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(Un)comfort zone February 3, 2014

Posted by therealtinlizzy in India, navel-gazing.

Ugh – one of the phrases that’s become  eye-roll-inducing to me is “comfort zone.” It’s one of those irritating catch-phrases like  “think outside the box” or “synergy” or “thought-leader,” and it’s used by everyone from bosses/workplaces to motivational speakers to TED-Talkers to instructors and beyond. I realize that American English speakers (myself included, sometimes to a criminal degree) lurrrrve to glom onto memes and catch phrases – it’s how we do. Not sure what/why it is exactly that some of them eventually become outmoded, and we collectively (or individually) kick them to the nearest curb (e.g., I might actually clobber you if you make use of the above examples un-ironically in my vicinity), but not others.

Mostly gratuitous , off-topic photo of meandering through the Hebbal area outside of Mysore, India

Mostly gratuitous , off-topic photo of taken while meandering through the Hebbal area outside of Mysore, India

Anyway –  “comfort zone” seems to have become the go-to and most er, comfortable phrase used to capture the very human tendency to habituate to sets of circumstances and cultural norms in which we eventually feel familiar and comfortable. Those looking to challenge or motivate someone(s) to look beyond their familiar ways and patterns often encourage their audience to “get outside of your comfort zone.” Perfectly valid concepts, to be sure. However, in addition to its over-use and having moved into the dreaded realm of catch-phrasery, another reason I find myself irked by “comfort zone” is that it inevitably (by my reckoning/experience anyway) applies primarily to privileged, white, middle-class people, and “getting out of your comfort zone” entails those folks stepping out of their comfy privileged, white, middle-class existence into circumstances that make them uncomfortable and challenge them – which usually means dealing with poverty, black/brown people, lack of resources, etc.

Granted, it wasn’t my fault or choice to grow up where/how I did (a privileged, white, middle-class kid in a fairly homogenous area surrounded mostly by other privileged, white, middle class people), and there’s nothing inherently wrong with pursuing a comfortable life – would be a little sociopathic perhaps to want to have a wretched, miserable life. But making “comfort zone” a smelly, problematic phrase, and the admonishing/encouraging to get out of it, necessarily implies privileged people having the luxury and opportunity of using someone else’s community/misfortune/culture as a means for growing some awareness or compassion, or (in some cases, as I’ve observed) just increasing one’s “thank God I live in the good ol’ USA [or suburbs or other comparatively snuggly location]!.”

I’m not picking a fight – it’s the way it goes being human: we often don’t comprehend or feel empathy/compassion for people or cultures or experiences different from our own unless/until we experience or learn directly about it. That was absolutely true of me earlier in my life, and continues to be (with hopefully a lot more humility and awareness than I possessed earlier in life). I think I’m just nit-picking presently over the point that when even legit “comfort zone” conversations arise (say when a group of mostly white, privileged undergrad liberal arts students is preparing to visit a developing country for a study abroad course) that we first deconstruct those underlying reasons for the familiarity and comfort we feel as people of privilege, and address the condescension, privilege and class-ism  inherent in even talking about having “comfort zones” at all.

Sheesh – that was a long preamble prior to posting what I submitted for an assignment last week. We had to submit a post prior to traveling to Mysore centered on our notions about things we predicted might push us out of our comfort zone while there, and upon returning – a follow-up post on if/how our comfort zone ended up being challenged. So now that I’ve returned from the winding alleys of Why I Hate The Phrase “Comfort Zone” – here’s my actual (and ridiculously tl;dr) submission I figured I might as well post here :).

There were two points on which I focused for my original “Comfort Zone” assignment submission: 1) my perceptions and concerns about sexual harassment and attitudes towards women in India, and 2) mild concerns about being able to effectively relate to my classmates (and vice versa). I wasn’t terribly worried about finding myself outside of my comfort zone in either of those ways (or any others), which I think is just a function of having learned to find “comfort” in the uncomfortable, and that there’s much that’s meaningful and occasionally lovely to be found in those times when I’m feeling most discomfited. While I don’t exactly relish those uncomfortable moments or experiences when they inevitably turn up, I not only have learned not to fear them, but to embrace them in order to find the worthwhile bits that are nearly always to be found. That all said, I had occasion during our very first lecture at SVYM, and with more punch than I expected, to be shoved squarely out of my comfort zone in ways both related to and beyond my original comfort zone points.

As a lesbian out now for over fifteen years, I’ve had ample time to fight my own battles (and learn which battles to just leave aside altogether), and to grow into being both confident and comfortable in who I am (certainly not only in being gay – but in the myriad other aspects of my personality and my character.) This comfort and confidence has over time has been blended with a cynical sense of self-protectivism wrapped in some rather durable common sense which allows my confidence/comfort to stand solidly on its own, not dependent on others’ positive opinions nor subject to deflation by others’ criticism or disapproval. Given my overall constitution of being relatively unflappable and able to remain emotionally level and calm even in the face of provocative words or actions directed at me, I’m not one for raising even an eyebrow towards someone disapproving of gay people generally, or me specifically. Add to all that my understanding in advance that I would be traveling to a country currently in the midst of a not insignificant amount of cultural and political struggle over gay people and gay relationships.

That all was a long way of detailing why I consider myself not particularly prone to knee-jerk responses or going all emo the second someone starts disparaging gays – it’s long past my first time at that rodeo.

So color me rather surprised to have found myself pissed off to the point of tears during our very first lecture at SVYM, given by Professor Lakshmithathachar on the topic of Indian thought and values. I warmed up immediately to his narrative teaching style, gentle manner, quickness to smile, and matter-of-fact tone. However, my eyebrows started to furrow when his lecture went down alleys resulting in his assertions (seriously and un-ironically) that “males are built for logic, females are built for emotion,” that sex is only ever to be a means for procreation, and that an obese woman must necessarily be working through some sort of karma for misdeeds in a past life.

The first two doctrinal points I could respect given his experience and perspective as a Hindu of very traditional beliefs and values, particularly in the context that this was ostensibly a lecture on the foundational beliefs and values which have shaped and influenced Indian culture. However, his unblinking description of karma as essentially “fat girl is fat because she mocked someone’s appearance in a past life” suddenly made both my hackles and blood pressure rise, in part due to a sudden defensive protectiveness I felt towards one of the other students in class whose physical appearance could be viewed as a direct example of his illustration. In that moment the timbre of his words and attitude shifted abruptly for me from the realm of quaint but relatable into empty, dogmatic, and entirely void of compassion or pragmatic sensibilities, and I found myself suddenly righteously pissed off.

Soon to follow was the professor’s response to one of our classmate’s inquiry about his views on homosexuality: “homosexuality is neither valid nor acceptable.” I was not at all academically or logically affronted at his assertion, it was after all entirely consistent with his stated notions of religion, sex and the sexes. However, due to the perfect storm of my already-raised hackles combined with being surrounded by a classroom of 19-21 year-olds, with whom I’d not yet had really any opportunity to form relationships or establish any sense of trust, I felt suddenly, surprisingly, and personally humiliated at what felt (however irrationally) like a summary dismissal of my identity and existence by this professor in front of the entire class.

One thing I have a solid policy against, for many reasons, is engaging in debates on religion or sexuality with those whose beliefs differ from my own. So while I refused to do anything that resembled picking a fight with the professor over the points of his lecture that I found so problematic, I felt compelled to publicly lodge my disagreement, which I hoped against hope I could accomplish without bursting into tears. I wasn’t feeling weepy or emo about the whole situation, but I’m unfortunately cursed with that particular physiological wiring where sudden, large anger and adrenalin surges are inextricably linked to tears and/or a failure of voice function when attempting to verbally respond to such anger: i.e. when I’m incredibly pissed and try to speak – I risk bursting into tears. Which just serves of course to infuriate me further. 😉

Anyway – the solution I chose to assuage my offended sensibilities without picking a fight was to respectfully assert my disagreement with his opinions on matters of sexuality and women, but would he please speak to my concern that his view of karma could lead to a lack of compassion for those who experience trauma, illness, abuse or other less-than-ideal circumstances in life. Happily – I managed to do so without bursting into tears in front of the class – go me.

Fortunately we took a lecture break for tea shortly thereafter, allowing me a chance to defuse some of my energy and adrenalin away from the rest of the class. However, I didn’t manage to step away quickly enough before Susan Wootten (who I had already gotten to know a small bit during our travels) came over to simply put a hand on my shoulder in encouragement and check in that I was alright after all that, which resulted (much to my chagrin!) in my bursting into tears on her – although thankfully after all of the students had filed out of the classroom.

The short break allowed me to get back to my calm, collected center, and to be able to step back and find some fair bit of amusement in the ease with which the professor found such a chink in my armor – not that he was actually trying to.

I’ve many other notions and thoughts about how I feel/felt positively about that lecture in retrospect, despite and even because of the flare in emotion and feeling in generated not only in me, but (as I found out later) within my classmates as well – providing us an early opportunity to bond and feel protective/compassionate/allied towards one another in some particular ways. I had other opportunities to feel challenged in (or out of?) various aspects of my comfort zone during the trip, but certainly this was the very first, the most acute and most surprising of any of them.


1. Stefanie - February 5, 2014

Wow, you handled yourself so well. I have a tendency to shake uncontrollably and cry so I can imagine what a hard time you had. Big hugs to you! Also, awesome analysis of “comfort zone”!

therealtinlizzy - February 11, 2014

Yes – you and I have must have that same adrenalin-fueled meltdown wiring 😉 – so maddening! I was certainly fighting a shaking voice and tears. And don’t think I wasn’t wanting to slug him just a teeny bit for his calm, collected, matter-of-fact dismissal of truths I hold. But grateful to have kept a lid on my emo, although of course that’s clearly what I was “built for!”

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