Judith Sills, Ph.d.

Straight Up Analysis, Straight Up Advice, Straight Up Psychology



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The Comfort Trap or,
What if You're Riding a Dead Horse?

CHAPTER 1 (partial)


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.