Pushing past boundaries … and stepping into your power
You need to speak in front of your class, but your knees buckle even before you reach the podium. You want to expand your social circle, but you’d rather swallow nails than make small talk with people you don’t know well. Speaking up in discussions would strengthen your connections to others and the subjects at hand, but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.
Situations like these — ones that are important, but personally also, perhaps, quite terrifying — are actually quite common for many people. So what is a typical response to these situations? Most times it is avoidance. That makes sense because, who wants to feel anxious when you don’t have to?
Now the problem, of course, is that these tasks aren’t just unpleasant; they’re also necessary. As we grow and learn, we’re constantly faced with situations where we need to adapt our behavior. It’s simply a reality of the world we live in.
But without the skill and courage to take the leap, we can miss out on important opportunities for advancement. How can we stop building our lives around avoiding these unpleasant, but beneficial, tasks?
Here’s the deal: I’ve worked with people struggling to step outside their comfort zones for many years. What I’ve found is that we often have much more leeway than we believe to make these tasks feel less loathsome. We all can find a way to tweak what we have to do—to make it palatable enough to perform. First, by reforming them, then, by sculpting situations in a way that minimizes discomfort. This is a skill that takes time and practice, no doubt about it. I still work on this myself, daily, in fact.
First, the ‘bad news’: In order to step outside your comfort zone, you have to do it, even if it’s uncomfortable.
The good news is that you can use this article to help you put mechanisms in place that will force you to dive in. Who knows– you might just discover that what you initially feared isn’t as bad as you thought. You may even discover that you enjoy something you thought you’d loathe!
For example, I was working with a high school student with a history of being uncomfortable with public speaking. They were able to take a public speaking class where their teacher had them deliver speeches — using notes — every class. Then, after several classes, they were told to hand over their notes and speak ‘naturally’.
This person told me that they were feeling utterly terrified about it. So we spoke about the fears and the ways to push past them. Guess what? Some simple ‘tricks’ I will share actually worked. In the end, they did great! What’s more, they shared those tips with a few classmates who were also feeling afraid, and they worked for them, too! The student was feeling so strong and confident about speaking in ways they had never before imagined they might feel.
The student went on to share with me that being brave enough to try speaking without notes, then doing it, ended up being much more effective than any ‘avoidance’ or ‘rehearsals’ they had been doing in the past. Their speaking was actually more natural and authentic. But without the mechanisms and tools forcing them into action, they might never have taken the plunge in the same way.
So how about we start with some simple, small steps?
Instead of jumping right into the dreaded unknown, maybe try to sign up for a class or tutorial for your ‘ boundary-busting topic’, either virtually or in person, that you think can help. See if you can ask a mentor (or coach, or therapist) for some guidance and support on your quest before you attempt to conquer it.
If your challenge is with speaking in public, for example, perhaps instead of immediately forcing yourself to speak up in the classroom, you can start by speaking up in smaller groups with close peers, and then see how it feels.
You may stumble, sure, but that’s OK. It really is. No one will likely even remember your struggle, or even be as aware of it as you are. In fact, pushing through these comfort zones is truly the only way you’ll learn, especially if you can appreciate that missteps are an inevitable — and in fact essential — part of the learning process.
In the end, even though we might feel powerless in situations outside our comfort zone, we have more power than we think. So, give it a go. Be honest with yourself, make the behavior your own, and take the plunge. My guess is you’ll be pleased with having given yourself the opportunity to grow, learn, and expand your skills and confidence, and mastery.
BREAKTHROUGH / TRY THIS
These 3 simple steps require you to be honest, make an easy-out inventory, and own your behaviors more:
- Be honest with yourself. When you turned down that opportunity to speak at a big assembly, was it really because you didn’t have the time, or were you scared to step on a stage and present? And when you didn’t respectfully confront that lab partner who had been undermining you, was it really because you felt they would eventually stop, or was it because you were terrified of conflict? Own your fears first. Try not to beat yourself up while you do it.
- Create a list, or an inventory, of the excuses you tend to make about avoiding situations that push your boundaries. Then, ask yourself if they are truly legitimate reasons. For example, if you think about it like this, it may be easier to ‘test’ the excuse. So let’s say someone else offered you those same excuses about their behavior, would you see them as excuses or legitimate reasons to decline? The answer isn’t always clear, sure, but you’ll never be able to overcome inaction without being honest about your motives in the first place.
- Make the behavior your own and take the leap! Remember, very few people struggle in every single version of a formidable situation. You might have a hard time making small talk generally, but find it easier if the topic is something you know a lot about. If you feel queasy talking with big groups during large, noisy settings, try to find a quiet corner of that setting to talk, or step outside into the hallway or just outside the building. If you hate public speaking, but feel slightly more comfortable in small groups, look for opportunities to speak with smaller groups or set up small individual meetings with those you want to better connect with. Or, you may have a hard time socializing with new people, except when it’s in a really small setting. If you can recognize these opportunities, and you now can take advantage of them!
Now go for it! You got this.
By Dr. Natanya Wachtel, PhD
Certified Life Coach, Marriage & Family Therapist