Russell Bishop Blog

#20 Control, Comfort and Familiarity Part 2

We left off on the subject of control and began to link control to comfort. It might be useful to examine the role of comfort a bit more closely and see where it leads.

So, here’s a dumb question: do you like to be comfortable? Dumber still: do you prefer comfortable to uncomfortable? As obvious as the answers might seem, the reality may be a bit different than you would imagine.

One way to think about comfort is to think about a great bed, a cozy couch, or some other scenario where you find yourself supported and relaxed. Another way to think about comfort is to think of what you consider to be a perfect temperature, in doors our out.

Just those two kinds of things can create great variety in response to a question about “what is comfortable.” For my wife, a comfortable temperature is approaching 80 degrees Fahrenheit. For me, it is closer to 70 degrees. This difference becomes especially distinct in the car!

When it comes to couches, chairs and beds, people have all kinds of different standards or preferences for comfort. Some want firm, some want plush, some what upright, some want angled – all kinds of differences, all seemingly based on personal preference.

At this level, the comfort question is pretty innocuous, although it can still create some degree of disagreement between people – which bed to buy, which sofa for the living room, etc. Still, it is pretty simple – just a question of how one person’s body experiences the sofa or bed compared to another person or what one person calls warm may be another person’s cool. Again, plenty of room for differences, but not such a big deal, unless, of course, you are in the car with a person who has a very different version of a comfortable air temperature.

Even at this more simple level, there is room for conflict and a need to control. Most of us, after all, do want things our way most of the time. Have you noticed?

The comfort and control linkage becomes more significant as we move away from the obvious physical level of comfort and into slightly more obscure versions.

The premise I wish to offer is that comfort is related to experience or familiarity, and that the familiar is likely to be more comfortable than the unfamiliar. When things are familiar, we tend to be comfortable; when things are comfortable and familiar, we rarely have a need to exert any additional control because things are already the way we like them. (Notice the implied link between “familiar” and liking things the way they are – not necessarily true, but more on that in a moment.)

To further open the concept to exploration, play the “what if” game in terms of linking comfort and familiar. With that in mind, consider the kinds of things that people often do for enjoyment that are inherently uncomfortable. You may find several that you engage in yourself.

Let’s start with some simple things: do you know anyone who enjoys rock climbing? Ice climbing? Mountain climbing? If so, you probably know someone who is comfortable in very uncomfortable settings, potentially even dangerous. Despite the risk, the temperature extremes and the sometimes painful elements of these endeavors, there are people who find themselves quite comfortable engaging in them. It is this kind of experience that leads me to the definition of comfort as one of familiarity.

We can become extremely comfortable in the presence of the familiar, even if the familiar is not inherently comfortable.

And if the familiar begins to change, we will often seek to change the circumstances so that the familiar returns. Mountain climbers can get pretty demanding if one of their party decides to venture outside a prescribed set of climbing protocols. Things like pace, spacing, and remaining roped together (belayed) can be pretty important practices or agreed upon protocols that when breached can increase risk and endanger the safety of the party. If someone steps outside the agreed upon practice, others in the group may find their comfort or familiar routine upset and controlling behaviors take place to bring the straying person back in line.

Of course, there are lots of ways to climb a mountain and there are some folks who are quite comfortable “free climbing.” Free climbing means to climb without the use of ropes, anchors or other safety devices. For some extreme climbers, this is where the fun is – they are quite “comfortable” in the familiar routine of what is inherently a very dangerous and uncomfortable activity.

Every year, some well known free climber loses his or her grip and falls to their death. You might say they die in the pursuit of being in control. Forsaking safety equipment and common practice may be a way of exerting control over the situation or mountain: “I can do this my way. I’m better than the mountain is.”

So, what’s that all about anyway? Does this sound extreme, bizarre or otherwise nuts to you? If so, you probably don’t do anything like climbing without ropes. However, you may find that you have other zones of familiarity, often called Comfort Zones, that are pretty comfortable for you and pretty uncomfortable for others.

Let’s consider anger for a moment. How could anyone experience anger as comfortable? That’s pretty hard to imagine, isn’t it? However, do you know anyone who is easily angered, perhaps often angry?

I do – me! Where does that come from? And why is it there? Well, those are questions for another section of this work, and we’ll get there. For the moment, let me just suggest that anger, or any other emotion like fear or jealousy, may simply be a form of familiarity and comfort. Again, not all behaviors are physically or emotionally comfortable and yet they may be quite familiar and therefore comfortable in the sense of being familiar.

You probably know someone who has a hard time expressing anger, no matter how angry they might be. And, you probably know someone who can express his or her anger quite easily – perhaps too easily for your liking. Put the two together, and you might see some interesting dynamics take place.

The person who has a hard time expressing anger may be quite uncomfortable and upset, and yet expressing the upset or anger would be even more uncomfortable than holding it in. This person would rather “suffer in silence” than express their upset. For them, it is more comfortable (or familiar) to hold things in than to express them outwardly.

For the person who can readily express his or her anger, the expression of anger may be a virtual non-event. For this person, it is unthinkably uncomfortable (unfamiliar) to hold the upset in; instead, it is vastly more comfortable (familiar) to express the anger. For some of these people, it is easier to express it and let it go than suffer inwardly. Of course, once it is expressed, the other people around may not be so comfortable any longer.

It can be really comical when you get two people together who are both comfortable expressing their upset. What may look like a raging battle to the casual observer, may be for the two “combatants” a normal and familiar way of expressing themselves.

Of course, this kind of expression has all kinds of ranges to it as well. There are people who are addicted to the adrenaline that flows when they get angry, and their expressions of anger may be much more intense, perhaps even unhealthy than others.

In my travels, I have found that different cultures approach anger and its expression quite differently. Some cultures hold it in, and others find it’s a normal part of every day life; in fact, for some cultures, a good conversation requires a bit of “heat” in order to be real or meaningful.

Well, just start mixing cultures, experiences, preferences, comfort zones, and patterns of familiarity, and you can wind up with some pretty interesting control behaviors.

Remember control? That’s where we started this little side bar. When things get outside my Comfort Zone or range of familiarity, I am most likely to exert control in order to get things back to my preferred range of the familiar. Control can be as simple as “Stop that” being barked by a parent to their squabbling children to “How could you do that” being aimed at a spouse who did or said something that the other didn’t like.

Why do we try to control others, to get them to behave, express themselves, or otherwise comport themselves as we prefer? Sometimes we say it is because that is the proper way to do things, people in polite society don’t do that, or any number or reasons why my way is the right way.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to the notion that if you do things that are within my zone of familiarity or my Comfort Zone, then I don’t have to be very engaged, thoughtful, or otherwise creative – I can just do whatever comes naturally to me, and behave “on automatic.”

So, a really strange twist on the notion of control is that if you do things my way, I not only wind up “in control,” but I also wind up being controlled (by my own demand for the familiar.)

This gets even more bizarre when you see people who get tired of everything being “so normal.” They can get bored and seek change. And then the change happens and they try to bring things “back to normal” again.

This may or may not make much sense yet, but hang in there. We are going to discuss Change next.

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