To develop as human beings, especially as socially engaged beings allowing connection with others, that is to say, intimacy, we must allow ourselves to walk in unknown territory, since each of us has wounds and traumas that inhibit our being in our fullness, especially when relating to other people. As Jean-Paul Sartre said “Hell is other people”. The meaning of this is that when faced with others we will come up against our deepest unmet longings, our deepest fears and our greatest challenges.
Growth then, must take us out of our known patterns of being and relating. Expansion necessarily takes us out of our safe place, out of our Comfort Zone. The Comfort Zone is the known, the place where we feel as safe as we can; it is the familiar, the already programmed routine of our day, or psyche, of our lives; it is the rules that we believe govern life, of how to behave and how to be that we have inherited and that are constraining our existence. The Comfort Zone is safe, but it is also lifeless. Life cannot flow in the rigidly controlled ‘already known’.
To move towards Life requires us to move beyond our Comfort Zone. The space beyond this is the Growth zone. The Growth Zone is where we feel our edges; it is where we experience challenge, newness, the unknown; it is the place that we can expand into slowly, expanding and integrating with each step. It is in the not-yet-known that Life can truly flow through us and engage with us, that it can unfold us into who we may be rather than the limitations of who we believe ourselves to be.
Beyond the Growth Zone there is another zone, which we call the Panic Zone. The Panic Zone starts when we feel there is too much unknown, when the challenges become too big for our psyche to handle; it is the place of Chaos where we can no longer control our experience. The Panic Zone is where we feel overwhelm and trauma floods our system. Panic and neurological stress happen when we feel that our perceived resources are insufficient to manage the demands of the situation. It is in these places that we begin to dissociate, to disconnect from our felt experience and when the higher functioning parts of our brain that allow us to operate as social beings, interacting healthily with others, shut down. I will look at these reactions in more detail in other blogs, but for now it is enough to understand that moving into the Panic Zone is not something that is desirable.
Panic may be elicited by too much new feeling, flooding the system. It does not matter if that feeling is ‘negative’ such as fear, sadness, rage or a ‘positive’ feeling such as joy and pleasure. In both cases the feeling of overwhelm will likely take hold and the individual will not be able to integrate their experience.
These two poles of the Comfort Zone and the Panic Zone are also the twin aspects of the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol – a circle divided into two swirls, one black, the other white. Within each swirl is a dot of the opposite colour. The dark swirl represents Chaos, the white swirl Order or Rigidity. Between the two swirls is a line. That line is the Tao, ‘the way’, ‘the path’. To be truly on the Tao is to have a perfect balance of Order and Chaos, a harmonious relationship between the amount of structure and the amount of unknown that we allow in our lives. Too much Order and Life cannot thrive. Too much Chaos and our psyche is overwhelmed.
The sweet spot for therapy then is the Tao, the line between Order and Chaos, the balance point between the known and the not-yet-known. It is in this Growth Zone that true, integrated expansion can occur.