People I love
Places I know
Nice, familiar feelings, like Friday Happiness, and Cheese-on-Toast Rapture.
Things that are not in my comfort zone:
Sadly, the comfort zone is easily squished. Bad experiences and sad feelings over the years have caused my comfort zone to get smaller and smaller, as time went by.
I suspect that most people have this problem to some extent. These bad feelings are like gremlins. They sneak in, lurk around your brain for years, looking all casual, like they belong there. A fear of flying and a fear of public speaking have long been in my life. So has my penchant for incessant, speculative, expansive worrying. I’m an inclusive worrier. Nothing is too abstract or unlikely. If it can be worried about, then I will worry about it.
I don’t mean to sound self-pitying – I suspect that a fear of public speaking is shared by 98% of the population, and that other 2% are just awful people you would scramble over a barbed wire fence to avoid (like Tom Cruise in the film Magnolia, and Tom Cruise in real life, and anyone who calls themselves a Pick-up Artist).
A fear of flying, well, I maintain that this is rational. It’s normal to be scared when you’re trapped in an Easyjet tin-can-full-of-farts, 30,000 feet in the air. That’s normal, folks. It should scare you a little.
Unfortunately, though, a fear of flying has meant that my desire to go on holiday has dwindled somewhat. A fear of public speaking led me to sit in silence through university tutorials and, later, work meetings. I squash myself into an invisible-woman when a ‘volunteer’ is required to help a magician (weirdly, this has happened more than once in my life. Never has a magician noticed me in my invisibility cloak. Not so magic now, huh?) I’ve never given a presentation. I’ve avoided meeting clients in my job. My modus operandi has always been the written word: it’s safe, it’s silent, you can craft it in solitude – say exactly what you mean – and then ping it across via email, with nary a word spoken face-to-face.
I’ve never given a speech in front of a room of strangers. I would never even dream of doing that.
Until this week.
This all started when my manager asked me to apply to the Young Scot Programme, which would involve discussing politics and current affairs, with other delegates from charities, councils and businesses around Scotland. At the end, someone would be crowned ‘Thinker of the Year’, which is obviously much better than Miss World. I heard some words, like ‘hotel… free tiny hotel soaps… a week off work…’ While she may not have said all of these things, exactly, I was not hesitating. I’ve hardly ever stayed in a hotel, and therefore, completely and utterly love them. I get very excited about staying in a Travel Lodge. That’s how much I love hotels.
I said yes. I applied and, a few days later, an email came back to say I’d been given a place.
Then, I read the small print, and realised I had applied for a programme intended in part to develop confidence in communicating – specifically debating and public speaking. I was required to write an argument, present it, answer questions from a panel, and then get involved in a debate with my fellow delegates about what I’d just presented.
I stared at the programme and thought, fuuuuuuh. There’s no such thing as a free tiny hotel soap. I ought to have known that.
Then I felt a bit annoyed with myself. If I wasn’t scared of public speaking – I imagined it for a moment – then I would just feel happy about the free soaps, and excited about this programme. I would breeze through meetings. I would ALWAYS volunteer to be the magician’s glamorous assistant. I would probably be a member of the magic circle by now, to be honest.
I was so tired of being so afraid. So I’m going to describe how I set about conquering my fear of public speaking. I’m going to describe this despite a very deep-rooted, dour Scottish resistance to Talking About Issues and Revealing Embarrassing Things. I’m doing this because I hope that, if anyone reading this has any huge, monumental fears that seem colossal and overwhelming, you should know there is no shame in this. Every single person in the entire world has had the same feelings as you. You are not alone.
How to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
Some people are really good at this, and expand their comfort zone with each new milestone, so their comfort zone eventually covers Everything That Exists In the Whole World. These people are amazons. They are goddesses and warriors. My advice is just what worked for me. Find your path. Carve it out if you can’t find it anywhere.
I went for the following approach:
- Face the problem
- Ask for advice
- Do it
Step 1. Despite feeling that therapy was a ridiculous indulgence which I did not need, because only poor souls with really awful problems needed therapists, I overcame my initial rejection of it, because my fear was very real and very near. Drastic action was required.
I sought out a cognitive behavioural therapist and booked one session per week leading up to the start date of the programme. I would recommend this to anyone who has an enduring problem that they would like a practical solution for. My therapist was incredibly helpful and compassionate, and I think it is a terrible shame that there isn’t greater and easier access to this sort of help, because it makes life so much less overwhelming. A lot of problems can be solved; you don’t just have to live with them.
I now feel thoroughly bad for my previous, poor attitude towards therapy. It’s just help. There’s no harm in trying to find help.
Step 2. If you think you’ll never be the best-man or bridesmaid at enough weddings to consistently gain practice in public speaking, there are groups that meet all over the world, in formal and informal settings, with the sole purpose of practicing public speaking. I was lucky enough to have a friend willing to give up his free time to listen to my speech, over and over again, and film it, so I could see how I looked and sounded. This meant that I could see for the first time that I have a weird nervous tic of continuously glancing upwards (‘God? Can you help me?’) Practice works, and I present the following extended metaphor as evidence:
Imagine I was offered a free stay in a hotel (oh a hotel!) if I delivered a half-hour of champion level figure skating, to be judged by a panel of experts, and I agreed to this on the basis that I had bought some ice-skates and watched a video of skating on youtube. It would be a disaster. I mean, a hilarious disaster. I would definitely watch a video of that hot mess on youtube.
Anyway. How mad would it be, to fail completely at figure skating, and be surprised and saddened by this failure – having never actually practised skating?
Extended metaphor for the win.
Step 3. I asked a lot of people for advice. The best bits ranged from ‘be kind to yourself’, to ‘the universe is unimaginably enormous, and on that scale, your presentation is unspeakably insignificant’, to my favourite, ‘think of yourself as the conduit for information, not the centre of attention’. The most entertaining advice came from my pal who asked ponderously if I could get away with turning up drunk to do my speech. Sure, it worked for Oliver Reed and Hunter S Thompson. (But were they being their best selves? And, side-note, is it wrong that I only ever picture Oliver Reed as a young man wrestling naked by a fireside? Is it wrong that I picture this frequently?)
Step 4. You will go through these long minutes and be alive at the end of it. Get it over and done with. Do it. DO IT. Then it’s done.
So how did it go on the day?
Well, I had no plans to step outside my comfort zone. I was really comfortable in there.
But after my recent quest to see what was outside this so-called ‘comfort’… I went, and took part in the week’s activities – debates, group presentations, testimonials from some fascinating people – and was immersed in this buzzy, exhausted, happy, invigorated, intense week with a whole bunch of great people I’d never met before. When the time came, I stood up in front of 42 people and I gave a speech on the Human Rights Act. It was a good speech. I answered questions. I took part in the ensuing debate (although I was far too polite to publicly disagree with anyone in a brightly-lit conference room). It happened, and I did it. I did not run away. When I first walked up to the lecturn, my heart was beating faster than I thought possible. But then, as the minutes went by, I had the slightly surreal experience of behaving in a way I never had before. Standing in front of a crowd, I felt capable, unafraid, and eventually, calm. At the end of this long day, I went to my hotel room, and had a tiny coffee in a chic cup and saucer, because that’s what you do in hotels. But not before I’d done a really silly, joyous happy-dance of relief, shaking my tail-feather and even trying a little break-dancing (which turned into a roly-poly).
Honestly, it felt miraculous. It felt like I had tight-roped across the Grand Canyon, sky-dived from the edge of the atmosphere, befriended a beluga whale and built up enough of a rapport with my whale buddy that he eventually let me tickle his belly – and all in the same day. That’s how it feels when you step outside your comfort zone. It feels crazy-good.
So whenever you see a person standing up out there doing something that requires confidence – playing a gig, figure skating, giving a speech – and you think, I’ll never be able to do that, consider that it has probably taken them years to build up to it. Nobody pulls off any feat without putting in the practice, and probably really making an arse of themselves a couple of times in the process. Let yourself off the hook – you are perfectly capable. You could supremely own that figure skating routine. It just takes a bit of work, and a bit of thought, and a bit of time.
And imagine them in their room afterwards, trying to break-dance and then accidentally ending up doing a roly-poly. I’ll bet I’m not the only one who’s done it.
Edited to add: on the last day we had our awards dinner, and (although I feel that many of the delegates were far more worthy) I did in fact win Scotland Young Thinker of the Year 2014 (The Richard Wild award). So all that stress and practice paid off! And the roly-poly was justified.
*Jamie Dornan is outside my comfort zone because… I just don’t know what I would do with my hands if I met him. Excuse me while I shamelessly objectify a member of the opposite sex, against all my feminist principles. I know he is much more than just his looks. He is a rounded individual, with hopes and dreams and a right to be left in peace, untouched by my sweaty hands. But also, swoon. I even like him when he’s playing a serial killer in The Fall. I mean, sure, he’s a serial killer. But everybody’s got baggage. It wouldn’t put me off, is all I’m saying.