Have you ever pushed yourself out of your comfort zone? You know, created something really different, taken a risk that felt scary and hard, pushed through a tough learning curve, talked to someone who totally intimidated you?
And after that push – did you feel the almost irresistible urge to pull back to your safety zone – even if your push out was really successful? You know the two steps forward and one step back? Why do we feel the need for that one step back?
I call it:
The Stretch Reflex
In physiology, the stretch reflex (also called the myotatic reflex) occurs when you stretch a muscle to the point of pain and hold it for longer than about 10 seconds. The muscle contracts against the stretch. This contraction is an autonomic (involuntary) reaction which attempts to resist the change in muscle length by causing the stretched muscle to contract. The more sudden the change in muscle length, the stronger the muscle contractions against the stretch will be. This basic function of the muscle spindle helps to maintain muscle tone and to protect the body from injury.
In physical therapy, I learned that if you hold the stretch and breath through the muscle’s desire to contract, consciously relaxing that muscle, the contraction will stop and you will actually be able to go even deeper into the stretch. The trick is not to give in to that contraction, and just breathe while maintaining your position and consciously relaxing the muscle.
I believe that in behavior we also have an autonomic (involuntary) stretch reflex. When you’ve pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone, your unconscious wants you to contract in order to protect yourself from being hurt. That contraction could look like getting sick, like wanting to curl up in bed for several days or even just procrastinating about getting back to a normal schedule after a big push.
But if we give in to that contraction, then growth (both personal and professional) becomes sporadic and difficult to maintain. So, how do we maintain that stretch through the contraction so that we can increase and expand our comfort zone?
Awareness – Always the First Step
One of the key tools in any growth is awareness. If you’re not aware that you’re in the middle of a stretch reflex, you will likely surrender to it and allow it to pull you back into your comfort zone.
You also need to use your awareness to differentiate between the stretch reflex and your need to rest after a big energetic push. I’m talking about consistent growth, NOT constant growth. You need to pace your energy so that you are not constantly pushing yourself to and beyond your limits.
“Balancing stress and recovery is critical not just in competitive sports, but also in managing energy in all facets of our lives. When we expand energy, we draw down our reservoir. When we recover energy, we fill it back up. Too much energy expenditure without sufficient recovery eventually leads to burnout and breakdown. (Overuse it and lose it.) Too much recovery without sufficient stress leads to atrophy and weakness. (Use it or lose it.)”
The Power of Full Engagement
In the last month, I spent about 3 weeks putting in 11 hour days to complete the website and Membership revamp before leaving for SXSW and then 11 days of conference intensity in Austin.
When I returned, I needed to take several days to recuperate. That’s not the stretch reflex. That’s simply refilling my reservoir. But once I recovered, I could feel the urge to procrastinate rather than getting back to a productive schedule.
No coincidence that I had already planned on this topic for my next newsletter!
So use the power of your awareness to identify if what you’re experiencing is recuperation or the stretch reflex. If you find yourself pulling inward, ask yourself:
Is this fatigue or fear?
If it’s fatigue – rest! If it’s fear – what are you afraid of? Sometimes our fear kicks in AFTER we’ve taken a risk. So, if you can name the fear and embrace and celebrate the risk – even if it led to something other than success – then you will be able to breathe through the urge pull inward.
And once you’ve identified that what you’re experiencing is a stretch reflex; don’t try to push yourself deeper into the stretch. Just breathe and maintain the level you’re at. The ability to go further out of your comfort zone requires you to first become comfortable at this level of exposure. So, breathe and maintain.
And when this becomes comfortable and easy – then stretch out further.