I’ve been thinking about the concept of “comfort zones” lately. Last week, the OU College of Nursing had a two-day All College Retreat. There were sessions for faculty only and for staff only, as well as sessions that brought everyone together. In one of those sessions, I led the entire college through the Leadership Dance. There were many skeptical people in the room, including the Dean who is adamantly in the “I can’t dance” group. But you know what? Everyone danced. People made mistakes, moved the wrong direction, and felt confused. They also moved together flawlessly, cheered as a group when they were successful, and laughed a lot! I doubt it convinced anyone to head out to a dance studio for lessons, but everyone relaxed enough into the activity to learn something and absorb the points of the workshop.
On the other hand, the workshop Leadership Yoga often does convince people to try yoga. We didn’t do that workshop last week, but when I mentioned it to a couple of people, I heard the classic reason people give for not taking yoga classes, “I’m not flexible enough.” Of course, my classic answer is, “That’s actually the reason to take a yoga class – to become more flexible.”
This thought took me to my reframing of the idea of imposter syndrome. I prefer to think of imposter syndrome not as being in a place I shouldn’t be, but rather being at the edge of our comfort zone. When we feel we are experiencing imposter syndrome, it means we are trying something new, stretching so to speak.
It occurs to me that part of our difficulty leaving our comfort zone and part of the experience of imposter syndrome are similar to the reactions to both workshops. Not “ooh, here’s something to learn” but “oh dear, here’s something I’m not very good at.” Part of the challenge of leaving our comfort zone seems to be that we want to be as good at the new thing as we are at something we’ve been doing for a long time. We can’t take yoga because we aren’t good at the thing we could learn taking the class. We don’t take dance lessons because we’re sure we can’t dance.
Yes, there are places where we may be the ‘first’ or we may find ourselves where people who have an identity like ours are rare. Acknowledging that reality or the reality that some people don’t think we should be in a particular space are different experiences from our own belief that we aren’t prepared to be there. I think it’s important to distinguish between the two.
These past few months, I’ve been learning something new. Sorting out the teaching schedule of faculty is complex, but understandable. Sorting out that schedule when it includes varied experiences – traditional classroom, lab and simulation, and clinical – is new math for me. And during the retreat, I learned we had made some mistakes, ugh. They were correctable, but making mistakes with people’s work schedule is not a good thing. (Not as bad as goofing up their paychecks though – I learned that lesson working in payroll as a college student.) But for those of us who want to do things right, it’s uncomfortable to make mistakes. I think that’s the challenge of leaving our comfort zone. I think that may be the reason we feel like an imposter in new situations.
What activities make you feel like you’ve left your comfort zone? Can you identify the reason that it feels uncomfortable? Is it your own lack of experience? Or your need to do things well before you’ve even had a chance to learn them? Or is it that you are challenging norms and other people’s expectations? In my current role, I know a lot about the Student Affairs side of the work. I even know quite a bit about how to get things done in the academic side of a college. But building a complex schedule that’s fair, meets multiple needs, and is based on mathematical formulas when I don’t know the basic principles, well, I’ve wandered far outside my comfort zone. But I have great people around me, a Dean who knows this stuff in her bones and is willing to teach all of us, and enough faculty who are giving me grace and time to learn. It’s still not exactly comfortable, but it’s enough. When you’ve identified what’s making you uncomfortable, it might help you name what you need to support you in your learning. A good teacher, or a mentor, or a group of friends to learn with might be just what you need to ease the discomfort. Best of luck and keep stretching. After all, being flexible helps us learn.