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What to do when your comfort zone feels like a prison

Here’s a puzzle for you: what should you do if your comfort zone feels like a prison?

I used to feel this way a lot. My job was comfortable, but I hated it. My hobbies were comfortable, but they bored me. Living in Boston was familiar, but I hated the ceaseless bustle of the city.

I felt like I was perpetually chafing against the edges of my life, haunted by the idea that surely there must be more out there than this.

Maybe you’ve had this problem, too.

Maybe your life is familiar and comfortable… but maybe comfortable is also kind of awful. Maybe you’ve secretly dreamed of running a way to a cabin in the woods and hiding there forever (or at least until things seem less-awful).

Or maybe it’s just me.

But here’s the interesting thing — in the past year almost none of my circumstances have changed. I still have the same job. I still live in the same apartment in the same city.

Nothing has changed materially, and yet today I can say that for the most part I like my job and the city doesn’t really bother me — on good days I sometimes even like living here.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what made this shift possible. And the short answer is always that I did. I changed my relationship to myself, and in doing so I changed my relationship to my job, my life, and my city.

Sometimes it works this way — sometimes uncomfortable circumstances in our life are signposts guiding us to turn inward, to look toward some way in which we are unknowingly creating our own suffering.

And sometimes it’s the opposite — sometimes situations are toxic and we need to get out of them. Sometimes the discomfort is there to help us see that it really is time to move on from a situation in which we have been comfortable for too long.

The more I experience, the more certain I become that truth is always a paradox: do what is easiest, except for when the hardest thing is the right thing for you. Stay put unless it really is time to go. Leave, unless it is time to stay.

Unfortunately, this kind of truth is generally unhelpful — which is why learning to navigate the path to your happiness is ultimately about improving your ability to tell the difference between the loud voice of your fear and the quietest whisper of your heart.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things that have helped to guide me along the way.

The first thing is this: are you moving toward joy or away from discomfort?

I used to believe that moving away from discomfort was the same thing as moving toward joy — that if I reduced my discomfort, I would inevitably experience more joy.

In practice, this never worked out for me. My attempts to make my life more comfortable left me feeling imprisoned rather than free — and today, I no longer believe that this idea to be true.

Because the truth is that we manufacture a lot of our own discomfort.

We tell ourselves scary stories that turn benign situations into nightmares. We create rules about the kind of perfect person we are supposed to be that leave us feeling inadequate and crushingly alone. We are terrified of being vulnerable but angry that our lives are so lacking in meaningful human connection.

The problem is that it’s impossible to move away from the discomfort you create for yourself. If we want these things to change, we have to be the thing that changes.

Otherwise, we inevitably bring our story with us.

I hated my job, but if I’d moved on to a new job, I would have hated that too because the problem wasn’t with my job — it was with my story about what it meant to be a “good employee”.

My job was actually irrelevant — a distraction that I used to avoid facing what was really going on.

Which, again, isn’t to say that you should never move away from discomfort — because sometimes I really believe that you should. But be honest with yourself: are actively moving toward joy or are you just trying to dodge discomfort?

If you’re just trying to dodge discomfort, get really curious about that. What’s the source of your discomfort? Is it really your circumstances (and it might be!), or is it you or how you show up in those circumstances that is causing discomfort?

Because if the problem is really with you (your story, your habits, your mindset), you’re never going to fix it by changing your situation. You’re going to have to face inward and decide to change yourself.

And the second thing is this: what do you need to be okay?

Because sometimes the problem is outside of us, but a lot of the time we’re at least playing a partial role.

Sometimes your boss really is terrible or the situation really is unworkable. But it’s worth asking yourself the question: what do I need to be okay in this situation?

And maybe the answer will just be “LEAVE”, but maybe it won’t be. Maybe some voice inside will whisper that you could learn to set better boundaries, or improve at not taking on another person’s criticism as your own truth.

(Because it’s not the criticism that hurts, so much as the moment just after when we buy into what was said…)

It’s worth asking the question because it is in the asking and the listening that we reclaim our power.

It is in the asking and the listening that we reclaim our right to choose: to choose how we respond, how we show up, how we interact with others, and what we will do moving forward.

Because here’s something I deeply believe to be true: when we trust ourselves to take care of ourselves, even disasters can be handled.

When I trust myself to check-in with myself, to ask myself what I need to be okay, to listen and provide for myself my moments of need — when I trust myself to really do this, I find that it becomes increasingly hard to imagine situations in which I could not find a way to still be okay. There is tremendous freedom in that.

I believe that the definition of empowerment is trusting you to take care of you, over and over and over again.

And when I am able to live like this, suddenly getting out of my comfort zone doesn’t seem quite so scary anymore.

Much love,
Jessica

You’re going to need a really strong foundation

Here’s the thing that no one tells you: if you have a big, crazy dream you want to make come true you’re going to need to focus on your fundamentals. Getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising in a way that feels good in your body — these things aren’t just glamorous distractions; they’re the nitty, gritty details that make success possible.

This is a lesson that has been really hard for me to learn.

In part, this is because our hardest lessons are always more about unlearning than they are about learning.

The places where I struggle the most are the places where what I need to do to move forward runs counter to that which worked for me at some point in the past.

My habit of sacrificing the needs of my body in order to achieve my goals has worked incredibly well for me in the past. After all, I powered my way through a B.S. and an M.S. from MIT under the steam of 100,000 unmet needs.

I denied my body the sleep that it craved, week after week and year after year — all in the name of getting my work done so that I could be a “success”.

I denied my body the healthy movement that it craved, because the honest truth was that I was too exhausted. 

And so on. And so forth.

This approach worked okay for me for a few years. After all, I was young — I had resources to burn.

But eventually my resources ran out and I fell apart.

By the time I graduated from MIT I was utterly exhausted, suffering from chronic back pain, on my way to developing multiple food sensitivities, and so profoundly anxious from five years of constant, severe academic stress that I was pretty much living my whole life trapped between fight-or-flight (see this comic by the delightful Gemma Correll).

A post shared by Gemma Correll (@gemmacorrell) on

If you think that all sounds a bit overly dramatic, I promise you it’s not. All of those things really happened to me. But my point isn’t to solicit your pity or to trash MIT — after all, I was complicit in all my choices.

I was the one who chose to take five classes most semesters when three or four would do and I’m the one who chose to graduate with two majors and a minor when just one degree would have been plenty.

The culture at MIT also played its role — the institute has a culture of one-upmanship that I feel encourages students to stretch themselves beyond their capacity. But ultimately, I’m the one who chose to participate in that culture — and if you’d tried to talk me out of taking on so much, I don’t believe I would have listened.

I am as much to blame for my suffering as anyone and I’m not particularly interested in trying to point the finger of blame at MIT.

What I’m trying to say is this: I no longer believe it’s possible for anyone to live this way and that we only ever wind up hurting ourselves when we try.

If you refuse to care for yourself, eventually your body will give out on you — probably with terribly inconvenient timing.

If you refuse to acknowledge your needs, eventually you will be humbled.

Because at the bottom of it we are all human. We all have bodies and our bodies have needs that we are required to meet if we want to continue to function.

If you want to be strong enough to do something incredible, you need to start with the things that are most fundamental: as much sleep as your body desires, good food that nourishes you, a movement practice that feels good in your body without being overly stressful, and if you struggle with anxiety, chronic pain, or other health issues you might need a regular meditation practice or other mind-body practice to help you bring mind and body back into balance.

And, the more precarious your health is the more important it is that you know the core building blocks that make up your foundation.

These days my health has improved significantly, but it’s sometimes still annoyingly precarious. A bad cold or two is still enough to bowl me over and the road back to well-being can be long and fraught with setbacks and frustration.

But the thing that saves me is that these days I know my fundamentals.

When I’m not feeling well I know what I need to focus on. Sleep. Rest. Yoga. Meditation. Eating good food. Joy.

I’ve been through this cycle enough times now to know that if I focus my attention here — on listening to my body and paying attention to my fundamentals — eventually the tide will begin to turn. Slowly energy will find its way back in as exhaustion and pain recede and I will begin to feel better.

I know that in time, everything else will follow.

My energy for writing will return. My desire to do more than crash on the couch after work each evening will return. Soon, I’ll tidy my bedroom after weeks of neglect.

But for now I’m clear on what I really need and I’ve learned the hard way that everything else (chores, my job, my dreams) has to be optional.

Sleep. Rest. Yoga. Meditation. Food that nourishes and doesn’t make me sick. Joy.

Cut my life back to just what is essential, and these are the things that I need more than anything else.

If you want to do hard things or make your big, scary dreams come true you have to start here. You have to find your foundation and stick to it like glue.

None of which is to say that this will be easy — your foundation is unique to you and no one can give you the recipe. It’s something you have to figure out for yourself through months or even years of trial and error (and even then you’ll need to stay flexible, because what was working will stop working and you may be asked to start over).

But having a good foundation isn’t optional.

You’re always going to need to have your foundation in place to support and sustain you through the days, months, and years to come — so when in doubt: start here. Because caring for yourself is always the kindest thing you could do.

Much love,
Jessica

Bringing your body back into balance

Here are two things I know to be true.

First, things have been unusually hard for those of us here in the US since the inauguration of the Trump presidency. It seems like every time I look at the news there’s some fresh heartbreak splashed across the front page.

Second, the body’s natural response to fear is ultimately counterproductive in situations like this.

The highest priority of body and brain are to protect you from danger and remove you from stressful situations.

Unfortunately, there is no way to remove yourself from the situation of the Trump presidency.

For better or worse, we’re stuck with him for the time being. Which means that the brain, left to its own devices, will try and remove you from the situation not by changing your circumstances, but by removing your experience of those circumstances through numbing and apathy.

The problem with this approach is that there is no way to selectively numb the body or the emotions. They only way to stop ourselves from feeling the bad things is to stop ourselves from feeling everything. And if this happens to us, we begin to lose touch with our joys alongside our sorrows, and our lives become leached of their vibrancy and vitality.

My point is not that you shouldn’t be afraid — I personally think you should be at least a little bit afraid. Your fear is there to help you pay attention. Your nervous system has correctly identified a possible threat to your well-being.

The problem is that the Trump presidency isn’t an immediate and present danger you can physically fight or flee from. And when the body’s fear response is triggered in an ongoing way and the danger can’t be fought or fled, it has only two last-ditch responses: freeze or shut down altogether.

As we move forward we need to pay attention to our fear — but we also need to recognize that if our nervous systems remain highly activated in response to an ongoing situation, we’re going to end up feeling emotionally wrecked, physically ill, and possibly even traumatized.

Because when the body is locked in fight, flight, or freeze in response to fear it turns off a lot of key functions. When our fear-response is a short-lived response, a natural reaction to a passing danger this works beautifully. But in the presence of an ongoing threat, the system starts to break down.

The good news is that if we are conscious of what is happening in our brains and in our bodies we can take proactive action to protect ourselves from stress and to create a more productive response to fear.

We can begin to do this by noticing that the threat isn’t immediate and allowing ourselves to return to the safety of the present moment. Yes, the Trump presidency is awful and many heartbreaking things will probably come to pass in the next four years. And yet, for most of us, we are as safe today as we were six months ago. The worst has not yet come to pass.

So for now we can take refuge in the recognition of this fact. We come back to our body, to our breath, in this moment in which we are still safe.

This isn’t about hiding from what’s happening and it’s not about burying our heads in the sand. It’s about returning our bodies to balance so that we can be strong enough to continue to fight.

When we return to safety in the present moment, it allows the nervous system to relax. The fight or flight response eases, the body returns to a healthy equilibrium, and we become more resilient and able to take constructive action in the future.

My preferred technique for bringing equilibrium back to the body is meditation, which is one of the most powerful tools I’ve found for reconnecting with my body and engaging with the present moment.

But here’s the thing most people don’t tell you about meditation: it’s really freaking hard! It’s sort like the black-belt of mindfulness practices — highly-effective, but not necessarily for beginners. It took me years of off-and-on practice to really see a benefit from it.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, but sometimes it means it’s best to try a different approach. If you’ve tried meditation before and feel like you “can’t meditate” or you’ve benefited from meditation before but now find yourself struggling, here are a few simple things to try.

  • Focus on your heartbeat. I do this lying in bed at night sometimes when I’m having trouble sleeping. Just lie down flat on your back somewhere comfortable and put your hands over your heart and feel it’s steady thump-thump-thumping. I’m convinced there’s something primally comforting about the rhythm of a heartbeat left over from our time spent in the womb.
  • Try a guided body scan. This is a mindfulness exercise that is similar to meditation but gives the mind a task to latch onto — bringing the attention to the physical sensations in the body. You can find a ton of these on the internet, so feel free to google for one you like. If you’re new to the practice I recommend starting with a ~10-minute recording such as this one, which is technically intended to help you sleep but could be used any time.
  • Express yourself creatively. If you have a lot of stress and emotions flying about doing something creative can be really helpful. I’m a writer, so I turn to my journal for this, but you might try painting, coloring, dancing, singing — whatever you love to do, really.
  • Practice yoga. I really like yoga because it is fundamentally an embodied practice that unites body and breath. It can be particularly helpful in situations where you might be feeling too unsettled to relax easily into meditation. Yoga encourages the body to relax into movement and into the rhythm of the breath. If you’re looking for resources, Yoga With Adriene is my favorite way to practice these days.

As we slowly and persistently practice bringing our attention back into the physical sensations in the body and to an awareness of the present moment, we accomplish two important things. We learn to find a visceral experience of safety in the body in any moment which allows the activated nervous system to relax, and we increase our tolerance for experiencing uncomfortable sensations.

We begin to teach ourselves that fear or sadness or pain are just sensations we experience in our physical bodies in response to stimulus. A lot of the struggle we experience around these emotions is our own resistance to feeling what we’re feeling.

When my chronic pain flares, I make it worse by believing that pain is something “bad” and that I shouldn’t be feeling it. The truth is that pain is just a sensation — a hot, stabbing, fire in my nerves.

When I drop my story about it and just feel the sensation in the present moment, I learn something that is obvious, but easy to overlook: I’m always able to handle my pain; I’m always already doing it. In each moment, I’m already feeling the full intensity of the sensation and I’m still breathing — I’m still fundamentally okay.

When I remember this, I find the pain eases — the sensation might remain but my resistance to feeling it diminishes and the pain becomes easier to bear.

This is what I mean by returning to a felt-sense of safety in the present moment: I might be scared or hurting, but if I sit down with myself in the moment, I realize that I can feel these things and still be okay. In fact, I’m always already doing it.

I believe that being able to return to this felt-sense of safety, to being grounded in our bodies, and aware of the present moment is the foundation from which all courage is born.

When we learn to see that we are always already handling our difficulties in the present moment, it becomes easier to see how safe we really are, to see that “bad” things can happen, that we can be hurting, and still be fundamentally okay.

It is this belief in our own safety, even in difficult situations, that makes it possible to act in ways that require our courage — because courage always requires taking the risk that things will end badly.

The coming years are going to ask each of us to be as brave as we have ever been.

The courage that we will need starts here: it starts with paying attention to our fear, returning to our safety in the present moment, and helping ourselves feel safe from the inside out, so that we can show up in the world with all the courage as we can possibly muster.

Much love,
Jessica

You don’t have to be fierce to be strong

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage and strength the past few weeks. Like many of you, I’ve felt called to step outside of my comfort zone in new ways — in forms ranging from contacting my congressional representatives to beginning work on a new ebook.

I used to have a really narrow definition of courage and strength: a definition in which both of those things revolved around fierceness and speaking up and striving.

But this isn’t the kind of courage and strength I’ve felt called to lately — instead, I’ve looking toward a quieter, gentler kind of strength.

A strength that endures instead of burning out in a fiery blast of fierceness.

This kind of strength seems different to me — it is equal parts fierceness and kindness, strong but also gentle.

This kind of strength checks in to notice how I am doing.

When I am tired, this strength listens and rests. It doesn’t push me beyond my own limits, it doesn’t tell me that I have to finish, that the work isn’t done, or that I have to keep going.

This strength puts me to bed when I am tired and feeds me when I am hungry and it asks me to take a break and move my body when I am stiff and aching from too many hours at the computer.

This strength wakes me up in the mornings and chooses to take time for my meditation because it knows that I am stronger when I dedicate some time to calming myself, to noticing my thoughts and feelings, to offering myself my own attention and dusting out the cobwebs so that the light can shine through.

This strength knows what I myself have long struggled with: that a life is more than just the sum-total of words written or Senators called. That a life is ultimately a taking-care, an act of devotion to the needs and desires of a single human body bearing a single human soul.

This strength knows that both body and soul require nourishment if they are to remain healthy — that the heart can be strong only when the body that carries it is not aching with hunger, pain, or exhaustion.

And finally I have come to a place from which I cannot see these things as anything other than what they are: the necessary things that strengthen me.

This taking-care is not a frivolous waste of time that could be dedicated to more important activities.

These are the more important activities.

Not because the other things are not important — but because without taking time for the things that strengthen me, my fierceness will burn out and when I am nothing but ash I will have nothing left to offer to anyone else.

So I’m going to say it again: You don’t need to be fierce to be strong.

A fire is fierce and strong but it burns its fuel and dies.

A tree is not fierce, but it is strong, and it may survive hundreds or even thousands of years.

Always in the past I have been the fire, burning out and then healing and rising again from my own ashes. But this time I wish to endure — to be more like the tree.

I think that now more than ever we’re going to need this new (to me) kind of strength — a strength that endures instead of burning out. A strength that takes punches and keeps going. A strength that can see through dark days without losing faith.

Because I’m sitting here with my eyes wide open. I’ve been reading the news. I see what we’re facing. But I want to believe there’s a possibility for goodness to be born here, that there is possibility that those of us who (like my favorite sign from the Women’s March) went to sleep on November 8th, 2016 Democrats and woke up Activists.

I believe that where we were asleep now we might choose to be awake. And that in our awakening we might be strong enough to change everything.

But it starts here.

It starts with us and our strength — not the fiery fierce kind that burns but the gentle, enduring kind that’s capable of standing, not just for a day, or a month, or four years — but the kind that might support us for the rest of our lives.

This kind of courage and strength starts with us.

It starts with each of us opening our hearts to what is present: our fears, our anxieties, our needs. It starts with each of us meeting ourselves with kindness: soothing our fears, quieting our anxieties, and tending to our needs so that we are strong enough to show up day after day after day — not just for ourselves, but for ourselves first and then for everyone around us.

Because where we were a nation divided, we will need to be a nation united. And I don’t know how exactly we get there, but it starts with each of us opening our hearts to what is present: the fears of those who are “other”, the anxieties that keep people awake at night, the needs of those who are different than us.

And so the question I want to leave you with is this: what will you seek to create in the coming days, months, and years?

Because this kind of strength doesn’t feed on fear, it feeds on the possibility that even darkness can be transmuted into light — if only enough people are willing to open their hearts and take a stand.

This is one those moments when we all have to choose: not just how we will fight, but how we will heal.

We get to decide what new goodness we will bring into the world to meet the ugliness around us — so that this might not just be an ending but also a new beginning.

Much love,
Jessica

One day, one hour, one breath at a time

Once again I find myself sitting before the blank page trying to find something helpful to say on a day when everything seems hard. I don’t know about you, but for me personally, it’s been a rough January.

I started off the year full of ideas and enthusiasm (as one does), and rapidly succumbed to a cold that I’m still fighting off traces of. But it hasn’t just been my health I’ve struggled with. It’s been hard to read the news, and last week it was hard to watch the Trump inauguration.

All of which combines to mean that I spent the first part of January mired in a haze of illness, exhaustion, and anxiety.

But I can’t help but suspect that maybe it’s been a hard month for you, too — if not for all the same reasons.

And if that’s true then I want you to know that you’re not alone, that it’s been hard for me too — and I want you to know that it gets easier.

Because this haze of exhausted anxiety is a feeling I’m familiar with; I’ve been here before.

So if this month has been hard for you and in the wake of the inauguration you’re feeling understandably anxious and fearful, here is the process I’ve been using to navigate difficult times.

Step One: Offer yourself compassionate witness

The first step in navigating any hard time is always to notice you’re having a hard time (I know this sounds silly, but bear with me). This can be as simple as offering yourself a thought like “Wow, I’m feeling really anxious right now”.

The point is to take a step outside of the direct experience of the feeling (“I am anxious”) to create space between you and the feeling (“I am experiencing anxiety”). In the first instance, anxious is what you are and in the second anxious is only a feeling that is happening to you.

This creates space which allows you to work with the emotion instead of being overrun by it.

So if you haven’t already, or if you’re presently feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to step back and notice exactly what it is that you’re feeling — and then notice that that feeling is simply a sensation that is happening to you right now.

And as you do that, offer whatever it is you may be feeling compassion. Don’t try to make it go away; don’t tell yourself that the feeling shouldn’t be there.

Just step outside of the feeling a little bit and notice its presence. That’s all you need to do right now.

Sometimes I like think of my feelings as unruly children who are seeking my attention, care, and affection. But feel free to choose any metaphor that works for you.

Step Two: Slow everything down

When I’m struggling I never have the same capacity to accomplish things as I usually do (be they grand visions or small mundane things like folding the laundry).

It’s important to understand and expect this because it allows you to give yourself permission to slow down.

When I forget to do this I invariably get lost in a shame-spiral that starts with letting things I’d meant to do slip, at which point I judge myself a “bad person” for not doing things I meant to do, and get mired in guilt and shame, which exacerbates my anxiety, which leaves me with even less energy, and causes things to slip even farther.

If you have this tendency too, then I invite you to skip the spiral. Start with permission to accomplish only as much as you have already accomplished (and, hey, some days that might be literally nothing if you’re really struggling).

I invite you to let being where you are be exactly enough.

I promise all those things that you’d planned to do will still be waiting for you when you’re feeling well enough to tackle them again — and, maybe more importantly, the world probably won’t have ended between now and then just because you didn’t get around to folding the laundry.

And anyway, I’ve found that somehow the truly critical stuff always manages to get done.

Step Three: Create a sense of safety

When you’re mired in a hard place, the journey to the other side begins with safety. It begins with creating a place where you can face into the storm while remaining anchored in an internal felt-sense of safety.

How exactly this sense of safety is created will depend on you and the storm you are facing.

Meditation and mindfulness practices are my favorite approach — I can face into mental or emotional turbulence while remaining anchored in the safety of the breath. But the effectiveness of this approach depends a lot on how well I am able to separate my sense of self from the immediate experience of whatever I am feeling — and how able I am to offer myself kindness and compassion instead of judgement.

If you feel like exploring this kind of approach, I particularly like the practice of RAIN which meditation teacher Tara Brach describes here.

Beyond meditation, other ways that you may be able to face into the reality of your experience from within a safe container include confiding in a journal, expressing yourself in any sort of creative activity, going for a walk, taking a bath, or rolling yourself up in a blanket. Sometimes working with a guided meditation can also help you create a safe space for yourself.

Feel free to experiment and get creative here and, if you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, there’s no shame in asking for help.

A really important note: if you are really struggling or dealing with any sort of unresolved trauma you may be so caught in your experience you are unable to separate from the emotional experience without the presence of another person to hold safe space for you.

If this is true for you, then please don’t pressure yourself to keep trying — if you can’t confront your feelings while staying rooted in a sense of safety then it is kinder to seek the help of someone who can hold a safe space for you while you navigate the issue. Depending on your situation, this person might be a trusted friend, a therapist, or a coach. If you feel like this might be true for you I’m always happy to talk with you and help you find the help you need, you can contact me here.

Step Four: Have patience with the process

This process isn’t a miracle cure (I wish it was, but it’s not). There’s no straight line from suffering to peace… it’s never going to be once-and-done.

You’re going to continue to struggle. You’re going to have good days and bad. You’re going to have days where it feels like you’re right smack back where you started.

You’re going to need to have patience and trust the process.

You’re going to need to trust that by offering yourself compassionate witness in the murkiest depths of your struggle and by calmly, gently, kindly turning inward to face the storm, that strength and courage will ultimately prevail.

This process isn’t magic. It’s hard and gritty and it usually takes longer than you’d like.

And when you’re in the middle it can be deeply, profoundly uncomfortable because the ego likes guarantees and it wants a promise that things are going to get better. But in the middle of a profound transformation everything feels uncertain and nothing feels like a guarantee.

But the truth is that this is okay, too. You don’t need to be comfortable if you just keep gently nudging yourself toward facing into the truth.

Just take it one day, one hour, one breath at a time.

Much love,
Jessica