If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you might know that I wrote a non-fiction, general audience book that’s coming out later this year. I talked a little about how disconcerting it was to push myself outside of my academic writing comfort zone. Now that the book is well on its way to publication, talk of advertising, photo shoots, book launches, social media strategies, and media interviews is pushing me even further.
As I get ready to put my work out there in a different way, I’m having to confront my comfort zones. How are they working for me? What are they trying to protect me from? When should I stay in one, and when should I leave? Today I thought I’d write about a couple different ways of understanding our own comfort zones, how these play out in academia, and how to cope when we’re pushed (or shoved) out of the nest.
What’s a comfort zone?
Ideally, this is the zone where competencies match confidence. You’re doing something you’re good at, and you know it. It’s easy to get into the flow and it’s reasonably enjoyable. There’s a certain level of routine-ness (though not necessarily in a boring way) that supports the feeling of comfort. Some people would call this the “sweet spot.”
However, not all comfort zones are so pleasurable. I think we’ve all been in places in our lives that are less than ideal, yet they’re comfortable. From unhappy relationships to substance use/abuse to unfulfilling careers, everyone has, at one time, found themselves in a comfort zone/rut that’s no longer serving them. Unfortunately, the thought of leaving that rut provokes fear, anxiety, exhaustion, sadness, or grief. A whole cocktail of feelings that are hard to push past.
Of course, those scary feelings also pop up when we’re asked to reach beyond the sweet spot, extending ourselves (hello vulnerability!) beyond our current competencies or confidence levels.
The “comforts” of academia
The media often accuse academics of being insular, introspective, elitist, and limited in our abilities to communicate with a wider public. While I think these claims are overblown (serving an anti-intellectual and populist ideology), there’s some truth there. Many of us are much more relaxed sharing our work and ideas among other academics. Even though we face a kind of “public” audience every time we teach, we have a fair bit of power in the classroom that keeps us in the right zone. We feel good using the language we’ve been trained in, even if it’s not super-accessible to outsiders.
I put “comforts” in scare quotes above, however, because many, maybe most, academics are in situations that are either structurally precarious or actively damaging to their well-being (or both). Nonetheless, many folks remain tethered to the profession because it’s what we know. We’ve never been taught, or given permission, to look beyond academia for places to use our skills and to make meaningful contributions. The “sunk costs” of 10+ years of graduate school make us panic about the thought of “giving up” on academia. For many, it’s one of those not-so-comfortable comfort zones.
When the push comes…
It might be an exciting new opportunity or a voice inside you saying it’s time for a change. Whatever form it takes, the push that’s urging you out of a comfort zone is almost always going to bring anxiety. It’s important to remember that this response has a positive intention. Your body and mind are trying to keep you safe. Of course, what they think is safe is what’s familiar. Even if that familiar is actually stressful, harmful, or depressing. The anxiety is telling you, stay here in the comfort zone. Out there is the unknown. I can’t protect you there.
For some, this anxiety can’t be overcome with positive thinking or rational arguments. Anxiety disorders ramp up your body’s normal response into ranges outside your control. It might take professional help or medication to bring things into a manageable zone. That’s okay. For those whose anxiety doesn’t escalate quite that far, it might help to remember this: Feeling aren’t facts. Your anxiety isn’t telling you the truth about what’s out there. It’s only job is to keep you in the nest. It’s good at it. You can thank it for trying to keep you safe. And then you can keep moving.
Finding my new zone
I’m no different than most academics. I feel a lot more comfortable at a conference than doing a media interview. I feel good at the front of a classroom and shaky on the stage of a community centre. Therefore, I’m nervous about speaking to different audiences to promote my book. It’s scary to imagine the misogynist blowback I’ll most certainly get. I don’t yet know how I’ll handle a new set of pressures and the vulnerability that will come with exposure. Right now, I’m taking it one step at a time, trying not to let fear run the show even though it’s definitely sitting in the wings.
Some people take a flying leap out of their comfort zone. Others take baby steps. There’s no right or wrong way. And there’s no rush, no imperative to be brave at every moment. But whether you look for change or not, life comes at you fast, as the saying goes. No one gets to stay in the comfort zone forever.So, I’ll keep you posted on how I’m learning to deal with life outside the safe-ish academic bubble. In the meantime, think about the role your comfort zones are playing in your life right now, for better or worse. What baby steps might be available to you, right now?