|About the presenter: Alan Badmington is a former police officer and lifelong stutterer from Wales, UK. He is a successful figure in the public speaking clubs of England and Wales and regularly addresses diverse community organisations in an attempt to increase public awareness about stuttering. He has also given talks to trainee SLPs, as well as undertaking presentations at NSA and BSA events. His television, radio and newspaper interviews have further brought stuttering to the fore. Alan has contributed a chapter to John Harrison's book, 'How to conquer your fears of speaking before people'. His work has been reproduced in NSA/BSA publications and on the major stuttering-related websites. Alan is co-moderator of Stutteringchat, the world's largest Internet group for persons who stutter. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org|
What is a comfort zone?
A comfort zone is an area of thinking, behaviour and/or experience to which we confine ourselves, because we do not wish to feel uneasy. It's the living, work and social environments to which we have become accustomed. It's the equivalent of the shallow end of the pool to someone who lacks confidence to swim. It's being with people you know. It's the tried and tested, the habitual, the predictable - where there is an absence of risk and change. It need not be a happy environment - people remain in failed marriages or boring jobs merely because trying something new feels too scary.
Most of us operate within a zone that feels 'right.' We make decisions based upon the confines of that comfortable space. Comfort zones differ from person to person. They determine how we react with others; the type of friends we choose; the people we associate with; the way we handle situations. Some call it being comfortable others refer to it as being in a rut.
Why we remain in our comfort zones
Comfort is fine, up to a point, but no one can expect to be spared trouble, pain or inconvenience. Some people rigidly cling to the belief that they should be comfortable at all times, avoiding 'uncomfortable' events they encounter. Although most of us have the potential to tackle the source of our discomfort, many decline to attempt anything constructive, refusing to tolerate the slightest degree of temporary discomfort (even though it might be in their interest).
When we avoid short-term discomfort, we actively invite long-term disadvantages, which could have been avoided by initially taking prompt action (and putting up with short-term discomfort).
Fear is the gatekeeper to our comfort zones. Stepping into unfamiliar territory is invariably accompanied by nervousness or apprehension. Some become prisoners of their own insecurities - fearing change, failure and even success. People seldom procrastinate doing things they enjoy, yet frequently defer (or avoid) tasks that involve something new.
When we move into uncharted waters, we cannot guarantee a successful outcome. We allow the fear of consequences to deter us from taking action. We hesitate because we view it as too difficult, involving too great a risk, or likely to expose our vulnerability.
One of the greatest obstacles is the fear of failure. But, all change involves an element of risk. Those who do not experience set-backs are not attempting anything. Failures are the stepping-stones to success.
Our natural reluctance to break out of our comfort zones is also motivated by our unwillingness to accept greater responsibility. By not venturing outside, we eliminate risk but severely limit our personal and professional growth.
Comfort zones and stuttering
For the purpose of this paper, I shall relate the comfort zone concept to persons who stutter (PWS). As someone who commenced stuttering in early childhood, I developed many negative beliefs about my speech behaviour. As I experienced continuing difficulties throughout my life, these beliefs became engrained. My behaviour and personality were adjusted to accommodate my stutter.
As I suffered the social consequences of malfunctioning speech, I changed the way I felt about others and myself. I developed strategies to protect myself from shame and embarrassment. I learned avoidance techniques in relation to words, sounds and situations. I perceived anything that challenged my limited self-image as a threat to my well being.
A self-image that is too narrow and constrictive to accommodate our entire personality imprisons us and curtails our activities. It has been my experience that many PWS avoid expanding their comfort zones, casting themselves in a diminished role - content to live the same old safe, predictable life.
On the other hand, if we can broaden this self-image to accommodate the different sides of ourselves, then we are able to play all these roles, and be comfortable in doing so. The moment you are willing to give up your old self-image, you will find that there are incredible opportunities for change.
Expanding my comfort zone
When younger, I purchased a small electronic device (the Edinburgh Masker), which I wore constantly for more than 20 years. Although this mechanical crutch never resolved my speech problem, it gave me the confidence to venture into situations that many PWS would have avoided. Despite the setbacks, I had unwittingly sowed the seeds of a system that would support greater fluency and self-expression.
Three years ago, I acquired new tools to overcome speech blocks and 'feared' words. Many years earlier (prior to the Masker), I had achieved increased fluency in a controlled environment but was unable to sustain those gains in the real world. In order to progress, I now had to deal with personal issues involving communication with others. I needed to dismantle the psychological framework that had supported my stutter for over half a century.
I had always considered myself to be relatively outgoing (despite my stutter) but I had never attained my true level of potential.
I drew up a plan of action, preparing a list of speaking situations that I had always avoided. I realised I needed to view myself in a different light. I needed to do certain things over and over again until the behaviours became familiar and I got used to seeing myself in those new roles.
I knew that I had to face my fears; I needed to challenge the negative beliefs and feelings that I had developed (in many cases unconsciously) over so many years. I would never again succumb to the temptation of substituting an easy word for a difficult one, and I promised myself that I would accept, and never shirk, the challenge of any speaking situation.
The things I did were uncomfortable at first, but they became progressively more comfortable as I repeated them again and again. Your ability to tolerate short periods of discomfort is the key to change. If you are willing to take risks, you can bring about a significant transformation in your attitude and self-image. Here are some of the things that I did to expand my comfort zones:
Using the telephone
Each day, I spent lengthy periods speaking to businesses selected from the yellow pages. I created fictitious enquiries involving such commodities/services as mobility vehicles; wedding photographs; water dispensers; car rental; photocopiers; drain blockage; musical equipment; and transportation of household effects. Most companies were accessed via toll free numbers, so I did not incur a great deal of expense.
With progressive calls, the fear level subsided and, over a period of time, I demonstrated to myself that I could speak authoritatively to complete strangers during lengthy conversations.
I would telephone hotels to enquire about accommodation rates, although I had no intention of using their facilities. I also rang restaurants to reserve tables in my name, primarily because I had always feared saying 'Alan Badmington'. I would ring back later to cancel the booking - again taking the opportunity to announce my identity.
Throughout our married life, my wife had always undertaken the task of arranging appointments with the doctor/dentist. I told her that I greatly appreciated her previous assistance but stressed that I now needed to assume those responsibilities. It was imperative that I explained my reasons, otherwise she may have felt rejected.
Talking to strangers
Although many people knew that I stuttered, there were occasions (particularly in unfamiliar surroundings) when I would attempt to conceal my dysfluency. To reverse this trait, I made a conscious decision to engage in conversation with complete strangers (in the street; on trains and planes; at airports; in restaurants and stores) and talk openly about stuttering. I was amazed at the courtesy and apparently genuine interest that was displayed.
Quite apart from the fact that I was now acknowledging my problem, it also had the effect of desensitising such speaking situations. I began believing that I could talk to anyone about a subject that had so adversely affected my life since childhood. My negative perception that the listener would be embarrassed, or might even ridicule me, was replaced by a positive perception.
Although introducing myself had always proved problematical, I was determined to say my name at every opportunity. I discontinued my life-long practice of carrying a paper bearing my particulars.
Speaking in front of groups figured prominently among my list of fears. A catalogue of painful experiences, accumulated throughout my life, had fuelled my belief that I could never successfully perform that role. The only way to combat my fears was to face them head on, so I joined the Association of Speakers Clubs in the UK. I now attend three such clubs, where I regularly give prepared and impromptu speeches, chair meetings, participate in debates, present tutorials and provide oral evaluations of speeches made by others. In addition, I have enjoyed a remarkable degree of success in public speaking contests in competition with fluent speakers.
I also undertake an extensive series of talks to community organisations, aimed at creating greater public awareness about stuttering. I am frequently invited to return to speak about totally unrelated topics. In addition, I have addressed student speech and language pathologists and presented workshops at the annual conferences/conventions of the British Stammering Association/National Stuttering Association. My fear of public speaking has now totally dissipated. What a transformation!
Approaching the media
In order to expand my horizons further (and spread the word about stuttering), I have undertaken television, radio and newspaper interviews in the UK and USA. Revealing my stutter to such wide audiences has further assisted my self-acceptance.
Many persons who stutter are denied opportunities to develop interpersonal skills, choosing to remain on the fringe of conversations. Recently, I have attended numerous adult courses/seminars that, at first sight, may appear totally unrelated to stuttering. My decision was influenced by the fact that I wished to place myself in situations where I could interact with persons I did not know. They have embraced such subjects as assertiveness, self-esteem, confidence building, positive thinking, public speaking and communication skills. I view these challenges as further stepping-stones along the road to personal growth.
The Internet affords excellent opportunities to practise one's speech. I regularly visit chatrooms (stuttering-related and otherwise) where I converse with persons from all parts of the world. I have even ventured into the romance chatrooms - with the full blessing of my wife. On such occasions, I promptly announce that my sole purpose is to practise my speech. At first, I was wary of how I would be received but, almost without exception, I have been encouraged by the positive reactions of the other parties. They invariably ask questions about stuttering, and it is surprising how many have relatives or friends who stutter.
Every day I still set myself goals - the greater the challenge, the more satisfaction I derive. For example, I will pluck at least three telephone numbers at random, either from the directory, or off the Internet. When I make the call, I acquaint them with my stuttering history and explain that I am attempting to expand my comfort zones. One unsuspecting recipient was Judy Kuster, whom I telephoned at her place of work.
The avenues for expanding one's comfort zones are immense, providing you use initiative and imagination. Here are some areas that you may wish to consider:
Personal development occurs when we venture beyond our existing comfort zones. It requires re-drawing our mental maps so that we increase the size of our familiar areas. When we feel the discomfort, we know that we are confronting the fear. It confirms that we are taking risks. If you are not feeling uncomfortable, then you need to push yourself more. Like the turtle, you can only move forward when you stick your neck out. The only limitations are those that we impose upon ourselves.
The success we achieve will be proportionate to the risks we take, and we become increasingly powerful as our lives expand to accommodate more experiences. As our power increases, so does our confidence in our own ability. We find it easier to continue the process of stretching our comfort zones, in spite of any fears that we may experience. I certainly found that I became more adventurous as time progressed, the magnitude of the risks expanding correspondingly.
When we achieve something that we, hitherto, regarded impossible, it causes us to reconsider our limiting beliefs. If we conquer something that has challenged our advancement, we grow in stature. We are never quite the same again. When we overcome hurdles, it opens our eyes to possibilities that we could never have imagined. When we are stretched by a new experience, we likewise grow as human beings.
(We should, however, be mindful of the fact that comfort zones can shrink as well as expand. The former may occur due to inactivity or lack of social intercourse. I experienced this several years ago when I was confined to home following a road accident. My speech deteriorated considerably as I was denied contact with others.)
Having performed virtually all of the challenges listed above (and so many more), I have reversed the negative stuttering mindset that pre-occupied my thoughts for more than 50 years. I am well aware that there are PWS who will consider some of the escapades a little too demanding. We all have different histories; different amounts of emotional baggage; and different aspirations. I did what I considered appropriate for my own personal circumstances. I'm not, in anyway, suggesting that others should attempt to imitate my example - I have merely described what was successful for me.
I have achieved things during the past couple of years that, at one time, were beyond my wildest dreams. I stepped outside my comfort zone and challenged the limiting beliefs about myself. I thrived on the new responsibilities and have grown immensely in stature. By working on other areas of my life, my speech has continued to improve as a bi-product.
I certainly do not have any intention of applying the brakes at this stage. My recent journey has been exhilarating and I am having so much fun. I feel I am a more complete human being; my life is so much more meaningful. Stepping outside my comfort zone, and treading a less familiar path, has greatly enriched my existence. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is contemplating a similar venture.
I would like to conclude with the following poem (of unknown origin) that I feel epitomises much of what I have touched upon in this paper. It has been amended to accommodate my personal circumstances:
I used to have a comfort zone, where I knew I couldn't fail
But the routine and familiar walls were really like a jail
I longed so much to do the things I'd never done before
But I stayed inside my comfort zone and paced the same old floor
I said it didn't bother me that I wasn't doing much
I said I didn't care for things like self-esteem and such
I claimed to be contented with the things inside my zone
But deep inside, I longed for something special of my own
I couldn't let my life go by just watching others win
So I held my breath, and stepped outside, to let the change begin
I took that step with inner strength I'd never felt before
I kissed my comfort zone 'Goodbye', and closed, then locked the door
If you are in a comfort zone, afraid to venture out
Remember, every stutterer was once consumed with doubt
So don't hold back - just take that step and seek those pastures new
Embrace your future with a smile, success is there for YOU