I was recently trying to help somebody who has been careening between anxiety and depression. This inner emotional ping-pong game has her paralyzed. She knows what she needs to do in order to achieve a goal that is vitally important her, but she can’t bring herself to stop hiding under the bed, sometimes metaphorically speaking and occasionally in physical fact.
In his book Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety, Robert Gerzon describes “the comfort zone” as a place that is anything but comfortable. Rather, it’s the zone where dreams die and goals wither on the vine, where New Year’s resolutions show up dead on arrival, and where untold hours are wasted watching television and chatting on social media as a way of avoiding the work required to achieve more important goals.
Gerzon tells us that the comfort zone is bounded by two walls: the wall of anxiety and the wall of depression. What often happens, he says, is that we become inspired by a goal and decide to move toward it. But as we start to work, we run into the wall of anxiety. What if we fail? What if we succeed but nobody cares (a fear faced by anyone who has ever written a book, composed a song, or painted a painting)?
If we allow the wall of anxiety to stop us, we fall back toward the comfort zone – but we don’t just stop at the point where we began. We keep falling until we hit the wall of depression. We were on the hero’s journey (as described by Joseph Campbell). We were going to do something magnificent and memorable.
But when we ran into the fire-breathing dragon standing guard at the wall of anxiety, we quailed and abandoned the quest. We failed to rescue the maiden in distress and recover the treasure at the end of the rainbow. And that failure was profoundly depressing.
But one cannot wallow around in the swamp of depression forever. Eventually, we are inspired to try again, or inspired by a new goal. We get up off the couch, mount our charger, and once again take off down the path of the hero’s journey. Where, inevitably, the fire-breathing dragon awaits our return at the wall of anxiety.
There is, Gerzon says, only one way to break the cycle, this ping-pong game of anxiety and depression. We must expand our comfort zone by breaking through the wall of anxiety. On the other side of that wall is freedom and achievement. There is nothing on the other side of the wall of depression except for emptiness and despair.
In the next several weeks I will share a series of ideas and strategies for breaking this ping-pong cycle. But for now, I encourage you to simply pay attention to whether and how it is playing out in your life. When you are engaging with friends you’ll never meet on Facebook, are you really networking? Or are you hiding out in your comfort zone because you are terrified of the fire-breathing dragon that stands between you and the other side of the wall of anxiety?
Whatever your roles in life – as a parent, as a manager, as a caregiver, and as a citizen – it is essential that you recognize the danger of dwelling in the comfort zone and that you have the courage to break through the wall of anxiety.