The Comfort Zone: An Experiment

It’s now six months since I fell into a Black Pit of Despair (BPOD), which you can read all about here if you feel so inclined. Incidentally, it’s the third most popular post I’ve ever written. Go figure.

Since that pretty miserable time, I’ve learned a few things. I learned that sometimes you need to regain the magic of training, which I wrote about here. I also learned a little bit about how much pressure I can put on myself, and what that does to my enjoyment of training and ability to learn, and you can read about that (and about how fun skating in circles is) here.

But there’s something else I learned that was even more important than these things.

When I was in the midst of feeling really low, lots of friends gave me great advice. One friend sat down with me and made a few suggestions that changed pretty much everything for me.

In any fitness or training setting, you will hear all about your comfort zone. Your comfort zone is, apparently, not where the magic happens. There are no gains to be had in it. You won’t progress if you stay in it. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that your comfort zone is a horrible trap designed entirely to ensnare you and keep you miserable, weak, slow and pretty much incapable of anything, and that the entire purpose of training is to escape this trap into a wonderful world of fear and pain that will forge you into some kind of superhero.

There’s a seed of truth in there. If I had never pushed out of my comfort zone, I would never have tried parkour. I definitely would not have returned to it after injury, and I wouldn’t be typing this while looking at my LRR Fresh Meat graduation certificate (I know, right?! They let me through to wreck league! They must be crazy).

I am very willing to push myself. This is not as impressive as people often seem to think. My comfort zone is so damn small that if I didn’t step out of it, I might not even leave the house in the morning. That’s not a hilarious exaggeration, by the way. I do frequently wait to leave my room because I heard a neighbour outside and it makes me anxious.

So since the very first time I walked up to a bunch of strange guys on a dark and freezing cold November evening with my guts churning and my legs trembling, I have trained outside of my comfort zone, and I had seen that as an entirely positive thing and a requirement for learning.

When my friend sat down with me, she suggested I try training within my comfort zone. This was a brand new idea that was the opposite of everything I’d heard, and after considering it, I realised that I did not even know where my comfort zone actually was. Every obstacle I approached in every session was an object of fear. I’m not saying I hated parkour – this was often controllable fear, and I was quite used to it. What I was doing, though, was causing myself huge amounts of stress. I face fear quite often (it comes up a lot when you’re as twitchy as me), but if you ALWAYS face fear, it’s going to take a mental toll. I now believe that I was feeling this toll, and if I had kept going in this direction, I would quite probably have walked away from parkour entirely within a few months.

My first task, then, was to figure out where my comfort zone actually was in terms of parkour. I’m going to be very honest here – after testing myself on some really small objects, it turned out that the only obstacles I did not feel a little spark of fear at were around mid-thigh height. This was shocking, fairly embarrassing and also shed a lot of light on some of my vault difficulties – if I was already scared running up to a hip-height object, how could I possibly throw myself into it enough to learn the most basic of vaults, particularly as most obstacles I was training on were higher than that?

My second task was to work within that zone. No, it didn’t look impressive. Yes, I did feel like a twat basically hopping over tiny walls. But for around six weeks, I did it. I deliberately avoided group parkour training, and I stayed with tiny obstacles that caused no fear whatsoever. And my stress started to dissipate, and I actually started to enjoy the movement. I came up with little variants – I’d side vault, then try to pause right in the middle of the vault and hold myself up there as long as possible.

And then things started to change. Ever so slowly, things started seeming a bit easier to learn – not being under constant stress allowed me to appreciate what I was actually doing, and the time spent doing low-pressure stuff allowed me to actually focus and enjoy it. There were no overnight miracles here. I’m not Jump London material. I’m still fairly slow, I’m still not great at vaults – but when I got back to a place where I felt okay to test the boundaries of my comfort zone, they’d grown out a bit. Obstacles looked much smaller to me than they had previously, and I was moving with a lot more confidence and willingness. I went back to parkour classes, eased myself in slowly, avoided too much pressure and gradually got back to feeling okay about training.

And then there was a moment at a women’s jam one Sunday, where we were all vaulting a rail just about my hip-height, and someone stopped, looked at me and asked me how I managed to get it so easy-looking. I’m pretty sure “crushing depression followed by hopping for hours and hours over really small objects about the height of your knee” was the answer she was looking for, so I just mumbled something about practice and wandered around in a happy daze for the rest of the day.

I don’t think leaving your comfort zone is a bad thing, and it’s completely necessary if you want to try new stuff or see how far you can go. But pay it a visit occasionally. It’s a nice place to recharge, and it might even help you see things differently.

All credit for this comfort zone experiment goes to Charlotte Blake, who runs Free Your Instinct and knows how brains work far better than I do. Thanks, dude!

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