Have you ever noticed how, when things get scary, we may run towards comfort?
Comfort may be simple: comfort foods. Foods high in fat and carbs, filling foods that make us feel warm.
Comfort may be habitual: when my mother died recently, my sisters and I ran towards the habits that are core to us. I organized things to within an inch of their lives and wrote like a demon. One of my sisters clung desperately to normalcy: there were many things to do that we had never done before, things that required immediate attention, yet she clung to her routines and schedules and plans. My other sister showed up fully for a brief moment, then retreated to safety. It’s okay, I know this is how they cope with loss. I hope they forgive me my own coping mechanisms.
One woman I know seeks comfort in running: the more tense things are at home, the more she runs, self-soothing with endorphins. For a time, I comforted myself with walking: I had exceeded 100 miles a week before someone pointed out that I had walked all those miles and had gotten no further from my problems than I had been when I started. I knew a man for a while who was a bomb-thrower: in meetings his default was to say what no one else was saying, to push the boundaries – so brave and the second the meeting was over, he ran for the comfort of a cigarette.
Seeking Comfort in Emotions
You see it with emotions. People run to default emotions, those that they practice most regularly. People who have been feeling angry a lot lately, who use the energy of anger to power through the day, become used to feeling angry and begin to default to anger, even when a situation can be resolved without anger.
Sometimes we rest into a belief that we are right. That all those pesky people – coworkers, family, peers – who think there’s another way of thinking, another way of approaching something, a way that would require us to think differently, to accept that we’re not right about something… well, those people are just wrong. We can’t accept the new ideas, whatever they are.
Many years ago, I went through a period of defaulting to pessimism: whatever happened, I framed it as bad for me. All the stories I told, ended with the punchline of how horrible it was for me. Then I saw myself mirrored in someone else and the shock was so great that I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to do that anymore. I began to build awareness through meditation and catch myself running towards the comfort of pessimism. I reframed ferociously: how could this be good for me instead of bad? Although the relief was almost immediate, it took me several months to break this habit and form a new habit of positivity.
Seeking Comfort at Work
We run towards comfort in less extreme situations, too. We run for comfort when we find ourselves at loose ends at work. When we feel restless or uncomfortable. Sometimes you see people run for activities that they feel comfortable with, confident doing, instead of striking out and trying new things. You may see this with the newly-promoted, or people who have been counseled for performance issues. Instead of diving into the uncertainty of things they feel less confident doing – often dealing with people, who can be unpredictable – they default to familiar behaviors, tasks that allow them to deal with things they can control. This is a risk for the newly promoted: instead of accepting that they need to spend time with people (managing, networking, counseling, holding people accountable), they run to the comfort of whatever tasks it was that they did well (coding, analyzing, designing), that got them promoted.
At one point, I worked with a retailer that provided a paper day-planner pre-printed with instructions for each day: which displays needed to be re-set, etc. We replaced that planner with an online system that allowed the store managers to assign the resets online to specific employees and track completion. During the transition period, I visited a store with a regional manager to see how employees were adapting, where we might meet resistance (running for comfort). One of the employees (we’ll call him John) told me how much he hated the new online program because he could only see his own assignments – with The Planner, which lived at the customer service counter (the hub of the store), John had been able to look ahead later in his shift, and get a jump on the next day’s resets.
His manager nodded until I asked what their plan was for that day and how they were doing on it. The gap wasn’t much – $35 maybe, with two hours until closing. Was there a way to make that last $35? Sure, the manager replied, talking to customers, helping them find what they were looking for, recommending other items that would appeal to them – that always put money in the till.
I glanced around at the few customers who wandered the store and asked, “How do you want John spending his time now?” The manager knew the answer: push John out of the comfort of building tomorrow’s displays and into the uncertainty of talking with customers. Before I left, the manager had removed The Planner from its home at the customer service counter.
Is Comfort Bad?
Comfort food, while reassuring in small doses, is bad for you in the long run. If you eat macaroni and cheese or pastries for every meal, you put on weight, you become prone to clogged arteries and diabetes, which can lead to more problems and more. Scientists have found that prey animals do tend to eat higher-calorie foods – fruit instead of grass – when they sense that predators are nearby. The extra calories provide the food energy for short bursts of speed to escape in the chase. And, when the threat ends, they return to eating grass.
Privileged humans that we are, most of don’t need to escape physical predators on a regular basis.
And yet we continue to run for comfort, to consume comfort foods, to consume ideas and stories that feed our regular beliefs. To form habits and synapses that cause us to act in ways that are unhealthy, that don’t allow us to grow up – only out to the sides.
And the comfort wears off. We have to keep consuming more and more, hoping to fill that sense of emptiness, of discomfort. But after a while, the consumption becomes habitual, and no amount of the comfort food will satisfy us.
Running to Discomfort
What is the solution, if you find yourself running to comfort?
To open yourself to discomfort.
To turn off the voices that reflect your own perspective, whether they are in your head, on TV, in social media, or coming from the people you hang around with, your friends, your family, your neighbors. To seek out voices we might not listen to much and open ourselves to understanding their perspective.
To try something new. To leave your house, walk or drive a different way to someplace you often go. To travel and try new things. To reach for a carrot instead of a cookie.
To branch out at work: instead of resting into the comfort of tasks you already know how to do, take a risk and deal with people instead. Say Yes instead of No, when those people suggest an idea that runs counter to your firmly held belief that it will never work, give it a try.
What is your comfort food? How long have you been consuming it? Is it time to look up, look around, and start to reframe? To choose discomfort and try something new?