A couple of years ago we took our boys to see the musical Wicked. For most of them, it was their first time seeing a Broadway show…and they were enthralled. (Which is saying a lot for a group of teen and pre-teen boys.)

It was my third time seeing it and I was still enthralled. What a show!

How to stretch yourself I think all of us agreed that the best part of the show was the moment at the end of the first act when Elphaba (the “Wicked” Witch), while singing passionately about defying gravity, “flies” on stage. Her passion, her voice, the message behind the lyrics, and the special effects on the stage make it a magical, even spiritual moment.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about the message of the song Defying Gravity, and I even listen to it loudly in my car when I need a mental and emotional boost.

But before we talk about Defying Gravity, let’s back up for a moment to a key moment earlier in the show that adds to the power of Defying Gravity later on.

If you haven’t seen the show, I’ll set the scene.

A group of students is gathering for a new year at a boarding school and as they are getting acquainted, the most popular boy in school, Fiyero, arrives and with abundant swagger sings about the way he lives his life.

First, he pronounces that schools that make you work hard have it all wrong.

Instead, his belief involves:

“Dancing through life
Skimming the surface
Gliding where turf is smooth
Life’s more painless
For the brainless
Why think too hard?
When it’s so soothing
Dancing through life
No need to tough it
When you can slough it off as I do
Nothing matters
But knowing nothing matters
It’s just life
So, keep dancing through…”

Fiyero professes a determination to take the easy path on life. He doesn’t want to challenge himself or do the hard work of personal growth, learning, or expansion. He simply wants to dance his way through life, merely skimming the surface of possibilities. (Though we find out there’s more to his character later.)

Dancing Through Life

Have you been there? Have you ever wanted to just glide through life with no troubles, no cares? It can sound pretty dreamy and enticing right? And sometimes we settle into that life, maybe without even realizing we are doing it.

Personal Growth: how to become your best selfI began to recognize this in myself a few years ago. To outsiders, I probably looked like I was doing everything “right.” I was busily raising my 4 kids, running a business, serving at church, and doing all the things I was “supposed” to do.

But deep down, I knew I wasn’t challenging myself in meaningful ways.

Sure, I was getting the laundry folded and the meals made and there was always a long list of chores I could be doing (and don’t get me wrong, those are important parts of life that have to get done). I was also running a couple of profitable websites and I loved that part of my life.

But with all of my kids in school all day and the websites basically running themselves at that point, I found myself with spare time on my hands and a desire to be doing more for the people around me in truly meaningful ways. I wanted to stretch myself and I wanted to feel more fulfilled in the way I was living my life. In short, I felt a little bit like I was dancing through life. Just skimming the surface of what was possible for me, and I wanted more.

Now I recognize that many of you might not be feeling this way exactly. There are times and seasons for everything, and this might not be a moment when you are looking to add more to your life.

That’s not what this is about.

What it is about is recognizing if you are dancing through life rather than digging deeply to challenge yourself, to help yourself grow and become a better person, to see yourself where you’re at right now, and be willing to address weaknesses that need some improving.

We all have room to do that, right?

But that looks different for each of us. Here’s what it looked like for me.

Leaving that Comfort Zone

In the midst of my desire to dig a little deeper and find more meaning in life, I decided I needed to get out of my comfort zone more often. And so, I declared September of that year my “get out of my comfort zone month” and made a conscious effort to try some things that had previously scared me (ok—they still scared me, I just determined that I would do them anyway).

It started out simple and small—I went to a spin class at the gym because I’d never been and wanted to try. I said yes when someone asked me to lead the music in church even though I’d never done it before and really didn’t want to. Just seemingly simple things like that.

Get Out of Your Comfort ZoneBut by the end of the month, I found myself applying to go back to school for a master’s degree—not something I had anticipated when I’d set out on this experiment, but something that started to feel right as the month progressed. (Talk about getting out of your comfort zone—I’d been out of school for almost 20 years by then!)

From that point till now (almost 3 years and a master’s degree later), it’s felt like constant stretching, reaching, growing, and being WAY outside my comfort zone. And at times it’s felt completely exhausting.

But I’ve also never felt so right.

It’s felt so right because I can see the growth happening in myself and because I am doing something that I truly love. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard sometimes. To be honest, it’s the hardest thing (save parenting) that I’ve ever done.

But in my soul, I can feel how right it is.

I love what Dr. David Schnarch[1] taught about getting out of your comfort zone. He explained that each of us is going to feel anxiety sometimes (probably much of the time) in life—that’s just part of being alive. But we get to choose which type of anxiety—the kind that just keeps us stagnant and just drives us crazy, or the anxiety that comes with growth.

Going back to school definitely caused me anxiety at times (ahem—probably daily), but I was growing in the process.

Meaningful Endurance

Schnarch called the process of challenging yourself, stepping outside your comfort zone, and seeking personal growth “Meaningful Endurance[2] and considered it a vital part of developing a strong sense of self.

If you want to live your life just skimming the surface and staying where you’re comfortable, that’s fine. Give it a try. But you’ll be less likely to accomplish your goals, to withstand stress and hardship, and to become the person you want to become.

And frankly, we don’t always get to choose the challenges that come our way, so sooner or later, something is probably going to force that growth anyway.

Instead of skimming the surface, Meaningful Endurance looks like getting up when you’ve fallen down, doing what you need to…even when you don’t want to, and challenging yourself when it’s hard. (It’s important to note that the word “meaningful” is included in this term. This isn’t about blindly blazing your way through life or stubbornly refusing to face facts. It’s about continuing on, even when something is hard if it’s something meaningful to you.)

But What If It’s Hard?

As I started my master’s program a few years back, a new phenomenon began in my life—one that I wasn’t expecting and hadn’t ever experienced.

I found that just about every single time I woke up in the night as well as early each morning when I first got up each day, a mild panic set in and I’d think “what am I doing with my life?! This is hard! Why am I doing it? I’m not cut out for this.”

But then I’d get ready for the day (or go back to sleep if it was the middle of the night) and by the time I was fully awake and functioning that day, I’d feel great again and enjoy the experience (most days—can’t say I loved the days I had statistics exams).

This happened almost daily for the entire two-year program.

The point is, stretching yourself is HARD.

But looking back, I would never change the experience I had. It was worth it.

The Benefits of Trying Something New

Ok, ok. Maybe you already knew that getting out of your comfort zone is good for your personal growth. There are plenty of self-help books that will teach you that.

But are there benefits to challenging yourself, beyond becoming a better person?

As it turns out, research shows that there are some fun ones—things that really might improve your quality of life.

How to get out of my comfort zoneFor example, in studying what they called “self-expanding” activities, researchers found that your happiness in your romantic relationships is likely to take a nice jump when you get out of your comfort zone and try new things.[3] This is partly because you’re happier when you’re stretching yourself and could also be partly because you’re spending more time together (if it’s a couples’ activity). But it’s also because adding challenge and excitement to your life adds freshness to a relationship.

Stretching yourself and trying new things can also increase your sexual desire.[4]

One of the most common problems people mention in their romantic relationships is that as they get older, their sex life seems to feel a little bit stale.

One of the best remedies for this is trying something new, outside of the bedroom (although inside the bedroom can be beneficial too).

This doesn’t even have to be trying something new together. When you try something new and different, your partner is likely to benefit from your new excitement as well.[5] That’s because trying new things keeps life fresh. And watching your partner try new things can allow you to see him or her through new eyes.

And this can be a little bit sexy.

“Desire lives through the unknown and the unpredictable.”

—Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity[6]

Getting to continually see your partner through new eyes is wonderful, as is feeling like you’re investing in yourself. You will have less resentment, more peace.

Those are a handful of benefits you might experience if you step out of your comfort zone. You’ll have to try it and tell me what other great things you experience.

Defying Gravity

After a couple of years of being in school and stretching myself each day, I feel like Elphaba when she sang:

“Something has changed within me. Something is not the same.”

Sure, I’ve learned a lot about marriages, families, and relationships (that’s what my degree is in) and statistics (a huge part of the requirements for my degree) or how to do research. I guess I knew I’d learn that stuff.

But I also feel like I’ve changed so much as a person.

I see the world through different eyes. I think more critically. I’ve increased my knowledge and understanding of important issues that are not directly related to my degree. I’ve learned how to learn. I’ve learned that I can do really hard things. I’ve learned to give up some of the control I always tried to have, to let my husband step in more to do things I used to think I had to do. I’ve learned more compassion for other humans. The list could go on and on.

When I decided to get out of my comfort zone years ago and try something new, I had no idea how much my life would change for the better.

When times got tough, I often blasted Defying Gravity in my car and let the words carry me.

“I’m through accepting limits
‘Cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But ’til I try, I’ll never know!

Too long I’ve been afraid of
Losing love I guess I’ve lost
Well, if that’s love
It comes at much too high a cost!”

These words helped me keep moving forward when I felt inadequate or when I felt that I might not be meeting others’ approval (being afraid of “losing love” so to speak) with the choices I was making.

Or this part:

“To those who’d ground me
Take a message back from me

Tell them how I am defying gravity!
I’m flying high, defying gravity!”

Again, strength to move forward even in the face of what sometimes felt like adversity.

Think for a minute about the difference between Fiyero’s message of dancing through life, skimming the surface, and Elphaba’s of defying gravity. Either is an option and there are plenty of people on both teams. Sometimes you might not even be able to tell at first glance, which side someone is on.

But in your heart, you’ll know when you’re reaching and stretching to become something more. When you’re trying to defy gravity. Even though it’s hard, you can do it and it’s worth it.

“As someone told me lately
‘Everyone deserves the chance to fly!’”

If you feel that tug and don’t know where to start, just try this week to do something, just one thing, that makes you take a step out of your comfort zone. It can be anything and it doesn’t have to be big. After you do that, maybe you can try one more and more and begin the process of really growing into who you can become.

And soon, you’ll be flying high, defying gravity.

Challenging Yourself A Tale of Two Characters

[1] Schnarch, D. M. (2009). Intimacy and desire: Awaken the passion in your relationship. Beaufort Books.

[2] https://crucible4points.com/crucible-four-points-balance/

[3] Muise, A., Harasymchuk, C., Day, L. C., Bacev-Giles, C., Gere, J., & Impett, E. A. (2019). Broadening your horizons: Self-expanding activities promote desire and satisfaction in established romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology116(2), 237.

[4] Ferreira, L. C., Fraenkel, P., Narciso, I., & Novo, R. (2015). Is committed desire intentional? A qualitative exploration of sexual desire and differentiation of self in couples. Family Process, 54, 308–326.

[5] Muise, A., Harasymchuk, C., Day, L. C., Bacev-Giles, C., Gere, J., & Impett, E. A. (2019). Broadening your horizons: Self-expanding activities promote desire and satisfaction in established romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology116(2), 237.

[6] Perel, E. (2007). Mating in captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence (p. 272). New York, NY: Harper.

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