The Zone of Comfort

But I like it here!

Do something every day that scares you. Every day? Really? Wouldn’t that be exhausting? I’ve been pushing against my comfort boundaries and have noticed that the harder I push, the bigger the reward. It’s different for all of us, no doubt. The trick is to keep nudging things along, dipping toes in water to see how it feels. 

My main problem tends to be my (loud) inner critic. She has a field day when I start to step towards the edge, always quick to leap up and hold me back, keen to keep me safe. To be fair, the comfort zone cushions are nice and squishy. Why would you leave the area and risk the discomfort of regret or failure? 

A while back, we planned to leave our jobs, sell our house, and pack everything into a van to live on the road for a year. The inner critic once again started shouting. It’s dangerous out there! What if something goes wrong miles from home? You don’t even speak the languages of those countries! (Also, I’ve heard there are wolves in Scandinavia). And so on. We felt the fear and did it anyway. And it was an unforgettable experience, leaving us with memories of a lifetime.

I had always wanted to record my voice and maybe even feature on the radio some day. But your voice sounds weird! And you don’t know the first thing about recording things! I felt the fear and did it anyway. And now I’m a regular contributor on BBC Radio Ulster sharing thoughts for the day. 

More recently, when I accepted a job as a storyteller visiting prisons to lead sessions with women and young people, the voice was filled with anxiety as it spoke about safety and failure. I felt the fear and did it anyway. And already I’ve learned so much about life’s twists and turns from some amazing people. 

All of these things involved stepping out of my comfort zone, just to see what would happen. It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes I second-guessed myself, sometimes I thought I’d make a mistake, but mostly I found that life rewarded my courage with newly-formed self-belief.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling that comes from pushing yourself (even a little) and living to tell the tale. I wonder what’s around the next corner…I’m up for giving it a go.


This week is Titanic’s anniversary. Built in Belfast, we’ve got a special place in our hearts for this ship of dreams. Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ never fails to send shivers down my spine. I can picture him sitting at his desk in 1912, dipping his pen over and over, in response to the news coming in. Hardy blamed ‘the Immanent Will’ and the ‘Spinner of the Years’. But never before had humanity reached so high; never before had it lost so much. In the sweep of history, it feels as if this magnificent ship was ushering in cruel fate and great loss, even beyond herself and the icy Atlantic. World wars were soon on their way. Hubris was no longer to go unpunished.

A video reading of ‘The Convergence of the Twain’.

What the @x!%?

It’s fine. I’m fine.

I started to lead reading sessions at a new site the other day as part of my work with The Reader. It was fantastic to meet some young people in a criminal justice setting and to share stories together. After almost nine months of waiting to start in-person groups, it was both scary and a relief to finally get to do it. And you know what? It felt as if I’d been doing it for years. Impostor syndrome made an attempt to say something but she shut up pretty quickly as I just got on with the job. 

One of the first things the librarian said to me was, “Nice to finally meet you! Do you swear by any chance?” I was nonplussed but admitted that, yes, I do have a bit of a potty mouth. It’s no surprise that in those settings the language is fairly colourful; it’s probably a release of some sort but it’s also psychologically very healthy.

Various studies have found that our tolerance for pain is higher when we’re swearing. In one experiment, subjects had to plunge their hands into ice-cold water while a timer measured how long they could cope. Those who shouted out curse words were able to last longer. About ten years ago celebrities got involved – have a look here to see how Brian Blessed got on (you can probably guess).

“Life’s disappointments are harder to take when you don’t know any swear words.”

Calvin & Hobbes

Before you get too excited and start introducing foul language into everyday interactions, there’s a caveat. Isn’t there always? Because it turns out that the effect is only noticeable if the subject doesn’t regularly swear. The brain seems to be startled into pain-management mode only if it’s equally startled by the bad words. 

So hold your tongue when things are normal so that you can keep the big bad words in reserve. Next time you stub your toe or hit your funny bone, you can shout all sorts of words into the air and find relief. And you can thank me later.