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Some years ago, back at the dawn of Prozac, I met weekly with a woman who was excruciatinglysingle and full of self-recrimination for it. Hers is a familiar unhappy story. Our sessions centered on dates to which she brought an excess of hope; the relationships ended with just enough of a twist that she could never seem to learn from one in order to cushion the disappointment of the next.
She and I spent two years together in this loop: focused from man to man, from possibility to pain, with no particular positive learning curve that either of us could observe. During this time she completed an advanced degree, found a better than decent job in her field, and bought a home. She didn�t delight in these achievements because they were not her true heart�s desire. Still, I pointed to these accomplishments frequently, wondering why in our huge, rich universe of possibilities, marriage was her only path to satisfaction. It was, though, and she had no genuine interest in art or music, politics or travel, literature or architecture, or Rollerblading or anything else on this planet except meeting a man and getting married. That�s not to say that she didn�t participate in much of the above. She did, but dutifully, to become the woman she needed to be so that a suitable man would love her. Her pastimes were just that, passing time. Her only passion was for a relationship. Eventually, she got worse. A broken engagement precipitated a more acute depression, killing her appetite, interrupting her sleep, and holding the black gun of despair to her head. As a clinical psychologist I do not prescribe medication, so I referred her to the psychiatrist with whom I consult. I saw her on a Tuesday; he met with her on Wednesday and gave her a prescription for Prozac. We spoke several times and met ten days later. When I saw her, this is what she said: �A funny thing happened on the way to your office. I stopped at the bookstore to buy the new Cosmopolitan, but when I picked it up, it didn�t look interesting to me. Instead, for some weird reason, I wanted to read U.S. News & World Report.
That�s what I bought.� She took it out of the bag and showed it to me.
Ten days on medication, and she was changed.
From that moment, and in so many ways, she was unarguably different. Not only different, but in her opinion, and in mine, she was better. It wasn�t simply that her depression was largely gone, though it was. It was that something else was gone, her narrowness of thinking, her conviction that there was only one path to happiness, her rigid, entrenched apathy. Gone. It was as if a switch was thrown and this lovely, sad, struggling woman had come to life.
The change persisted. An unfamiliar sense of optimism. Travel plans. Fun at work. Giggling over dates in a complete absence of desperation. She got interested in writing. Turned down an attractive man because she was going to a writer�s conference. Went and had a good time. Damn it. She was Sleeping Beauty and Prozac was the prince�s kiss.
That was my first experience with the way in which medication can�only rarely, unpredictably, often only temporarily�make the dead horse simply vanish in the night. This experience changed my thinking forever about causes, cures, and my own role in both. It might change you.
In my practice I have seen this profound reaction occur only rarely, whether to Prozac or its several descendants. Perhaps for every ten of my patients who have a trial of medication�prescribed by either my consulting psychiatrist or their own physician�only one person has experienced this penetrating and life-altering release from a prison of emotional pain. The other nine people have experienced a range of reactions from significant improvement, through modest gains, down to no help at all. Some have felt unpleasant side effects and a few have experienced frightening and seriously destabilizing upheavals. These pills are no magic bullet; their positive effects sometimes inexplicably evaporate and the risks are real.
Still, the person who swallows a few pills and is suddenly different in some desirable way is experiencing change of a different order of magnitude. I don�t know if you would be that person. I don�t know if you need to be or want to be, if you�d choose the risks involved, or even where you stand on the philosophical questions such pills naturally generate.
What follows from here is a book about getting yourself to change�about why, where, and how you might move yourself forward in your life. The book talks about the part you can do, will have to do, on your own. Let�s face it, your part is most of it, pill or no pill.
But just as psychotherapy is a resource for change, medication is a resource, too. I won�t mention it again, but I want you to remember it�s out there.
Judith Sills, Ph.D.
February 22, 2003
THE MAN IN THE BLACK MERCEDES
Are you up for a fight?
Because I�m telling you, right up front, it�s a fight to get from where you are to what you want. That battle is with yourself.
We are the rocks we are pushing uphill�if and when we choose to make the push. Most of the time we don�t. Why not? What makes it such a struggle to push ourselves even when we are pushing ourselves toward something better? It�s difficult because, however unsatisfying it is where we are, it is also comfortable.
In the high-wire act that is life, most of our time is spent huddled on a comfortable platform of our own creation. We could stay safely snuggled there�busy, preoccupied, suffering, or delighted. It is a familiar and confining harbor, and its only exit is a tightrope stretched to the next safe haven. Eventually, uncomfortably, the spotlight of promise moves to that next platform and our own grows painful or empty. When it does, we freeze in place. Can we risk that tightrope of change?
What will you do?
Many will look determinedly away from the tightrope. Who knows, after all, where it leads? Some few will fling themselves forward, while others will inch out and back and farther out again, making wobbly, determined progress toward the light. Most will listen as hard to their audience as to their own hearts, drawing courage or caution from the chorus around them. Of those who risk the tightrope, we know for certain some will fall. The rest will make it to a new platform, larger, richer, more satisfying than the old one. They will bring with them both an enduring pride for having made the leap and a degree of pain from their loss of what was left behind. Much of what was left behind were people who were unable or unwilling to make a similar vault. They stayed stuck. What about you?
Frankly, most of us will linger on the platform of our comfort zone forever, unless it collapses beneath us and life forces us onto the tightrope. If it does, we suffer and eventually savor the pleasures of change. But without that push it can be a very long wait for those pleasures�until you get enough money, or meet the right person, or lose the weight; until the kids leave home, or you finally get fired, or your parents die, or your mate leaves you so you don�t bear the guilt for doing the leaving. In the meantime, your platform holds and holds you to it, and life becomes a summer rerun, if only because you feel unable to create a brand-new episode.
There are the few who show us a different way, who turn their backs on familiar comfort and rush toward the tightrope with breathtaking confidence, propelled by a passionate conviction. Of course, these people tend to be known as either saints or madmen�Gandhi or Golda Meir, Nelson Mandela or Larry Kramer�and you are probably neither, so what is there to learn from them? We have other contemporary figures who lingered on a comfortable platform of conventional beliefs and then, through some personal epiphany, took a leap across to a higher plane. I think of Oskar Schindler or Rosa Parks or Anwar Sadat as three examples, though you may consider them to be saints or madmen, too.
These are historic figures, legends even, whose stories dramatize deliberate personal change writ large. There are other stories of risk and success that guide us on a more human scale. These people show us how to move forward deliberately, consciously, to expand the platforms of our comfort zone, to stretch that platform bit by bit, always pushing into new territory, gnawing away at our boundaries and opening up our possibilities.
Think of Oprah�not white, not thin, not connected, not cherished, and not letting any of this stop her on her Sherman�s march to the microphone. Think of Madonna�who meets every success with the next risk, who often fails and has yet to falter. Hell, think of Scarlett�who saw opportunity in a pair of curtains and postponed her fears until tomorrow, which is when most of us schedule the risk of change. These are people who make life happen, rather than waiting to see what happens.
What about you? Could you step out on that limb, past propriety, past security, past your own familiar sense of yourself? Could you confront the bully, risk the rejection, open the business, leave the marriage, insist on the raise, take up tap dancing, disappoint your father, go back to school, face disapproval, learn to ski at your age, hit on the lifeguard or even the president� assuming you�d want to, of course. Could you break your own boundaries because something you want to have or someone you want to be is on the other side?
I think of the title of a 1950s autobiography, I Leap Over the Wall, when I am working with someone who is longing to change something in his or her life but feels utterly unable to proceed. As I recall, the book told the story of a nun and her struggle to leave the convent, but to me the title suggested the emotional effort so many of us make in our attempt to move life in a positive direction. From the grand inspiration of Meir or Mandela to the merely social aspirations of Wallis Simpson, moving in on the Duke, all leapt over some wall.
The Comfort Trap (or, What If You�re Riding a Dead Horse?) is about that wall and how to leap over it when it�s standing in your way. It may be the wall in your marriage that prohibits you from saying all the things you�d like to say. It may be the wall that keeps you in a professional pit, soothing yourself by identifying with all the fellow wallowers who are keeping you company. It may be the barrier between you and a physically healthy life, a barrier composed of all your self-destructive, deliciously satisfying impulses. The wall is made of fear and habit, and the energy required to scale it is considerable. The thing is, much of what you want in life is on the other side.
The Comfort Trap (or, What If You�re Riding a Dead Horse?) is a guide to wall leaping. The principles of forward motion are the same whether what is on the other side of your personal wall is more money, profound intimacy, a sense of purpose, or a divorce. This is a book about crossing your own boundaries in order to move forward in life.
This book centers on the paradox of the psychological comfort zone. We need to be comfortable to live fully, yet if we�re too comfortable, something essential dies. A life that is too much work erodes the body, but one that requires too little effort depletes the soul. Between these two poles there is a harbor, a state of psychological grace, a platform of emotional well-being. It is your comfort zone. It is a haven. And, by its very nature, it is temporary.
Your current comfort zone includes the familiar, tolerable, and therefore safe circumstances you have created in your life. For some period these circumstances�your job, your affair, your passion for bridge, your neighborhood, your friendship circle, your marriage�may be intensely satisfying. When satisfaction is added to safety, your comfort zone functions exactly as intended. It becomes a psychological greenhouse where you can flower, thrive, and contribute something back to the world.
At some point, however, every comfort zone diminishes in satisfaction. The job ceases to challenge or the management no longer supports you; the marriage hits a logjam of conflict and disappointment; the old friend exploits your generosity yet another time; the excitement of dating devolves into the chore of selection; the passion of the affair becomes the poison of guilt; and the nice girl is still sitting around, waiting to meet her Duke.
Over and over we will return to this same theme: Comfort is pleasure plus safety, satisfaction colored with security. There are intense satisfactions�deeply honest relationships, sexual thrills, athletic feats, great goals�which can only be delivered in the absence of security. These satisfactions can only be achieved beyond the boundaries of one�s comfort zone, though, and that is the point. Comfort is charismatic precisely because it is safe�and therein lies its power. But safety limits the amount of satisfaction any experience can deliver�and therein lies its painful limitation.
Our comfort zones are constructed from utterly idiosyncratic elements, but some structural features are universal. Comfort is physical, of course. Before your spirit registers its vote, comfort begins with your body. And much of comfort is contrast, lost over time when the sharpness of relief disappears. Comfort is a fire when you are in from the cold and a fan when you are escaping the heat. It is knowing you have sisters who would lay down their lives for you but not seeing too much of them over the holidays. Comfort is rest after effort, but not endless rest. It is relief after risk, but not eternal safety�because eternal safety stops being satisfying.
Identifying the physical aspect of comfort is easy because, after all, we know what feels good. But the essence of comfort is something emotional, and that is not so simple. Emotional comfort is the feeling of �fit,� and we seek it as instinctively and cherish it as passionately as we seek love and value money. But unlike love and money, which are publicly professed ideals, we do not celebrate our quest for comfort. Sometimes we don�t even realize it.
First and foremost, emotional fit is established by habit and routine. Routine defines us, carving our lives into little mini-zones of emotional comfort�my coffee shop, my preference for black, one Sweet�N Low not Equal please, my parking spot, my nightly ritual of walking the dog or stalking the bars. The soothing balm of routine defines and confines us all. We always do what we always did, unless we make a conscious, focused, and often formidable effort not to. This is true whether what we did felt good or bad, because in some essential way it feels like me. It fits. Fit is only partly defined by the complex matrix of your routine. It is also powerfully influenced by the sweeping psychological concept of identity. You and I have a rigidly etched idea of who we are. That idea is huge, pervasive, and probably only partly understood, but its power over our lives cannot be overstated.
We are largely the people we expect to be, because that identity shapes the way we sort through the thousand life choices with which we are confronted daily. Sometimes, though, those old familiar choices can leave us suddenly stuck.
Identity�s enormous influence over how we act explains why the man who believes he will be the boss�s favorite probably will be, while the woman who believes men only want her for sex finds over and over again that men only want her for sex; the man whose managers never appreciate him re-creates his experience of being undervalued in job after job with no sense of his own contribution to the process, while the woman who cannot leave her high-paying job to have a better time is correct when she explains that she cannot.
�Whether you think you can or think you can�t, you�re right,� goes the saying. Your identity defines whether you think you can or think you can�t, and those thoughts then delineate the boundaries of your current comfort zone. Change those boundaries and you will certainly change what you think. Change what you think about who you are and you will profoundly change your life.
Frankly, why bother? Why make such an effort to think differently, to be someone new or act in a way other than you usually do? Because as comfortable as those behaviors are, they limit you. If what you want to achieve or who you want to be is inside the zone of your identity or your habits, you are, at least temporarily, content. Eventually, though, what once made you content may now afford you little uplift, and possibly a good deal of sorrow.
What to do? Well, that would seem obvious enough. Leave. Move on. Stir things up. Quit. Focus elsewhere. Start something new. Make a change. If what you are doing is no longer working, do something else. If the horse is dead, get off.
Except, sometimes we don�t. Can�t. Won�t. Don�t know how. Aren�t sure we should. Don�t know where to go next. Can�t break the rule that says we shouldn�t go there.
Or, you know perfectly well what you should do, but you can�t seem to get yourself to do it. Hate yourself for your inadequacy, mourn the price of your anxiety, but still you stay put. Not entirely sure of what is holding you in place but unable to move forward under your own steam. Stuck in your comfort zone.
�I�m stuck,� said the shiny man sitting across from me. His hair, product-tamed and light- reflecting, matches a remarkable pair of gleaming loafers. I get a first impression of a glossy hardback novel squashed between classy bookends.
The man between these bookends is Jack and he has come to see me because he is sad. Unremittingly, and worse, work-inhibitingly sad and stuck, since his girlfriend of five years left him last month. Jane left because Jack won�t marry her, and he�s come to see me because he fears that this time�the third time she�s left�she might not come back. This time he fears that if he wants her, he will have to take a step forward. And the fact is, he can�t.
Jack is deeply attached to Jane, loves her, longs for her, and doesn�t want to face life without her, or so he explains to me at his first visit, going on in some detail about the wonders of Jane until he is reassured that I understand the problem is not with Jane, nor is it with love. The problem is something else, something he can�t quite grasp, although it is costing him dearly.
Jack is caught in his comfort zone and marriage is on the other side of his mental fence. When Jane keeps him company where he is, Jack is a wondrously content, shiny man. But when she insists, for reasons of her own, on moving the relationship forward, he is emotionally unable to follow. So Jack mourns his loss and pursues Jane with passion, desperate to pull her back to where he is stuck. Twice before he has been able to do this, albeit only temporarily.
This time Jack has come to me looking for a way out of his conflict, although he frames his request differently. �I need to make a decision,� he says. �I love Jane, but I don�t see myself married. Well, maybe someday, but not now, not yet.�
I squint. Jack is forty-one. I don�t think timing or age is the issue.
Jack continues. If he�s so uncertain about marriage, doesn�t that perhaps suggest that Jane is not the right woman, that certain shortcomings of hers, too trivial to mention but irritating nonetheless, may be true emotional barriers? Perhaps it�s best that he let Jane go or she him? Perhaps, if love is this hard, it really isn�t love?
I glance at my watch. Good. In twenty-five minutes we have gone from �it�s not about Jane� to �could it be it�s all about Jane?� Jack is open, expressive, and we may be able to move fairly quickly to the part that has to do with Jack.
He begins to talk about marriage�the wonderful marriage his parents had and what was awful about it, the tedious marriages of his friends and what he dreads from those. Finally, at the end of our first meeting, Jack shared with me his personal vision, the internal image he treasures.
�Maybe I actually saw this man, or maybe I made him up,� Jack said. �But I call him the Man in the Black Mercedes. He is the man I�ve always wanted to be. He lives alone in a small, elegant house filled with art. He has a houseman who handles the maintenance and a housekeeper who tends to his personal chores. He dates exotic women, loves one or two, enjoys his work, and makes enough money to afford this life because, after all, he�s only spending it on himself. He has a hundred friends, entertains them lavishly, gets invited everywhere.
�The Man in the Black Mercedes treats the woman in his life very well, but he doesn�t live with her. He maintains a certain boundary. If you ask him why he doesn�t marry, he�ll say, �I�m single not because I want to sleep with many women, but because I want to be free to sleep alone when I choose to.�
�If I marry Jane,� Jack concludes, �I�ll never be the Man in the Black Mercedes.� By holding on to his long-standing reluctance to marry, Jack is making an old, familiar, comfortable choice. But now it doesn�t offer the old familiar satisfaction.
In my twenty-five years as a psychotherapist I have met the Man in the Black Mercedes many times, in many forms. He is an internal icon of perfect, static contentment, the universal fantasy that everything and everyone we need is inside our magic circle and none of them has conflicting needs of his own. We are at once perfectly safe and perfectly satisfied.
But Jack is no longer perfectly satisfied. Now he is only safe.
Jack�s safety is hard to enjoy without Jane to love and be loved by. It�s painful safety, too, because he�s threatened with the loss of Jane and that will be a genuine heartache. But in order to follow her, Jack has to leave the safety of his comfort zone, his carefully constructed, well- defended, emotionally even life.
To move forward toward satisfaction, Jack would have to risk his safety with no guarantee of how he�ll feel in the future, despite Jane�s many reassurances. He would have to launch himself on the dangerous raft of attachment and navigate the white waters of marriage and family. What if she is the wrong person? What if he wants off later, when it�s too late? What if something permanent happens�a child, a joint bank account�to put the Man in the Black Mercedes out of reach forever? Forward is too dangerous. Staying here is too sad. Stuck.
Jack�s paralysis might be familiar to you. Perhaps the air in your own life has grown stale, or worse. What was once motivating has turned mysteriously flat, done with. Your life has run out of soul and there is no obvious refueling station.
You cannot see your way out of a situation and you can no longer bear to be in it. Something is missing or the world is too much with you; you have profoundly disappointed yourself or you don�t feel much of anything at all. There is a next step forward, you�ve been assured, but you can�t see it. Or perhaps you can see it, but getting there is another story.
This dead end takes so many forms:
It�s the job you can�t leave, though it�s sucking your life dry, because where else are you going to make this kind of money?
It�s the alcoholic or rageoholic or shopoholic mate you can�t leave, because you are too afraid of being alone.
It�s the club you can�t join, the trip you can�t take, the success you can�t enjoy, because the new people seem so different from your old friends.
It�s the parallel lives you and your mate have constructed to avoid each other, because you don�t feel you can confront the issues in your marriage.
It�s any important relationship�friend, parent, sibling, adult child, lover, spouse�whose demands exhaust and infuriate you, but any attempt to insist on reciprocity threatens to end the connection.
It�s the person who is never going to love you back the right way, though you keep imagining how good it would be if he or she did.
It�s the job you won�t try for, the clothes you won�t wear, the sport you wouldn�t attempt, because you feel inadequate.
It�s Mr. or Ms. Nice, to whom you cannot commit because it would be settling, but whom you cannot leave because what if this is your last chance?
It�s the perilous balance you are trying to maintain between the affair you cannot abandon and the marriage that forms the scaffolding of your life.
It�s the employee you can�t fire, the raise you can�t insist on, the credit you can�t claim, because you�re too uncomfortable with confrontation.
It�s the necessary condition�financial stability, weight loss, promotion, falling in love, getting organized�that must occur before you can get what you want, but you can�t seem to achieve that necessary condition.
It�s your obsessive preoccupation with your ex or some other past injury that interferes with your ability to focus on or take pleasure in the present.
Finally, it�s an inner numbness. When your days feel like long jogs on the hamster wheel and you can�t see your way off, you�re stuck.
When you are loitering at one of these dead ends, think of yourself as being locked into a comfort zone. That�s the first step toward making a break for it.
The Invisible Electric Fence: Anxiety
Here�s the fine print on comfort: It comes with an invisible electric fence. Keep well away from pushing your own limits and you will be cheerfully oblivious to the walled platform you have created. But stretch out past your zone and you will get a jolt of anxiety that will certainly get your attention. At the very least, when speaking out in the meeting where you usually only look down, or standing up to the bully to whom you had always said, �Yes, dear,� the anxiety you feel will give you pause. At its worst, it will keep you from even contemplating quitting or moving or marrying or divorcing or any other �-ing� that is just on the other side of your cozy niche.
Anxiety is the invisible fence that bounds all of our lives. It is what we would do almost anything to avoid. Anxiety is the opposite of comfort and, when it comes to change, it is the heart of the matter. We always do what we always did because doing something new doesn�t usually feel good. �New� may feel anything from slightly strange to agonizing, but these are all flavors of anxiety.
Yes, there are those among us who have come to savor some forms of anxiety�thrill-seekers for whom the physical spurts of adrenaline seem to stir pleasure centers in their brains and drive them to dangle off cliffs and scream cheerfully on roller coasters. But clearly that does not mean that these hardy spirits are exempt from all forms of anxiety. The fact is, none of us is exempt.
The invisible fence around each of our current lives is highly individual. That�s why your best friend could mouth the words �I love you� to a strange man in a bar in a moment of high spirits, but has not been able to leave the man who bores and burdens her. (She can flirt with the thrill of freedom, but separation from a safe relationship paralyzes her.) That�s why your mother-in-law is a powerhouse at her church but she�d starve before she ate in a restaurant alone. (When people know and respect her, she�s energized, but without that social support she struggles with unaccountable shame.) That�s why your brother can make cold calls but he won�t enjoy a party full of strangers. (He has numbed himself to telephone rejection through repeated exposure, but face-to-face interpersonal risk overwhelms him.)
OK, but so what? You can go through life quite happily without eating alone or being bored by a roomful of strangers. And frankly there�s a lot to be said for a safe, reliable relationship. If it costs you thrills, well, freedom has a high price, too. All of these reservations are perfectly reasonable. Remember, there is no more inherent value in pushing the envelope than there is in finding satisfaction with the status quo. In fact, it�s probably more spiritually challenging, more emotionally demanding to find satisfaction where you are than to keep moving from source to source looking for a hit of pleasure. In this sense, the ability to establish a long-term, stable comfort zone and to continue to find satisfaction in it is a mark of emotional maturity.
To a point. Right up to the point of pain. Right up to the dead end. Right up to the moment when you see clearly that there is something you want and it�s on the other side of the fence. Between where you are and what you want is the invisible fence of anxiety. How do you scale it? Well, maybe you won�t have to. Sometimes all that�s required is going along for the ride.
The Tides of Change
When what you want to experience or the person you want to become is outside your comfort zone, you will be, at least temporarily, stuck. How to exert that titanic effort of will, how to summon the sheer grit required to face anxiety when you could relax into a comfortable state of tedium? Quite often, you won�t have to summon that force from within. Life itself exerts that force on us.
When your life first runs aground, you will probably linger, waiting for the tide of events to move you forward. We wait for love to find us; wait in hope that the killer boss will resign or that more money will make the work more interesting; wait for the marriage to improve when the financial stress eases or the baby sleeps through the night; wait and push fiercely for someone else to change and so make us happier.
Sometimes outside events do solve our problems or at least change them for a new set. People do meet and fall in love and everything really does change. Sometimes the boss leaves, morale soars, and, thank God, you stuck it out. Sometimes the alcoholic spouse dries out, the selfish one has an emotional awakening. If your timing is good, if you�re lucky or necessary to someone else�s comfort, then the flow of life�in the form of graduation, marriage, childbirth, promotion, a geographic move, an empty nest, or mandatory retirement�will move you along its river, flinging you from your comfort zone into new circumstances.
True, some of us resist these developmental tides, refusing the promotion, turning away from romantic commitment or parenthood or even a new home or a career change. When we say no to these new platforms, we do so for good and bad reasons. But at some point or other most of us say yes to some of them and then our choice forces us from our comfort zones and through the invisible fence of anxiety.
The forces that propel us from our nests are not all developmental and certainly not all positive. Every American alive on September 11, 2001, experienced the destruction of our national comfort zone with savage abruptness, and so suffered the grief and fear and rage that always accompanies ruthless change. That was a historic expulsion from safety into something cold and hard, and we will struggle for some time, maybe forever, as we create a new national comfort zone in which to pledge allegiance.
The negative forces that cast us from comfort do not have to be so universal or so sweeping. Accident, illness, death, unwanted divorce, downsizing, all rip us from lives that seem immeasurably comfortable when viewed from atop their wreckage. In these wrenching life upheavals, we are thrown up against the fence of our fears in an emotionally weakened state, which is part of what makes them so horrific to endure. We do endure them, though at a cost. When life changes us, one way or another we make ourselves comfortable with that change. The ferocious anxiety, that discomfort, the sense of ill fit or of being an imposter that accompanies this surge forward, lasts as long as it lasts. Eventually the new role becomes you, the new job is mastered, the new house becomes home, and you have stretched to create a new comfort zone with its own emotional attachments, its own soothing routines, and its own sources of satisfaction.
In other words, we change pretty much because life forces us to. Things begin, so we adapt (unless we avoid the new beginning). Things end, so we change (unless we find a way to prolong the ending). This is an excellent system as far as it goes.
In your life, it may not have gone far enough. Maybe the prince hasn�t come�or worse, he came and left. Maybe the career toward which you were so carefully nudged turned out to be socially acceptable quicksand and no one is throwing you a rescue branch. Your in-laws may never approve of your table manners nor excuse you from Sunday supper. Your marriage is a miserable stalemate, but your kids are young and cheerfully oblivious. Maybe your life will just keep on keepin� on, full of the same complaints and simmering frustrations, a small powerboat on a big ocean with no one at the helm, plowing its vacant course until it runs out of gas. You just can�t count on life to put you someplace new, and if it does, the new it chooses might make the old look good.
So we are faced with a dilemma. How do we do the choosing ourselves? How do we force ourselves against that wall of anxiety of our own free will? How do we actually get ourselves to act�to marry this woman, leave this job, refuse to have this baby, divorce this partner, open this business�when the possible painful consequences of these actions are so real and our certainty is so slim?
That�s a tricky �how to,� but it must be done and the best of us do it again and again. No one does it immediately, few do it easily, and every one of us looks back and notes where we could have been bolder or should have been more cautious. Nevertheless, some of us do eventually act. We decide, despite uncertainty. We move, despite the pain of what is left behind. We act, despite the grave discomfort of action. We create change.
To break the boundaries of your comfort zone, you have to steer in the direction of your own anxiety, step on some inner reserve of psychic fuel, and force yourself across your own boundary. It can be done�in fact, it must be done. And the truth is, people do it all the time. If not you, then who? But if you, well, how?
Several years ago I wrote a book called Excess Baggage, about getting out of your own way. It generated some complimentary mail and one very articulate and cynical letter. The letter was from a colleague I�d never met, who described herself as a psychotherapist of some thirty years� experience. My book was very wise, she said, and she had no objection to any of my suggestions for creating a better life. But she herself had been making these suggestions to patients for years, and frankly, her patients made these same suggestions to themselves with great frequency, easily identifying what they should do to improve their lives. The thing is, they hardly ever did what they knew they should. Surely I must have some magic power that gets people to do what I�m suggesting they do, and would I kindly share that?
Ouch. It�s perfectly true that what�s wrong with self-help�well, with any help for that matter�is that identifying what to do is far easier than getting yourself to do it. But it is possible to get yourself to do it, possible to motivate yourself to change and to sustain that motivation through all the inevitable setbacks and fatigue. Possible and even probable, if you know how to push your own rock all the way up that hill.
I have thought about that letter for years as I�ve watched what techniques actually help people move themselves past the points where they are stuck, past their own self-limiting anxiety and onto higher ground. The Comfort Trap (or, What If You�re Riding a Dead Horse?) is my answer to that letter.
The glory of self-propelled change�whether you want to stop smoking, stand up to your mother, get yourself back to school or out of it once and for all�is that you do not have to find all the energy, day after day, to confront the invisible fence of anxiety on your own. True, you must tote the burden of your fear and your ambivalence and the inevitable pain of loss up some psychological mountain. But the trick is to give this burden a little shove over the edge of your psychic cliff so it will tumble onto new ground of its own momentum, carrying you along with it. That little shove�in the form of one small step outside your comfort zone�will set in motion all the other changes to which you aspire.
In other words, if you�re in a dull job, you have to fire yourself; in a stale relationship, you need to dump yourself; in a self-destructive pattern, deprive yourself. If you are afraid to speak, you need to reveal one truth; afraid to hear the answers, you�ll need to blurt out a scary question. You will need to create those life circumstances that would have rescued you if only they had come along.
What�s going to make you, or anyone else, go to these extremes? For all the sensible, satisfying reasons why we should challenge our own limits, there are only two reasons why we will: because we are suffering where we are and/or because we hunger for something that is just over our psychological horizon.
That�s pretty much it. Either something comes into your life and you have to get comfortable with it, or you will make yourself deliberately uncomfortable for a damned good reason. The best reason of all is that, when you look around with honest eyes, you realize that the horse is dead. The next chapter describes how you can get off.