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Elan Vitae


  • Heather Doyle Fraser


I live in Ohio, and the coming of Spring feels momentous. January and February are a gray and gloomy duo for the most part. As I think about the Januarys and Februarys throughout my life, I often picture myself trudging through them while simultaneously trying to hygge up my space, bringing some comfort and cozy to my inner and outer landscape.

This year, as I step across the threshold of Spring with its beginnings of buds on the maple trees and green daffodil stems bumping out of the soil, I’ve set an intention to bring with me a bit of the comfort I cultivated during the Winter season. I have a vision for myself: I’m on a mission to renew my commitment to comfort this year. I want to bring intentional awareness to what brings me comfort and explore how I can commit to living inside my comfort zone, especially when it comes to my writing practice and process.

Why writing in particular? Whether you consider yourself a writer or not, writing is a pathway to sharing your voice, but it is also a pathway to healing and how we make sense of ourselves and the world. The practice and process of writing mirror our experience of life. Regardless of whether you are journaling, blogging, or even writing a book, you will find that writing is vulnerable and raw, exciting and humbling, frustrating and inspiring, effervescent and muddy. It’s up and down, back and forth, two steps forward and three steps back. It feels exactly like life in the context of a page.

In our culture and society, there is a lot of noise around getting OUT of your comfort zone. After a while, we begin to believe that we can only excel and succeed if we stretch BEYOND our comfort zones. I think this idea trickles or crashes into everything, including our concept of what a successful writing practice might look like (this idea makes its way into all the corners of our lives).

Your writing self has a need to be seen and heard whether you realize it or not. And naturally, your task-manager self wants to help you achieve and excel! Here’s a glimpse into what that competitive task manager might be saying as you plan to write:

“What works in my every day? Goals! Outcomes to achieve! A list of to-dos! How about three long-hand 8 ½ X 11 pages per day in ten minutes for my journal time? YES!

Or if you are writing a blog or personal essay that may one day see its way into a book:

“One thousand to fifteen hundred words per day! YES! That will do it. Create a stretch goal. That’s the only way to be noticed. That’s the only way to do it “right.” That’s the only way to get your message out in the world!”

What I know about being human is that constantly being outside of your comfort zone leaves you engulfed by threat, fear, and resistance. This isn’t a place of creativity. This is a place of survival. And while you might be able to plow through that resistance initially, eventually, you will exhaust your internal resources. Your capacity will diminish until it feels like your inspiration has left the building.

I have a different idea to explore – a different way to approach writing and life: I want us to settle into our comfort zones. I know it will take some practice, and it might even feel counter-intuitive if you are used to stretching, stretching, stretching, stretching until you feel like you might break instead of bend (that’s how I feel sometimes).

First, let’s start with a shared understanding of what I consider your comfort zone. I do not consider your comfort zone to be without struggle or challenge. I consider your comfort zone the place where you know -- with profound wisdom -- that you have the wherewithal to navigate the struggles and challenges that will inevitably come up as part of our humanity. I think your comfort zone sits at the confluence of the three emotional regulation systems within us: the Threat System, the Drive System, and the Soothe System. I’m borrowing the identification of these three emotional regulation systems from Compassionate Mind Training out of the Compassionate Mind Foundation UK, founded by Dr. Paul Gilbert.

According to Dr. Gilbert (the founder of Compassion Focused Therapy and Compassionate Mind Training), as humans, we have three emotional regulation systems that have evolved over time to help us survive. Picture in your mind three circles; ideally, they work in concert to help us thrive when they are balanced. I think your comfort zone lives at the intersection of this three-circle system, like a Venn Diagram. When you are in your comfort zone, you can utilize your Drive System and Soothe System to handle the fears, blocks, and resistance that Threat System ignites. I believe that your comfort zone IS your writing zone and your life zone.

I believe that your comfort zone grows with you and your voice, but if you try to grow too fast, you find yourself enveloped in threat and drive that you are not ready to navigate.

How might this show up in writing? In the form of fear, resistance, or what some people call writer’s block. When you are in the Threat System, you have a bodily response that tells you things are not safe. This happens in writing, too. You might experience sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, an unsettled stomach, shallow breathing – any of these may show up from time to time and at various levels of intensity when you see that blank page or when you are trying valiantly to get those fifteen hundred words down in record time.

There’s another way to approach writing and life, though, that asks you to bring comfort, compassion, and soothing to yourself on purpose. A way that looks soft, subtle, and slow on the surface but is fierce and filled with strength if you have the courage to look underneath. This way requires curiosity and compassion. It begs you to start asking yourself questions and listening to the answers. Questions like, “What if I allowed my curiosity and comfort to be the momentum behind my inspiration and creativity? What if I embraced a balance of what empowers and motivates my drive and what inspires my calm or soothe?

Spending time where you have strength and capacity leads to focused attention in whatever you are doing, but especially when it comes to the practice of writing. It’s a process that will take you to your outcome – whether that be healing through a journal or a blog or a book – but only if you stay in the practice day after day and are willing to comfort yourself when the page looks like a bleak February sky.

Photo credit: Christy G


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