Unlearning to Breach Comfort Zones and Labels

By Jennifer Allen

“We are much too much inclined in these days to divide people into permanent categories, forgetting that a category only exists for its special purpose and must be forgotten as soon as that purpose is served." ~ Dorothy L. Sayers

In recent memory, I've personally been identified by various individuals that I don't fit into a specific category of ideology, appearance, or mannerisms. To most, these observations would be construed as insults. To me? I see them as endorsements… at least the ones without the intent to cause shame.

I've heard them all, and each comment affects my psyche on various levels. The paradoxical roots of my upbringing have developed into an uncommon mentality that I cannot just reverse at a moment's notice. If there's any one category that I could see myself placed into, it's that of a “free spirit".

But what is a “free spirit", you may be asking? People like this often….

• Are generally independent
• Travel when they want to
• Have unique hobbies and interests
• Equally enjoy being alone or in groups
• Feel comfortable in their own skin to love themselves
• Love to take on new challenges
• Prefer to enjoy experiences rather than collect trinkets
• Are optimistic and carefree
• Are very humble
• Have a peculiar sense of humor

I don't particularly excel at all these traits. I still have difficulties accepting compliments from time to time as well as some self-esteem issues due to bullying I received as a child. Also, I occasionally do slip into a pessimistic mood depending on the situation I'm in. Also, the “travel when I want to" option isn't a true reality both due to lack of finances and time. For everything else on this list, I do try to uphold each of them to the best of my ability.

Human minds prefer to place labels on new people, places and things in order to become better accustomed to them in their day-to-day lives. In that way we build up a small layer of comfort in order to function. Whenever we experience something out of that comfort zone, the reaction is often a mixture of fear, distrust, and in some cases… rage.

But is it nature or nurture which causes us to think this way?

All animals are born with an inherent survival instinct. While some have a keener sense than others, it's an impulse that drives us to continue our existence, for better or worse. Some animals, including humans, are also gifted with a secondary trait of curiosity. Often these two traits will conflict with each other in fascinating ways. What's even more interesting is that the latter has the potential to either grow or subside depending on various outside factors.

Those “outside factors" are where nurture truly comes into play. Often the biggest influence on our behavior stems from varying degrees of guilt. If we are punished for doing something we're not supposed to, we tend to remember that method of scolding, mostly, and why to not do it again.

In my own upbringing, I was admonished plenty of times, as I could be a bit of a brat. Being told “no" was often interpreted as a challenge. Honestly, I still have that mindset, albeit to a much lesser degree now as opposed to then. Many of my early life lessons were also contradictory… to the point I often would seek out an outside source to discover which version was in fact the truth. I became quite the library addict because of this, as we didn't have the internet to utilize back during the 1980's.

While the library of yesterday has been replaced by the Wikipedia of today, the drive to continue learning and extend my own layers of comfort has remained a large part of my overall outlook. As it's often been cited, there are three sides to every story. I generally tend to at least attempt to observe them all before reaching a full decision or conclusion.

It takes curiosity to learn and courage to unlearn. Learning requires humility to admit what you don't know now. Unlearning requires the integrity to admit that you were wrong before. Learning is how you evolve. Unlearning or even relearning is how you keep up as the world evolves around you.

While it can seem difficult to see beyond those labels of familiarity we've ingrained into our minds, all it takes is an attitude which opens our thoughts to pursue alternative knowledge to fully understand and respect how your peers think and feel. A simple confession stating that you comprehend someone else's choice, even if that choice is not something you'd personally seek is perfectly fine. Saying that you simply “don't like it" without providing a concrete explanation as to why is not.

So, to all those who have offered me words with the intent to humiliate I say... take the time to learn why I do the things I do, look the way I look, or think the way I think. Perhaps you too will discover a new pocket of knowledge about yourself in the process… and understand how a little “free spiritedness" can open both your eyes and minds to a multitude of possibilities.

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Jennifer Allen works at Saathee and is also a Podcaster, Blogger, Photographer, Graphic Artist, Gamer, Martial Arts Practitioner, and all around Pop Culture Geek.