I was talking to someone the other day about changes in their life, and they said that they were feeling pulled out of their comfort zone. It made me think about the distinction between uncomfortable and unfamiliar. I was given this distinction many years ago, and have found it to be a really useful guide to where change could be positive for me and where it isn’t.

I find the metaphor of clothing useful to clarify the distinction: there is a big difference between the feel and look of a suit which fits properly and one that doesn’t. We may not be used to wearing a suit, so both may feel a little odd to us, but we know if that’s because it’s just unfamiliar, or if it’s because it doesn’t fit us properly.

So when we are facing some change in our lives, we need to ‘try it on for size’. Imagine yourself being in that new circumstance, and see how it feels. Your body will tell you if it fits or not. If you find that you want to immediately get out of it, the likelihood is that it is uncomfortable, a poor fit for who you are – our gut reaction tends to be accurate.

If you are tempted to give it a twirl, view it from another angle, or you smile as you try it on, the chances are it’s just unfamiliar. If you take notice of your body’s reaction, rather than letting your mind over-ride that information, you will begin to get the distinction.

And even if your mind does over-ride, just notice what language it uses to do so. If there are should’s and ought’s involved, you know it’s uncomfortable. ‘This should be fine’, or ‘I ought to be able to handle this’. On the other hand, if your mind is saying, ‘I don’t know how this will work’, or ‘I’m not sure how I will handle this’, it’s just unfamiliar, and you are identifying that you haven’t got a ready made formula for dealing with it.

What if it’s going to happen anyway?

If we realise that it doesn’t fit for us, but it is not something we can just avoid, then we have the opportunity to ask ourselves, ‘What would make it more comfortable for us, a better fit?’ It may be that we need to declare our discomfort beforehand, saying that it doesn’t feel right for us. Or we may realise that we would find it more confortable if we had some overt support while we were experiencing it. Or perhaps we can make some small change to the circumstance that would make it feel a better fit.

And if we’ve established that it is unfamiliar, we may still feel we would find it easier if we have some form of support/encouragement, or suggestions for first steps into it. We also need to allow ourselves a bit of time to get used to it.

As a small child, you encountered the unfamiliar all the time – that’s how you developed, by gradually assimilating new things. But you needed reassurance, help, encouragement, and time to do the assimilation.

You also knew instinctively if something was uncomfortable for you, spitting out the food you didn’t like, yelling when you were being left for a while with someone you didn’t like being with.

You do know the distinction – use it to make life easier for yourself.

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