The mic-drop moment occurred when Jane finally snapped at me, “You’re being an asshole. I don’t know why this makes you so stressed. Everything is fine here. If we have trouble, we will find someone to help us. Nothing bad is going to happen. This doesn’t stress me out. If this stresses you out, then sit back and let me handle things.”
Like most people, I normally don’t react well to being put in my place. However, what she said struck a chord. It hurt my ego, of course. I immediately wanted to shout back that I wasn’t stressed. But I was stressed. I hadn’t fully realized it. And it was true; I was being an asshole. Instead of snapping back in defense, I muttered off into quiet contemplation.
We were on a two-day bus trip from Managua, Nicaragua to Guatemala City, Guatemala. We had just finished crossing the border between Nicaragua and Honduras. The process was a bit confusing, and I found myself barking orders at Jane several times along the way. Now back on the bus, I sat like a sad puppy licking my wounds, thinking the situation through. Border crossings tend to stress me out, though I hadn’t thought much about it before. I hadn’t fully realized how tense I got at times. Why did I get like this? Perhaps it’s the overall authoritarian, no-nonsense feel to these places. Perhaps it’s that the people behind the counters don’t have quite the same incentive to be nice to you as say, a waiter. Or perhaps it’s the simple fact that there are often dudes with machine guns standing around.
But she was right, of course. Nothing bad was going to happen to us. We were not going to get thrown in jail for getting in the wrong line. We were not particularly vulnerable there. In fact, it was one of the few places we’d been where police were actually present. By all rights, it should be one of the safest places we’d been yet. But all the same, I was uncomfortable. I was uncertain of what to do and where to go; I didn’t speak much of the language; I was out of my element, out of my comfort zone. But I was safe. Things were fine. I had nothing to be afraid of. I could see that my semi-conscious fear and anxiety were largely misplaced.
I’ve long been a big believer in the benefits of pushing my comfort zone. In fact, the desire to challenge and expand myself was one of my primary motivations for taking the trip. As we encountered more and more of these types of uncomfortable situations, I learned a few things about myself and the process of growth. I came to see how important my attitude and mindset were when going through stressful circumstances. It made a big difference if I actively thought of the uncomfortable event as an opportunity for growth while it was happening.
Comfort zone expanding activities are so effective because they alter you on a fundamental level. Recall from previous posts, because we are wired-up for the harsh world of our caveman ancestors, much of the tension we experience is rooted in an oversensitive fight or flight mechanism—a deep and primitive emotional reaction. At the heart of this mechanism is an unconscious belief that the situation at hand poses a threat. Although this unconscious part of you that holds this belief will not listen to reason, it can be conditioned by experience. By repeatedly engaging in activities that make you anxious or nervous, your unconscious brain will learn that these activities are not dangerous, the fight or flight response will get turned down, and you will feel less anxious the next time you find yourself in the same position. Pushing your comfort zone is such an effective technique because it is rewiring your unconscious mechanisms and changing you on this is primary level.
Now consider the default mindset that we have when we encounter things that make us anxious or uncomfortable: avoidance. In these situations, our natural reaction is to try to run away from or otherwise change our circumstances in order to lessen the chances that some bad thing will happen. An example of this is how I typically react at border crossings. Here my anxiety is rooted in uncertainty and confusion. To help avoid this confusion, I become tense and hyper-alert. I will get gruff towards Jane if she doesn’t have her stuff together, is distracting me from the task at hand, or otherwise not acting with the same sense of urgency that I intuitively feel is appropriate. I want both of us ready to move with eyes forward, looking for anything that will help remove the overwhelming sense of uncertainty. “Lookout, a border approaching, pay attention!”
To actively think of a challenging situation as an opportunity for growth is a powerful tool because it turns this default mindset on its head. Instead of trying to avoid the thing that causes anxiety, we are now seeking it out and embracing it. As mentioned above, the mechanism of growth provided by comfort zone expanding activities has to do with exposing yourself to the stimulus that makes you anxious. You can accelerate this unconscious rewiring by consciously welcoming the uncomfortable situation instead of working to make it otherwise. By calmly moving forward despite feeling scared and anxious, you are reinforcing the key message to your unconscious brain: this is not dangerous.
By seeking growth instead of relief from anxiety, our focus shifts. Our primary goal is no longer to make things ordered and comfortable, but instead is to embrace the external chaos as well as the internal turmoil that it creates. We now want to open ourselves up to these circumstances that make us anxious and feel them fully. We want to bathe our unconscious brain circuits in the stimulus of the uncomfortable situation.
Recall that so much of the way we interact with the world has an autopilot-like quality to it. There is a force within us that is pulling us towards the default stance of resistance and struggle. By consciously reminding yourself that this is an opportunity for growth, you are adding a new input into the system, which can change the course of automatic anxious thoughts and impulses to “fix” the situation. A small shift in mindset going into an uncomfortable event can have huge downstream effects.
Never has this phenomenon been more apparent to me than on that day on the bus. After crossing into Honduras, I had several hours to ruminate on Jane’s comments and my newfound awareness of the tension within me at border crossings. Later that day, we were approaching another border: El Salvador. I resolved to take it easy, allow whatever may happen to happen, and fully feel my emotions as we went through the process. My number one priority would be to proceed calmly, even if I didn’t feel relaxed inside. Figuring out where to go and what to do would be of secondary concern. This would be an opportunity to rewire myself. I was excited as we pulled up.
As we went through the immigration process, I maintained my composure, was cheerful throughout, and was energized by the experience. As we pulled out of the station, I was blown away by the impact this small shift in mindset created. By simply looking at the situation as an opportunity for growth, my entire perspective and experience changed. We are all so susceptible to the autopilot-like way we typically react to challenging circumstances. A small nudge with the right mindset at the right time can make a huge difference in how we move through the world. To this day, I love border crossings. They remind me of our wonderful capacity to change adversity into opportunity and to mold our reality.
The photo at the top was taken by Jane. At this very moment in time, I was, of course, fussing at her to stop wandering around and to knock it off with the picture taking of the scary men with guns. Needless to say I’m glad she doesn’t listen to me.
It slightly pained me to use this photo at the top because I have so many beautiful ones from Guatemala. I’ve posted a few below for any who are interested.
One of our favorite parts of Guatemala was Lake Atitlán. It is a volcanic crater lake and is surrounded by multiple volcanoes and many jagged mountains. Because of the rugged terrain, Mayan culture has been uniquely preserved in this area. We explored many small towns on its shores.
We spent some time in Panajachel, the biggest town on the lake and considered the gateway to the region.
Next we went to San Juan La Laguna, this photo was taken as we were pulling up. The terrain is so rugged, almost all travel between towns is done by boat.
The San Juan La Laguna shoreline.
It's pretty hot in Central America, so not all places have hot water. Of the places that do, sometimes you will get these little shower heads that heat the water as it comes out. Look at those exposed wires! Jane and I refer to these as “Suicide Showers.” These are often jankie, but this one at our hostel in San Juan La Laguna was particularly photo-worthy. I’ve been zapped more than once when reaching up to adjust these mid shower.
Santa Cruz la Laguna, one of our favorite little lake towns, nestled up in the hills. Here’s a photo from the hike up.
And here’s one from the top looking down.
I made some new friends in Santa Cruz la Laguna who wanted me to buy them candy. I was tempted to get them some but thought better of it.