Toni Tone is a writer and television personality and starred in Channel 4's reality series Highlife. In her new book, I Wish I Knew This Earlier, she unpacks how chaos, emotional unavailability and high stress environments can feel familiar to a person who grew up surrounded by them, and how this can seep into our relationships.
When I was 31, I had a very open and candid conversation with my dad about my childhood, and the ways I felt he could have been a better father.
Don’t get me wrong – my dad is a wonderful dad in many ways, but, like most parents, he didn’t always get things right. Our discussion included a range of things, but for the purpose of this love lesson, one thing we discussed was his inability to control his emotions at times, and the things he said in anger. Following our emotional heart-to-heart, he wrote me a letter, apologizing for past behaviours, and shared how proud he was of me. My dad is a very loving man in many ways, and I’m blessed to have a father who is willing to listen to constructive criticism and apologize for his mistakes. I love him dearly, but I did have to unlearn being comfortable in certain situations that I was very used to because of some of the things I experienced as a child.
I had a childhood that was wonderful for the most part, but there were periods that involved a great deal of stress. Perhaps you can relate? Perhaps your parents had certain character flaws? Perhaps, due to this, you grew used to being around certain types of people or being in certain types of environments? Maybe so much so that what was actually negative, felt normal to you? Or maybe your parents didn’t shape your negative comfort zones at all? Perhaps all your previous romantic relationships had something negative in common and that’s where your comfort zone stems from? Whatever the source of the stress may have been, it’s very easy for people to grow accustomed to stress when they’ve been exposed to heavy doses of it.
For some people, their comfort zone is chaos, so stepping out of their comfort zone actually means stepping into calm, stepping into peace and stepping into a stable and consistently loving environment.
My parents have been married for over thirty years and their relationship is the best it has ever been, but dealing with my dad’s mood swings as a child meant I became very used to instability. In fact, it was the norm for me. Things might be good for a few weeks, or a few months, and then they wouldn’t be so good again. I expected major fluctuations in relationships. I thought it was normal to have regular arguments. I would be sceptical when things were peaceful for too long, and that’s how ‘chaos’ felt comfortable to me.
If you can relate to my story to some degree, I imagine the thought of a peaceful relationship was once foreign to you, or maybe it still is? Maybe you are familiar with feeling on edge, experiencing aggression, seeing a lack of trust, maybe even being in a constant state of panic?
Some people I’ve spoken to in life, such as friends and online acquaintances, are actually comfortable with absence and emotional unavailability. Unlike me, who had a very present parent that experienced mood swings at times; some people had a very absent parent – who was either never around or rarely around, and very emotionally unavailable. As such, they feel comfortable with partners who are aloof, and who come in and out of their life as they please. This familiarity means they are actually attracted to people who are somewhat flaky, hard to read and not very open with their emotions. As a result, open, transparent, loving, communicative and forthcoming people can come across ‘intense’ or even ‘weird’ to them.
It can be an overwhelming revelation when you come to the conclusion that your comfort zone isn’t healthy.
At this point, I imagine you’re probably wondering what I did to change my comfort zone. Well, the work actually started long before I had that conversation with my dad when I was 31. Prior to that chat, we had other smaller talks, so I had known for a very long time that I had to unlearn certain things. The first step I had to take was being honest with myself in determining what I was and wasn’t comfortable with. That’s also what you need to do.
It’s very important for all of us to ask ourselves what we are comfortable with. Ask yourself what you are drawn to. Ask yourself whether you have pushed healthy relationships away. Ask yourself if you have ever gravitated towards toxicity. One helpful way to do this is to write a list of what your exes have in common. If you don’t have exes, really consider whether positive qualities in people have turned you off them. Do you find people who are willing to be vulnerable, weak? Do you think people who enjoy your company are needy? You may discover that you’ve grown to feel comfortable in unhealthy environments or relationships. You might find that you’re so used to ‘less’ that you talk yourself out of attaining ‘more’.
If you come to the conclusion that you are drawn to some negative personality or behavioural traits, there are several things you can do. The first is embark on the luxury of therapy – and I say luxury because it is one. Therapy isn’t cheap and highly accessible, but if you have the means, it’s one way you can dig a little deeper into your past and your preferences. The second thing you can do is to actively make the effort to ‘step out of your comfort zone’. What does this involve? It’s just like stepping out of your comfort zone with anything else. You do the opposite of what you would normally do, you say ‘yes’ to opportunities you would typically say ‘no’ to, and you speak to people you wouldn’t usually speak to. This is what I did, and I did this enough times that I started to see what I was comfortable with as a major turn off. So try to speak to/court/date people who possess the positive qualities that make you feel uneasy. Push through the awkwardness, the ‘ick’, the feelings grounded in emotions that make you feel undeserving. But do be as transparent as you can be in the process – don’t lead anyone on.
Your comfort zone may not be healthy, but you can change that.