I’d talked my then-boyfriend into climbing this beautiful old lighthouse with me, all the way to the top. The weather was perfect, the sea air was invigorating, but something felt… off. Cory’s steps were strangely careful and calculated, and this was a guy who would normally challenge me to a race, then turn around, a goofy smile on his face as he beat me while backpedaling. His closed-off attitude and plodding gait were uncharacteristic, to say the least.
Once we reached the top, he let me in on the secret: He was afraid of heights. “I can’t go out there,” he said, sheepishly gesturing to the structure’s outdoor lookout point. It made sense—but I felt awful. Cory’s effort to go along with what I wanted to do was undeniably sweet, but learning that he was downright terrified turned what was supposed to be a fun bonding experience into a guilt-fest for me and a load of embarrassment for him.
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That misadventure took place years ago, but a recent situation reminded me of it.
This time, I was the one out of my element.
Just like Cory willingly embarked on an activity he knew he was going to hate just to please me, I found myself gearing up for a dance fitness class, despite a total lack of rhythm, coordination, and interest in dancing. But I was on a mission: to demonstrate my fun, carefree, and five-star gal-pal capabilities to a new friend.
I met Claire through a running club and fiercely wanted her to like me. As a consistently Single Person in my late 20s, it’s super important to me to establish and cultivate friendships, especially with other people who can relate to my struggle of cooking for one. So when Claire asked if I wanted to join her at her favorite fitness class, I responded with an enthusiastic Sure!, zero questions asked.
But once I realized the class involved choreographed dance moves to popular top 40 songs, my heart sank. While grooving to Rihanna is many people’s ideal Friday night, the very thought of attempting to shake it in a crowd of people makes me cringe. I refused to opt out, though: After all, weren’t the best things in life like growth and opportunity waiting for me just outside my comfort zone? All the Pinterest boards said so!
So I convinced myself that getting uncomfortable would be good for me.
But as the day of our class loomed closer, I just felt more and more anxious. Though I consider myself strong and thrive in typical fitness classes, this was a totally different wheelhouse. Sure, dancing is one thing when I’m a few drinks deep, the music is loud, and the lights are low. But in public? In front of a mirror?!
I wasn’t just stepping outside my comfort zone, I was racing away from my comfort zone at top speed and was about to be several zip codes away.
I tried to mask my unease in texts to Claire packed with LOLs and convinced myself it would be over quickly. I even had a beer before class to settle my nerves, fully proving I was 100 percent not OK. Taking the edge off didn’t help ease the tightness in my chest.
Despite an inclusive class culture and encouragement from Claire, I felt more and more uncomfortable with every misstep. I was bad at this. And soon, my embarrassment morphed into anger: It was Friday night, and I was spending it doing something I hated. What the actual eff was I doing?!
After class, Claire and I smiled tight smiles of genuine relief that the dancing portion of the evening was over.
The tension was palpable, though—and it was my fault. Instead of the fun bonding experience I’d envisioned, my panicked attempt at trying something way beyond my comfort level had strained our budding friendship.
Fortunately, Claire and I have other common interests, like watching The Bachelor, running, and her goofy dog, Wesley. But why didn’t I just suggest an activity we both like to begin with, instead of putting myself through an after-school special’s worth of emotions?
As adults, we have pretty good ideas of what we like and what we don’t. I don’t mean this in a narrow-minded way, but by the time you reach your mid-20s, it’s normal to know yourself well enough to get a sense of what sounds fun to you and what doesn’t (even if that idea can change over time). For example, I know I’d rather spend my Saturday morning running outside than lying in bed with a hangover from the night before. I know I prefer small groups over larger gatherings, and I know that I absolutely loathe dancing in front of a mirror.
The idea that we have to get out of our comfort zones to grow or have an incredible bonding experience with another human being isn’t totally inaccurate, but it can also lead to a miserable, anxiety-ridden time. While it can be healthy to step outside your comfort zones, if a certain activity is causing you major anxiety or making you experience a literal sense of dread, that just might be a sign that it’s not for you.
I’m not advocating against trying new things, but I am encouraging you to trust your gut.
New experiences—the ones that will actually challenge and change you—should scare you a little, but ultimately, your excitement, curiosity, and intrigue should overpower that fear. For me, those experiences include activities like finishing an Ironman or moving to a new city. There’s no rule that says I need to add performance to the list.
That said, I did learn some things: I found out that I just really don’t like putting myself on display and that I would totally crumble during a producer-orchestrated Bachelor date designed to make me have a nervous breakdown (which is to say, all of them).
But most importantly, I learned that I don’t need to sacrifice my happiness to get people to like me. And I also learned that I’m not a carefree, up-for-anything gal pal—but I’m still a really good friend (and I’m always ready to share my latest dating horror story, which has to be bonus points).