Beyond the campfire

Beyond the campfireThere is a boundary within which we feel safe and which beyond lurk the threats to our sense of security. Like a dog with an invisible fence, we are notified of this boundary by our emotions such as anxiety, fear and perhaps anger, but also feelings of excitement, interest and curiosity. The “comfort zone” varies tremendously from person to person. Some individuals feel comfortable wandering or even leaving the globe engaging in activities that would make the faint-hearted shudder. Others find it threatening to leave their bedroom — panic-bound with almost every move they make. How we manage this boundary is a crucial determinant of our lives.

This boundary is like the space between the warmth and safety of the campfire and the menacing dangers beyond its glow. We may prefer to cling closely to the intoxicating comfort and security the fire provides, but this draws the boundary even closer. If we never leave the campfire, we may find a life crowded with anxiety. Fear is a hardwired emotion that is activated to help us escape threat. We may find it extremely difficult to leave what feels secure when we feel afraid.  But fear will not just go away if we try to wait it out, there is no way for it to be permanently exiled — threat, danger and risk will always be “out there” somewhere.  The question is how close is the boundary? We can minimize fear’s influence over us, but this only happens “beyond the campfire.” We must be willing to leave the place where we feel safe in order to expand the territory where we will feel safe. To “move beyond” requires motivation, and to find this we will need to switch emotional states.

Wolf-Eyes04Anger is one possible option. Like fear, anger is a hardwired emotion, however unlike fear, which motivates us to escape threat, anger activates us to engage threat. It is also elicited when we feel our freedom has become too restrained, when we feel our safety zone has become claustrophobic or endangered. Even a rabbit will fight a predator when backed into a corner.  Anger motivates us to move out of safety and into risk. Anger enables us to drive the lurking danger farther away from the campfire.

There are also positive reasons to move beyond the campfire and into the riskiness of the boundary. Safety and security may be desirable, but there are some pleasurable feelings that cannot be found near the campfire. Many forms of entertainment involve some element of risk. Increased feelings of aliveness, novelty and excitement often arise only when the stakes are raised.

Leaving our comfort zone feels risky but pushing into the unknown is the only way to stretch our boundary and expand the territory where we can freely roam. It may also be the only way to connect to the full complement of human emotions and feel truly alive.


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Growing Around

treethroughcoasterThe shape of a tree tells its developmental story. Trees grow around objects blocking their “lightward” trajectory. In some cases, these objects are permanent, making the tree’s story easily discernible. Yet in others, the original obstacle (e.g., another tree) may have been displaced or rotted away leaving only mystery and speculation.

Our personal developmental story reveals itself, not only in our physical presentation, but through our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Like trees, we too “grow around” the circumstances and people we encounter in our “lifeward” trajectory. We may remember some of the stories and circumstances behind these shaping experiences, but more likely they were never explicitly recorded. Regardless, these experiences have directed our growth. Conditioning and emotional learning write much of our implicit guidebook, which is revealed in our immediate experience and subjectively felt as we encounter life.

Conditioning refers to types of paired learning experiences, which are often involuntary. Classical conditioning, which we associate with “Pavlov’s dog,” refers to experiences that are paired together to the point where the paired stimulus reflexively induces the response normally associated with the other stimulus. Operant conditioning, which we associate with B. F. Skinner’s pigeons, is a form of instrumental learning that is based on whether behavior is reinforced or punished. Another significant way we are shaped is through social learning, which is based on direct instruction, modeling or observing the consequences of other people’s behavior. Social learning can be convoluted due to the subjective nature of our perception. Our interpretations are personal and do not always reflect what the “teacher” intended. Much of our learning is both implicit and emotional, bypassing our conscious awareness. Making it more complicated, the learning we receive is pre-filtered and colored by past emotional learning.

When we are confused by our own behavior or when it feels out of sync with our conscious intentions this often reflects that our subconscious mind is at odds with our conscious mind. Our subconscious mind follows the “rules” laid down in our implicit guidebook, rules originally drafted to keep us physically and emotionally safe, rules learned through past emotional experience — rules that might have passed their expiration date. Just as the earth can be equally shaped by intense events such as volcanoes or by slow and steady changes such as erosion, our emotional lives are shaped by the traumatic and the relentless. These experiences live on in the eternal present of our subconscious mind; rule enforcement is always on the ready. These rules are reinforced in their enactment. For example, when the guidebook’s rules prevent us from leaving our comfort zone, we are also prevented from possibly disconfirming our rules. As a result, our anxiety lives on to rule another day. It is in this way, the odd bend in our “trunk” remains a daily part of our lives, even though its origin may be a mystery.

 


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.