Tag Archives: comfort

Inside the comfort zone

The edge of the comfort zone is reputed to be the most productive place. It doesn’t mean you could, or should aspire to live there. And yes, pushing your limits can be good and exciting, but if you have to do it all the time it turns out to be relentless and exhausting. There should be no shame in seeking comfort and in wanting to be comfortable.

It is worth asking what comfort means. For me, these are the experiences that give something to us, gently. Comfort is nourishment, it soothes and affirms us. Our bodies need time to rest and recover. Learning requires downtime for us to digest and process. We actually grow more, improve more if we have downtime to consolidate that. None of us do our best anything when we are out at the edges all the time.

Comfort is highly personal and depends a lot on needs. For one person, comfort might be an afternoon of baking. For another person, it might be the ready meal that means you get to eat when you are otherwise barely coping. 

Comforts may take the form of things that look trivial to other people. We should be less judgemental about this. I note that the kinds of things women find comforting – romance novels and soap operas for example – tend to be treated as trashy. Taking comfort in watching sport and drinking alcohol is assumed to be manly and often gets treated with a lot more respect. The pleasures of the wealthy tend to be treated with more respect and admiration – yachts, horse racing etc than the pleasures of the poor – beer, cigarettes TV, etc. We’re far quicker to defend the rights of the wealthy to their planet-killing leisure activities than we are to defend the rights of poor people not to work themselves to death.

We all need time to be lazy. We need time to heal, reflect, regroup, recharge. People whose comfort choices seem problematic from the outside are often people who are suffering from a lot of pressures and a lack of resources. Exhaustion and poverty are going to impact on what you can do to comfort yourself. 

Rather than judging people for their lifestyle ‘choices’ I’d like to see a greater move towards considering what shared resources we have, and improving that. Green spaces, sports facilities, libraries, and cultural spaces can all offer comfort and opportunity, where we invest in that for the benefit of all. We need to recognise that poverty is stressful and that there are consequences. We need to stop treating hard work as virtuous and wealth as a measure of whether you should be working hard.

Everyone needs comfort. Everyone needs rest. I wonder what would happen if we started discussing comfort redistribution, and health redistribution, rather than focusing on money. Perhaps that way there would be more collective understanding of the implications of wealth and poverty.


Creativity and discomfort

Teenage me was fairly sure that people who were comfortable did not make great art. Partly this came from some self awareness regarding my own urges to create, and some of it from reading biographies. There are reasons the tortured-artist cliche exists.

For a long time, the drive to create was very much rooted in my own distress. I needed to put something into the world that paid for my existing. That wasn’t a good way to be, and my fundamental discomfort meant that I never could produce anything good enough to feel like it entitled me to exist. 

Creativity comes from the need to make, the need to change things, to add something to the world, to fix or improve something in some way. There is no making without the urge to change something, and the person who feels uncomfortable or insufficient may be more motivated to seek change by whatever means they can.

Over the years, I’ve become more comfortable. My basic physical needs are fairly well met. I’ve dealt with a lot of my issues. I don’t feel I have much to prove, and most days I don’t feel like I have to justify taking up space. On the bad days these things can all show up, but I don’t live there. I note that the relationship between discomfort and creativity has changed for me.

There’s so much to be uncomfortable about that isn’t personal. The state of the world, the amount of suffering out there, the politics, the systemic oppression and cruelty, the exploitation and abuse… Making has become a way to push back. Sometimes that’s about keeping usable stuff out of landfill, or cobbling things together for us so we don’t need to buy them. Small acts of eco-resistance. Often what motivates me is the urge to comfort or inspire someone else.

At this point, my own circumstances could not become so comfortable that I would have no motivation to create. These are the tools I have that I can use to help. That might mean creating as a way to raise funds to get things done (I have plans). It may mean offering what comfort and cheer I can (that’s a lot of the motivation for this blog and my whole approach to social media). While others suffer, I cannot be wholly comfortable.

Without the annoyance of grit, oysters do not make pearls. It’s something they do in self defence. There can be a lot of self-help in turning life’s grit into personal arty pearls. As I saunter about my middle years, I realise that teenage me was wide of the mark. Comfort is something that the privileged are able to choose. It depends on ignoring the suffering and the needs of others. Discomfort definitely does fuel creativity, but that can be entirely about a reaction to what’s out there. A person does not have to be suffering directly in order to empathise and try to make something that will help. A person who chooses their own comfort and isn’t open to the world isn’t going to make good art.


Cats and Comfort

Cats have always been a tremendous source of comfort to me. My experience of cats flags up many of the things I find problematic in my dealings with people.

Most cats are really uncomplicated. If you treat them with care and affection, they will reward you with care and affection. And sometimes leave mice in your shoes. Cats have never been bothered about my face, or my body shape, or how I dress. They just want to snuggle, or play, or eat my toast. When I have been sad, the cats in my life have generally been inclined to comfort me. They bring their warmth and their purrs. When I have been ill, they have sat with me. When I’ve been unable to sleep, they have kept me company.

Cats just respond one body to another, one living being to another. There’s a beautiful simplicity to it. In that gentle acceptance, I find peace, and I get to feel a bit better about myself. Cats generally find me ok. They find me adequate and tolerable and reasonable. I know many people have similar experiences with dogs, and horses and other creatures.

I wish humans were better at being creatures together. I wish we were more straightforward about needs, and the need for comfort. I wish we cared less about appearance and more about closeness and what we can share. You won’t impress a cat with a fast car – rather the opposite. So long as there is food and shelter, a cat really doesn’t care about your bank balance. It is not that difficult to be a good enough person for a cat to like, or love.

Animals generally aren’t interested in the kind of posturing humans go in for to try and impress other humans. They’re much more accepting of our diversity than we are. They are entirely willing to find us good enough, regardless of age or wrinkles, or how well we conform to human notions of beauty. They aren’t afraid to be excited when they are pleased to see us. They ask for food, and walks and affection and so forth with the confidence of beings who know these are needs that should be met and that asking is fine. And we don’t mind them asking, where we might feel put-upon or otherwise uncomfortable if a person asked us so bluntly for things they needed.

Creatures we live with are quick to forgive us our shortcomings and mistakes. They don’t bear grudges very often. They don’t save up grievances to air at some future date. What they want from us is simple, and they express it as clearly as they can. There’s so much they generously do not care about that we take such issue over when dealing with other humans.

If I was a cat, I would not need to ask for your attention or affection. I could just climb into your lap, and the odds are you would be pleased, in a really uncomplicated way. You would feel warmed and affirmed by my presence, not uneasy, compromised or threatened.  I wouldn’t seem difficult, even if I wanted a lot of affection and attention.  We don’t second guess cats. We don’t worry about their motives, or what they might expect from us.

If only we better knew how to be creatures for each other, how to accept each other and take joy in those small interactions.


Why soothing is a problem

“There, there dear, don’t cry.” It’s the most awful thing to hear when you are crying. There’s no comfort in it, it’s just a very polite way for someone to tell you to shut up while feeling that they’re being nice.

If a person is crying, there’s probably a reason, and that reason isn’t solved by telling them not to cry. Most allegedly soothing and comforting interventions work in much the same way. Cheer up. It will be ok. Things aren’t as bad as you think they are. Don’t worry about it. It isn’t important. There’s no need to be this upset… All of these kinds of comments are a message to the person who is hurt to make the people around them more comfortable by shutting down their distress.

Make soothing noises, and you make it harder for a person to talk about what’s hurting them. Tell someone things are ok when they aren’t experiencing it that way, and you’ve just written over their experience, erased it, told them that their perceptions aren’t important.

We don’t all experience things the same way. We have different vulnerabilities, different histories. Things can be painful and loaded for a person with a history in a way that might never occur to someone else. If something doesn’t seem like that big a deal to you, that’s no measure of how it might make someone else feel. Imposing your response as the truth isn’t going to make them feel better, it’s going to make them feel like they don’t matter.

If you want to help someone who is suffering, start by taking them seriously. Validate their feelings – even if you think they are wrong, accept that this is how they feel. Start from where they are, not where you want them to be. If you want to help, find out what’s happening for them, and take it seriously. Don’t tell them they shouldn’t feel that way, or that it is unreasonable. Deal with the distress first and then maybe there will be space in which you can explore the thinking and experiences that led there.

If someone stops crying because you told them to, you probably haven’t comforted them at all. There’s a very real chance you’ve just persuaded them that you don’t really care how they feel. They may feel dismissed and like their feelings and distress don’t matter. They may have just had a clear message that making you comfortable by shutting up is the most important thing. Sitting with someone else’s pain is a hard thing to do, and soothing noises are easy to make and really affirming for the person doing that. You make the soothing noises, the sad person gets quieter, job done! Only the odds are you’ve added to their load, not lightened it.

Pain takes work. Sometimes it means being uncomfortable. If you aren’t willing or able to be uncomfortable in order to help alleviate someone else’s distress, it is important to know that and handle it honestly. It is better to say that you can’t help, than it is to shut the other person down.


Art and comfort

It’s the challenging art that gets taken most seriously. Literary fiction is difficult, and may be uncomfortable. Anything that is mostly written to make you feel good, is usually deemed frivolous. It’s the same with film, with music and all other creative forms. If it requires effort then it is ‘good art’ and if it is easy then what you have is low brow, trivial and unimportant. It is my considered opinion that this is useless thinking.

Good art should discomfort the comfortable. This is a useful idea and it is well worth creating things that get under the radar and challenge people who mostly have things all their own way. But the flip side of this is that good art should also comfort the uncomfortable – and right now that’s most of us. The vast majority of us are one or two paychecks at best from total disaster. We’re dealing with a pandemic, with loss of liberty, fear of our political leaders and the horror of climate chaos. There are a great many of us right now who urgently need not to be challenged any more than we already are.

Good art does not have to make everyone uncomfortable. Comforting people is a good thing. Joy is a good thing. A happy ending isn’t somehow less meaningful than a harsh one, and right now may be the more imaginative stretch. We need hope, and ideas and a sense that it is worth keeping trying. Wherever you find that, is valid.

Beauty is not trivial. Bringing beauty into the world for its own sake is a good and worthy activity, and just as virtuous as challenging people. Happiness is not trivial, and most people could do with a good deal more of it.

Anyone who has enough emotional resilience that they can afford to be knocked around by things they engage with recreationally, clearly has plenty of privilege. They should totally get on with whatever painful education they feel they need. Anyone whose personal situation means they need to grapple with the hard stuff for processing, for catharsis, for understanding how they got where they are – should be free to do that on whatever terms they like. But if you don’t have the emotional resources to be heartbroken over art on top of everything else, don’t internalise any weird judgements over that. Delight is valid too.

And right now, hope feels considerably more radical than despair.


Cats and Comfort

I learned this week that seeking comfort from adults isn’t automatic in children. It’s a learned behaviour, and you only do it if you get chance (more here – https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/07/can-an-unloved-child-learn-to-love/612253/ ) It was something I’d suspected because when my son was born, I noticed that he didn’t find touch automatically comforting. It took a little while to build an association between touch and comfort.

I realise that I don’t seek comfort through human touch. I am not actually comforted by people touching or holding me when I am sad. It’s something I’ve tended to go along with when on offer because I don’t want to be weird with people who care about me.

It’s one of those curious coincidences that the article about Romanian orphans turned up in the same week as a kitten. I’ve been without a cat for a few months now. I note with interest that purring has a significant impact on my emotions, and how much distress I feel in my body. Having a cat sit on me, climb over me, even biting my hands, is immensely comforting. I seek comfort from contact with cats, not humans, and I’ve only just realised this about myself! Which frankly feels odd, but is useful.

Bodies are strange things, full of chemical reactions that we have set off by experiences, or we learn, or we come to associate with some stimuli but not others. We can end up learning very odd things. For my next adventure in body chemistry, I want to see if there’s anything other than preposterously long walks that kicks off a response from my reward centres. Hopefully there will be something other than walking until I can barely stand up that gives me those feelings. I’ll see what the kitten thinks…


Seeking discomfort

One of the hardest things to do is wilfully challenge the ways in which you are comfortable. Yesterday’s blog – Seeking comfort brought up a comment about white poverty in the southern states of America, “Why do people so often assume that to be white means to have a privileged life?” I’ve been in this conversation quite a few times before. It makes people uncomfortable.

Privilege is relative, and not an absolute condition, you can have privilege in some ways and be massively disadvantaged in others. You can be dirt poor and better off than someone else who is dirt poor and of a minority religion, sexual identity or racial background. It’s not that white privilege means we white people all have it easy, it means there are people who, by dint of skin colour, have it harder than us. In just the same way, having straight privilege, or male privilege, or cis privilege or being mentally and physically well does mean you live a charmed life. It means you have a certain set of advantages that you may be taking for granted.

If you’ve never looked at how your life may advantage you in some ways, it tends to be an uncomfortable process. If you are invested in the idea of your disadvantage, it can be really uncomfortable looking at how realistic this is. There’s a lot of difference between being poor in a peaceful country that has a social safety net and being poor in a famine or a war zone. And of course there are some vocal young men out there on social media keen to get across the idea that middle class straight white boys are the most persecuted minority in the world. If you think being able to flag up how persecuted you are creates some kind of social advantage, of course you’ll want to persuade people you are the ‘real’ victim. That kind of behaviour can only come from a place of not understanding what it means to be disadvantaged.

Having our stories challenged is never comfortable. We all exist in contexts that involve other people, culture, history… we are all still implicated in what colonialism has done around the world and what capitalism does, and the exploitation and abuse these things involve. It isn’t comfortable. It’s much more comfortable to pretend you don’t benefit from the things you benefit from. It’s much easier not to look at how you fit in the bigger picture.

Being able to resist such discomfort by refusing to engage with it, is the biggest privilege there is. Being able to deny your position in your culture and history is a place of power. Those who are trapped by culture and history don’t get to pretend it isn’t happening to them and have that be an effective solution.

Willingness to be uncomfortable is necessary for change. If we aren’t willing to be uncomfortable, we won’t work for fairness, or justice or equality. And if we’re making other people uncomfortable, it’s important to ask are we doing that by doubling down on what’s already hard for them, or are we doing it by pointing out where things might be better for them than they’ve acknowledged. If people are living in a state of discomfort, the right answer is to try and ease that where we can. If people are comfortable and oblivious to how much they have – they urgently need to feel uncomfortable. Most of us fall somewhere in between, advantaged in some ways and disadvantaged in others and better off when we can see how that works.


Seeking comfort

Our soft mammal bodies crave comfort. Climate crisis is going to give us a hard time on that score as we struggle with extremes of heat and cold, drought and rain. Those who have least will be hurt most by this. Those who have most will wack on the air con, or the heater and add to the problems.

Some people lack for comfort because they don’t have enough food, or can’t afford enough. Protein and good quality fats are expensive. Our bodies don’t always seem able to tell the difference between the comfort of sufficiency, and the kind of excess that will bring discomfort. We did not evolve to deal with routine excess.

Rest is one of the most important comforts available to us, and hard to come by. Rest requires quiet, space and time in which to do very little and feel ok about that. We’re encouraged to have hectic ‘modern’ lifestyles that deprive us of rest, and then to seek comfort other places – by buying something. A sofa, alcohol, junk food, holidays… None of the things we buy when we are trying to offset insufficient rest will give us the comfort we need.

Emotional comfort goes to those who have most and are most conventional. To be straight and white, middle class, financially secure, well educated, and home owning represents a selection of comforts that may be invisible to the person who has them. To be queer, poor, working insecure jobs and living in insecure conditions is to be much less comfortable. Many of these things intersect with each other to make things worse. Add in ethnicity, and the stresses and vulnerabilities this involves in any white-dominated society, and there’s a lot to contend with.

We seek comfort, all of us. For those of us who are systemically kept outside the comfort zones, this can be hard going, or impossible. For those who have too much comfort, this can lead to lack of empathy and understanding for those who have less. It can result in feelings of having deserved to be comfortable and being entitled to be comfortable. Thus when the uncomfortable make themselves seen and heard, the comfortable often feel threatened by this.

Too much comfort can make a life stagnant and unsatisfying – we do all need some challenges and opportunities to grow and learn. Too little comfort is a problem on a whole different scale. To live a life with no padding, no insulation against setback, much less disaster, is hard. Every day. To face only challenges and seldom know respite is emotionally exhausting. To fight against people who have too much and don’t understand what their comfort means, or what it means not to have that, is relentless.

Those with the most, and with the greatest sense of entitlement are also those with the most power, and they tend to reinforce the status quo – not always consciously. If everything supports your comfort and ease, it must be really tempting to see that as the natural order of things, and to see those who have less as less deserving, even if you never consciously think in those terms. It’s not comfortable asking how your comfort relates to the discomfort of others. When you have the power to maintain your comfort at someone else’s expense, it’s very easy not to look at how that works.


Comfort and discomfort

This weekend has brought a radical change of thinking for me, so I’m going to share it on the off-chance someone else finds it useful.

Triggering and panic attacks are big issues for me. Less of a problem than they used to be, but still things I have to navigate through. I know that people can trigger me in all innocence. They can do things that look like other things and panic me. My panic is not the measure of whether someone else is a good person or not. So, for years now, I’ve tried very hard to manage my reactions so that I don’t upset someone who has accidentally triggered me.

My experience of talking to people (usually, but not always men) who have triggered me is that many resent being asked to do differently and have expressed the idea that its unfair being held responsible for dealing with the consequences of something they didn’t cause. I’ve heard that and taken it onboard.

It means that much of my behaviour in response to panic and distress is about trying to keep other people comfortable. It’s not been about my comfort, or what I need to do to heal. Some of it is because I feel safer if I keep the men I’m dealing with comfortable. Thankfully the men I live with are not an issue on this score and are willing to hear, change and support. My safety is not dependant on their comfort. But in any other situation, if there’s a tension between my comfort and someone else’s, I tend to feel that asking for my issues to be heard is risky and may make things worse, not better.

This is where I’ve decided to make radical change. I never feel comfortable dealing with people who trigger me and expect me to deal with that. Even when they aren’t setting me off, I don’t feel safe and I am always on edge. I’m going to stop putting myself in those situations. I am not going to show up, or if I really can’t dodge it, I am going to get out at need. I’m going to stop investing energy in trying to make comfortable the people who make me uncomfortable.

If they call me a drama queen, or they say I am making it all about me, or being unfair to them, as has happened before in such situations, maybe I’ll just agree. And get out of the situation. I do not have to feel emotionally responsible. I do not have to feel obliged to comfort and reassure people who discomfort and unnerve me. I do not have to make their opinions the measure of whether my feelings or needs are even valid. It occurs to me that I don’t even have to get this right, or be fair or reasonable, that I can say no because I want to, and that I do not even need to justify it.


Meditation and pain

Pain is no aid to concentration. For the person in pain, being in the body is often the last thing you want. However, many meditation techniques start by focusing a person on their body – on breathing especially, and deep breathing at that, and on awareness of physical presence. Some meditation methods are purely about being present to yourself. If you’re in a lot of pain, it’s not an appealing prospect.

It is possible to meditate while in pain, and to benefit from doing so, but many approaches won’t work at all.

For mild pain, and pain that comes from tension, it may be possible to get some relief using meditation practices that focus on relaxation. However, for many of us, this will make little positive difference and may just serve to unhappily increase personal awareness of pain.

Make sure that everything in your meditation environment supports and enables your comfort. Ignore any other advice you have to, to achieve this. Any restful position that improves your comfort, any mild activity you can meditate around is good. Don’t do anything that adds to your pain, no matter what anyone else has to say about its value. People who are not in pain can have some funny ideas about what’s going to be useful, I have found.

Pick meditations that don’t depend on you having good concentration. Guided meditation CDs may help, listening to meditation music, cloud watching, contemplating a physical object – things where you can drift away and drift back, but which do not focus you on your pain.

Alternatively, pick a scenario that you would find it good to be in, and contemplate it. A sunny beach, an isolation tank, a sauna, a woodland in spring – whatever makes you feel good and can be easily imagined. Flight is a favourite of mine when I want to be away from my body, as is visualising myself floating in warm water. If you drift, just re-start, as there’s no narrative and no goal, it doesn’t matter if you can’t hold the thought for very long.

Meditate only for as long as works for you. Some bodies stiffen and become more painful if kept still for too long, so especially ignore the old chestnut about how if twenty minutes seems a long time you should be doing it for an hour… A lot of mainstream meditation advice comes from people who are largely well and assumes the person on the receiving end is fine, too. You know your body and you know your limits and no one is entitled to demand that you hurt yourself for a spiritual practice.