Fear and the Zone of Familiarity

Fear can manifest in many ways, it is an amazing safety mechanism for keeping us from harm but it can also cause debilitating anxiety that can effectively paralyse us and to this effect, it can also be a primary anchor for holding us in the places we currently are. This is because our fears can be triggered by even the thought of doing something differently. The main reason for this is that we have beliefs of how the world “should” be, and we then attempt to get the world to fit this image.  Because when it fits this image we can believe, rightly or wrongly, that we are “safe”. This can be because we have an understanding of how to deal with the situations within this world view and so things are in essence familiar to us. This is often referred to as the “comfort zone”, but we have worked with and seen so many people in situations that you would not readily refer to as comfortable, so we refer to this now as the “zone of familiarity”. 

For example, a common start to a fear response is “But what if” This can be looked at in many ways. It can be seen as the beginning of a plan to help us navigate the best route we can see to a new destination, or it could be the barriers we place in our own way, so as not to set out on the journey in the first place. This then keeps us in familiar territory because we feel comfortable with our actions within that environment but are scared they may not be effective outside of this “zone of familiarity”. One of the interesting aspects that is not necessarily taken into account, is that you may not even require some of the safety measures you have knowingly or unknowingly put in place if you were to leave your “zone of familiarity”.

There are numerous reasons for this being the case, many of which we have learned growing up. As fear is predominantly linked to our survival instincts and seeing that the people closest to us have survived this long, we adopt their strategies. This cycle has been going on for centuries in varying forms that adapt in part to the changing environment, but so often remaining the same, beneath these superficial changes. 

One of the main reasons we now refer to this as The “zone of familiarity” instead of the “comfort zone”, is that our words influence us so greatly. Our words are essentially the labels we place on things so as to be able to communicate what we are referring to with not only other people, but also with ourselves. This is because our thoughts are organised as words and labels, that we use to understand the world around us and the feelings that occurred during the first experiences of this labelling process are also attached to them. So if we label things as comfortable, then this is the story we are telling ourselves about this thing we are referring to and as we have already described, some of these situations can at times be far from comfortable or healthy for us. If we instead refer to them as familiar, this is a more accurate way of describing them and does not attach a connotation of comfort to them and so we are able to look at them more impartially. Creating this more impartial viewpoint allows us to observe a situation from other perspectives and can allow us to see that maybe it is not so comfortable after all. The recognition of this is essential for us to move into a position of acknowledgment, which is a fundamental step in the process of change. 

Understanding how the mechanism of fear works is a big step in understanding how we see the world, at an often unconscious level. In understanding this we can begin to see why we do the things we do and follow the patterns of behaviours and habits that we do and have the insight into changing them for ones that are more healthy for us. It also opens the possibility to hand down healthier labels and associated feelings to those that come after us, such as our children, which is a worthy cause indeed. 

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