The Comfort Trap
Lately I’ve been thinking about comfort blankets (the emotional, psychological kind) and how deceptive they can be. I used to think that I didn’t have comfort blankets – that one of my signature strengths was moving out of comfort zones every time I was faced with a difficult choice. But I’ve come to realise that (surprise surprise!) this was just a big old self-delusion! What I liked to tell myself was a signature strength was actually something I have done, on numerous occasions throughout my life - and they took a hell of a lot of strength and bravery and inner steel to do. But were they truly embedded within what makes me Ema? Being able to give numerous examples of a thing, means I have done it and can prove my capability of doing it. But it doesn’t necessarily mean I always apply it to every level of my life on a day-to-day basis.
One of the things that human beings do (which is apparently partly how we got so good at learning and developing) is telling stories. We would tell each other stories, to convey complex ideas in a way that would stick, and this also built shared narratives within communities and societies, and connection with each other, through a shared idea of identity, set of values and sense of common purpose. We don’t have to look very hard to see this in every layer of our lives today – families, groups of friends, corporations, newspapers, politicians, churches, schools, employers can all have an accepted story/lines to take: fundamental ideals (often trademarked) or “brand identity” which remain fixed whilst their day-to-day narratives can change to give an acceptable and congruous slant on the real-life actions and activities they may have taken which are at odds with their prescribed values…
But it becomes a little harder to spot when we turn to ourselves. Because for most of us, we’ve learned and assimilated this habit, since our childhoods – it’s really strongly enmeshed within our sense of ourselves – and ideas can be really powerful things, even when they’re against what we know is real, we can choose to follow the idea because we prefer it to the everyday stuff we’d rather not have to live through or deal with. It’s like our internal narrative is a novel, or a Hollywood film (complete with soundtrack) or even nowadays, a TV show or brand (in the Facebook and Instagram world of Social Media) and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our lives – that internal narrative which is built around ideas of who we are, our values and what we stand for, can be very alluring and habit-forming. It can be what we distract ourselves with when our heart tells us we’re hurting, instead of sitting with and living through the pain. It can be the idea of what a good person we are, and how we’re allowed to make mistakes to justify to ourselves the crappy thing we just did that hurt someone else, to avoid feeling the guilt which would have prompted us to make positive changes in our lives and learn from our mistakes. It can be the idea that we’re perpetually the hero of the story of reality, and others in our lives are either always there for us, always only on our sides, doing what we approve of, or else they’re trying to hurt us/bad for us/selfish/messed-up weak/bad people, instead of realising that we’re not the centre of the universe, that others have their own lives and priorities, and that relationships can be complex and mostly sit within the grey areas. Life isn’t black and white, but narratives allow us to fool ourselves that it is.
Unlike the rules we can sometimes make up for it, life isn't 2-dimensional - it can’t and shouldn’t be all pleasant, easy and simple, or all negatives, hardships and unfairness – it’s got to be ups and downs, painful at times, shadow and light – because that’s the nature of reality. If we don’t have struggles and challenges, we’ll never learn the value of strength, and won’t be able to ever really succeed or grow. The universe is never all for us or all against us – that’s not how it works. It's Yin and Yang, baby, or it's nothing at all!
Sometimes we consciously choose the distraction as a crutch, because we’re afraid that we’re not strong enough to cope with the reality we fear we might be too weak to cope without our psychological comfort blankets. And just as children can be held back in terms of emotional confidence by holding onto a comfort blanket or toy for too long, as adults we have the same issue to deal with when we hide in our self-made alternative to dealing with reality. Taking the first experimental steps towards dropping our comfort blankets are tough and scary, but do you know what? We’re all strong enough to face reality – all of us! We just need to show ourselves that fact by doing it. Reality can be unpleasant, uncomfortable, and once we take those first steps, we may have a bit of emotional work to do, to process the stuff we’ve been procrastinating via our alternative storyline of choice…
But guess what? Once we start breaking the distraction habit, and get into it, it can feel really good to sit with the uncomfortable feelings. Once we commit to it (and ourselves) and surrender to just being, it’s what our inner selves have been crying out for us to do, and it feels cleansing. It takes commitment, self-compassion and patience to stay with it, but just like the catharsis you can feel when you have a good cry at a weepie film (aww come on – I know it’s not just me!), it’s really important for our wellbeing and our personal growth not to put off the stuff we need to experience and process. The comfort trap is a form of emotional and psychological procrastination – the stuff that needs doing will just sit there, feeling worse, with the consequences of not doing it just building, until it feels too icky and overwhelming to face. Once you choose to tackle it though, you realise it is absolutely achievable, and you start to feel better – so much stronger, freer, and crucially, once the weight of the fear is lifted (and the fear is usually way heavier than the task itself), more yourself! And that is definitely a good enough reason to tackle that backlog!
So if you feel inspired to give reality a real chance, I commend you - and you're not alone!
One word of advice I'd leave with you is that it’s a long journey, and it's important to remember to be as kind to yourself along the way as you would to a friend or loved one. That doesn’t mean letting yourself off the hook, but it does mean being gentle and compassionate when you realise you’ve slipped, and (crucially for me) when you’re making uncomfortable self-discoveries. Unfair/unrealistic harshness towards ourselves is part of the comfort trap (like an abusive partner or a chemical addiction), as it creates the illusion that we’re not capable of living fully within reality; it tries to convince us that we’re never going to be able to make it through life without running back to it. But this is not true. It’s entirely possible to give up smoking, just as it’s possible to give up our storylines – no matter what the little voices in our heads try to convince us. A good measure for self-talk can be whether we would say the same thing to a child in our care, or not. If we wouldn’t say it to a child, we shouldn’t be saying it to ourselves. Once you commit to yourself, and to opening to the good and bad, the challenges and achievements, the learning and growth that life brings, you’ll be taking the first steps to living fully, my friends. Life is a gift, and it’s a gift that we all deserve - in all its glory, its crappiness, its complicated messes and its wonder!