When I was eight, I jolted awake one night with pain shooting through my legs. I rubbed the backs of my calves as cramps pulsed through my muscles. Were my legs about to fall off? Was I dying? It hurt so bad! “Mom!” I screamed. She rushed in and sat at the foot of my bed, listening as I described my pain in great and tearful detail. Then she got a heating pad and offered a simple explanation: growing pains.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about growing pains. Not the physical kind I felt as a kid. No, I’m talking about something deeper, subtler, and far more powerful: emotional growing pains.
As living beings, we’re hard-wired to avoid discomfort. Whether it’s due to neuroscience, primal survival instincts, or the “pleasure principle,” we go to great lengths to avoid even small, temporary amounts of physical or psychological pain. Change and uncertainty bring discomfort, so we instinctively avoid them. It’s safer and easier to follow the well-worn grooves of our existing patterns—even if the status quo isn’t bringing joy, fulfillment, or growth.
What if our desire to stay comfortable and “safe” is the most dangerous thing of all?
A friend showed me this image years ago, and I’ve kept it pinned up by my writing desk ever since:
Until recently, I didn’t pay much attention to that border around the comfort zone. I imagined we could all escape our comfort zones with a simple but confident leap outside the bubble, the same way we can fling open the front door and step outside. “Carpe Diem!” we’d shout as we soared into the magic beyond.
Unfortunately, there’s a very real border around our comfort zones. You can’t see it the same way you can see a chain link fence or brick wall, but you will feel it as soon as you try to cross it.
Here’s another look at that same picture, with an important addition:
The picture looks much less romantic that way, doesn’t it? Leaving your comfort zone means coming face to face with the internal barriers that kept you there. And just like an invisible electric fence that shocks you when you try to cross it, those barriers HURT.
Zap! Facing the Barriers Between “Comfort” and “Magic”
I recently published my first novel—something I’ve dreamed of doing ever since Mrs. Stanley taught me to read in kindergarten. A couple weeks before the launch, I felt a growing sense of discomfort and dread. One night, I jolted awake with pain burning in my chest. My lungs were tight, my heart was racing, and I could barely breathe. Was I having a stroke or heart attack? Was it Coronavirus? Was I dying? I called my friend Jeni and explained my symptoms. She led me through a breathing exercise and shared a simple diagnosis the same way my mom had all those years ago. This time, it wasn’t growing pains, but a mild panic attack.
I’d never suffered from anxiety or panic attacks before, and my first instinct was to back away. It must be a signal that something horrible was ahead! Failure, embarrassment, maybe even death. It wasn’t until later that I realized what was happening: I was hitting the boundaries of my comfort zone. Going for my long-buried dream forced me to confront all the reasons I’d never done it before. It caused such strong emotions that I could physically feel it, the same way I’d felt growing pains as a child.
Sharing my words and creation felt uncomfortable. Putting myself in the spotlight felt uncomfortable. Promoting my work and asking friends, family, and strangers to buy it felt uncomfortable. What if nobody liked my book? What if people laughed behind my back? What if they felt embarrassed for me, like when you see a new parent with an ugly baby and you smile and say ‘congratulations’ but inside you’re thinking “awww, what an unfortunate-looking child.”
The closer I looked at the fears spinning through my mind, the more I realized they were the same worries that kept me from doing A LOT of things in life. When you boil it down, there really aren’t that many fears. According to Gay Hendricks in his wonderful book The Big Leap, there are four “hidden barriers” that keep us from reaching what he calls our Zone of Genius:
4 Hidden Barriers:
- Feeling Fundamentally Flawed
- Disloyalty and Abandonment
- A Belief That More Success Brings a Bigger Burden
- The Fear of Outshining
Indeed, the worries spinning through my mind all connected back to those barriers. They were the same blocks I’d felt when I was writing (and, more often, avoiding writing)—as well as anytime I’d pushed myself to do something new and scary.
Using Discomfort as a Guidepost
It’s easy to identify the real-world barriers that stand in the way of our dreams: daily responsibilities, loved ones who need caring for, and lack of money, time, energy, or opportunity. The internal barriers are much harder to spot. Discomfort might help guide the way.
When we step out of our comfort zones and toward a change, we feel all kinds of yucky feelings. Worry, anxiety, pain, fear, uncertainty, doubt, anger…Who WOULDN’T want to avoid all that? It’s natural to want to numb the discomfort with media, another drink, a bowl of ice cream, Amazon shopping, extra long work hours, or whatever your favorite avoidance strategy might be.
What if we change our mindset to not only stop AVOIDING those pangs of discomfort, but to actually EMBRACE them? Instead of seeing warning signs, we can discover guideposts. Maybe discomfort is not our enemy, but our greatest ally. It’s telling us we’re headed in the right direction—that we’re growing and stretching ourselves in a place where we’ve previously held back.
Doing hard things is uncomfortable. Changing lifelong patterns and beliefs is uncomfortable. Facing our deepest thoughts, feelings, fears, and dreams is uncomfortable. Trusting ourselves to have them—and to risk acting on them and sharing them—is even MORE uncomfortable. But the things that make us most uncomfortable also represent our greatest opportunities to grow.
Streeeeeeetching Your Boundaries
The good news about that border around our comfort zones? It’s NOT a brick wall. Go ahead, poke it and see how it feels. Try a new thing, follow a whisper of curiosity, do something that’s “not like you.” The boundary will stretch, like Playdough. Feel the tension and tightening inside? GOOD. Lean into it, breathe through it, embrace it. Use the physical flutters and pangs as proof that you’re headed in the right direction.
Then, push a little harder. Try something you’ve always wanted to do, but talked yourself out of. The boundary will get stronger and more firm. It will start to zap you with uncomfortable realizations and escalating worries. Your natural instinct will be to back away, close your eyes, numb or avoid the discomfort. Instead, look a little closer. Put it under a magnifying glass. What exactly is that feeling? Is it connected to one of the four hidden barriers above? What if you ignored it and just kept going?
As I write this blog and get ready to hit “publish,” discomfort burns in my chest. I take a deep breath and remind myself what’s really going on: growing pains. I’m pushing the edges of my internal boundaries—stretching them, bending them, reshaping them. It’s painful, but it’s worth it. Because on the other side of our self-imposed inner barriers, the great wide open awaits. It’s a mysterious blend of freedom, faith, purpose, and deep connection. It flutters, flies, and fills in the cracks that appear when fear shivers and quakes.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was magic.