I would like to talk about an important concept I use in dealing with anxiety. I call it the “circle of comfort,” but that’s just another way of saying the “comfort zone.” I visualize my comfort zone as a circle, and that helps others to clearly understand the concept. I would also like to use a recent experience I had as a metaphor for how my circle of comfort works. (This is a long entry, so please feel free to grab some snacks before you read along.)
Although there are no absolutes here – everything is a shade of gray – just consider the circle of comfort to be things with which you are comfortable: places you go, people you know, things you do, food you can eat, etc. I realize that some of these may be easier or more difficult than others, but for the sake of this example, please humor me – something is either inside or outside your circle of comfort.
The circle comfort is always changing. The good news is that it can get bigger: once you do something new over and over again until you become less anxious doing it, it enters the circle. But the bad news is that once you stop doing something for a while, it can slip outside the circle. It takes a lot of work. You have to keep doing what is inside the circle, and start doing what is outside and hope you can bring it in.
This is the essence of some fears and anxieties: they don’t go away completely and you have to work hard at keeping them at bay. Here is an example in visual form:
I used to dabble in the art of painting, but it has been years since I picked up a brush. Recently a little voice in my head said “Hey, you should start painting again.” I usually listen to voices in my head. Sometimes the results are good, other times bad – but they are never dull. It’s always an adventure of some kind. So, I decided to give painting another shot.
I was very smart in my approach, knowing that painting is one of those endeavors where your skills deteriorate without constant practice. (For our example, that would mean that painting used to be inside my circle of comfort, but it no longer is.) If I was going to be successful again, I would have to deal with all sorts of fears, emotions, and urges, all of which could sabotage my attempt. I started by preparing myself.
I grabbed a blank canvas and stared at it. The first thing I felt was intimidation. The horrible white rectangle was thumbing its nose at me, almost as if it was daring me to start because it knew I would fail. I had the urge to give up right then and there. I was in an alien world, scared to pick up a brush. I used self-talk to convince myself that I needed to continue.
I gathered my tools – my brushes and supplies. This was my support system. When you are facing your fears, you need to focus on your support system. Make a list. Say them out loud. Count them slowly – over and over again. Draw strength from knowing that something – or someone – is there to support you.
The next thing you do is to jump right in and tackle the job (the painting.) You apply paint to the canvas; but first you apply color as the background. This gives you a strong foundation upon which to build.
Then you add color – creativity, the touch of love. Your work grows in front of your eyes, and you will find that your energy level increases. This is the dangerous part of the experience, because you may find yourself out of control.Your excitement may cause you to make bad decisions about what to do next. And this indeed was what happened to me. Here is proof:
I had trouble calming down and I went too far. I started applying paint where it should not go and my colors began to get mixed together and muddy. I had reached the critical point of the experience. It was clear that I did not have a good painting developing, so I had to make a choice: continue or quit? And I also had to decide how to feel about the experience: should I feel bad because a beautiful painting was not the end product, or should I feel good knowing that I had once again attempted to paint?
I decided to put the painting away – perhaps for another day, perhaps not. It did not matter to me. My goal was to paint (to bring painting back into my circle of comfort) and to do that I had to continue. That is the key: PERSISTENCE! I grabbed another blank canvas. This time I thumbed MY nose at IT. I was not defeated.
I rolled up my sleeves and got to work – and that is how to approach anxiety. It’s not easy. It’s not pretty. It’s just plain old back-breaking work and it never stops. But the results are amazing. See…