We all want to believe that we are in control. Over the course of our lifetime, in order to give the illusion of control, we’ll develop a set of rules for ourselves to avoid pain.
“That which you collected from your past forms a boundary that you intuitively want to avoid.” – Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul
Have a bad experience speaking in front of a crowd? Get your heart broken? Put up a wall and avoid any situation that might make you relive that pain.
The walls you create end up defining your comfort zone. What is inside is familiar and safe. Beyond the walls is the unknown. Imagine the most paranoid person that you have ever met. This person is so obsessed with avoiding pain that it’s all they think about. With every person he interacts with or situation that he’s in he spends every moment with the inner narrative that someone is trying to hurt him. If you offered up a cage, this person might willingly accept your offer. From his frame, the cage will protect him from everything that could harm him while from the outside perspective you can see the cage for what it is… a prison.
While this example may seem extreme, the truth is that we’ve all accepted–even designed–our own cages more than we realize or want to admit.
Don’t get me wrong…sometimes the walls can be helpful. At a young age, your parents probably intentionally instilled in you a fear of the street. “Don’t go near the street! It’s dangerous!” After hearing this a few times, you made a mental note…
street = dangerous…therefore, avoid street
They were only trying to protect you…and for good reason! One day, they decided you were old enough to revise this belief so that now you could cross the street, but only when you were holding the hand of an adult. Eventually they taught you to cross by yourself after looking both ways. Imagine your life if you were still afraid of the street.
Many times, we defend walls that from an outside perspective, seem as silly and outdated as a fear of a street.
Sometimes, the walls are not of our own making. There is an old experiment where 5 monkeys were placed in a room with stairs leading up to a banana. When one monkey climbed up the stairs towards the banana, the rest of the monkeys were sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, the monkeys would physically prevent any monkey from climbing the stairs. Then, the researchers stopped spraying the monkeys and took one of the monkeys out of the room, replaced by a brand new monkey that wasn’t aware of the unwritten rule. The new monkey saw the banana and headed towards it, but was physically stopped from climbing the stairs. Now he knew not to try to climb anymore and when a second monkey was replaced, the first replaced monkey joined with the others in preventing this newest monkey from obtaining the banana. Eventually, all of the original monkeys had been replaced and those that remained ignored the banana, although they themselves had never been sprayed and did not know why they shouldn’t climb the stairs, other than that it was “just the way we’ve always done things.”
What walls have you adopted from parents or friends? What norms did your colleagues introduce you to when you first started your job?
The problem is that many of these rules were set with the best intentions. We wanted to protect ourselves (or others wanted to protect us) from pain. Maybe you learned not to stand out from the crowd because of cruel jokes in middle school. Or you tell yourself that you don’t like meeting new people because of a few bad experiences in your past and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that limits your future. The world is changing every day…YOU are changing every day…how do you know that the walls you’ve set up around yourself are even protecting you from anything anymore?
I’m reminded of a story of my boyhood dog, Oreo. When Oreo was a puppy, we got an electric fence installed around the edges of my parents’ yard. I still remember having the little flags up around the boundary of the yard and having to walk him daily around the path to train him and familiarize him with his new invisible boundaries. Eventually, without any flags to guide him, he knew exactly where to stop when chasing an animal or an overthrown tennis ball to avoid the shock that awaited at the boundary’s edge.
A few years later, a house was being built next door and one of the contractors accidentally dug up our invisible fence wiring, severing the cable. There was no longer a shock awaiting Oreo at the boundaries of our yard, but he was so accustomed to his boundaries that he never tested them to figure it out. For several years the once invisible, now nonexistent fence kept him within the confines of our yard.
That is until one day that his world became instantly larger and filled with infinite possibilities. Perhaps one day he forgot why he obeyed the boundary or was so caught up in chasing a rabbit that he lost bearings on his location and suddenly, he was free! At first he may have thought it was some kind of momentary malfunction, because in the months that followed, he still seemed to obey the boundaries (whether consciously or by subconscious habit). Eventually, he tested the boundary more and more often, and suddenly his adventures were full of limitless possibilities. He would explore the wooded areas in the back yard, returning home from his adventures with burrs coating his fur and paws full of mud, much to my mother’s chagrin. Even for a dog with already limitless energy, you could notice an extra spring in his step and twinkle in his eye.
What would 2014 look like if you challenged the boundaries you’ve set for yourself? You don’t have to jump off the deep end (though if you feel inclined, who am I to stop you!) Going slow and steady works too. Remember how your parents slowly weaned you off of your fear of the street? What could you do this week to test out some of your self-imposed walls? Don’t be surprised to find that many of your walls are no longer protecting you from anything.
Even if your walls are protecting you from something real, you’ll likely find that the momentary discomfort is nothing compared to the freedom on the other side. If you come up against a border of your “electric fence” and feel a momentary “shock,” your instinct will be to jump backwards…and that's ok! You’ve taken the first brave step by seeking the edge of your comfort zone.
“If you are willing to just stand at the edge and keep walking, you will go beyond.” -Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul
After you’ve composed yourself from the initial shock, remind yourself of the freedom on the other side of the wall and march on. The discomfort will be fleeting, but your reward will endure. You may even begin to love the discomfort because it will point your way to growth.
My own goal for 2014 is to seek that discomfort every day. How will you (and your comfort zone) grow if you do the same? What would your life look like in a year?
In addition, here’s a great article I read on New Years Eve. There is certainly no shortage of people online telling you what kind of resolutions to make in the New Year. But this one stuck out to me because what you resolve to add this year probably isn't as important as what you let go of. Clear out some space for the wonderful things 2014 has to bring!