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Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone: Lessons from Downton Abbey

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Many people initiate therapy because they are aware that something needs to change. Unfortunately, change is not always easy or intuitive. Through years of work as a therapist, I have noticed that when someone is stuck, helping them to exit their comfort zone often serves as a catalyst for personal growth and transformation. It can be something as simple as taking a class. or as involved as volunteering overseas.

This week's wonderful episode of Downton Abbey -- the Season Four finale -- demonstrates this phenomenon in full throttle. Both the upstairs and downstairs clans leave the countryside to travel to London for Cousin Rose's debutante ball, and the city spirit forces everyone to break out of their usual routines. Without their typical comforts and constraints, many of the show's most conflicted characters grow and evolve in unexpected ways. Some engaging lessons about how to effect change are offered along the way.

A Change of Scenery Can Inspire a Change of Heart:

For more than a year, the grieving Lady Mary has kept her suitors at bay. She makes it clear that she is not ready to consider romance, as her beloved husband Matthew's death weighs too heavily on her heart. Nevertheless, Lord Gillingham and Mr. Blake remain fully determined; they are so inserted into life at Downton that Mary's grandmother has even taken to calling them "Mary's men!" After months of status quo, the energy in London seems to open an access route to Mary's heart. She -- somewhat outrageously -- spearheads a burglary to protect the honor of the Prince of Wales. Still on a high from these antics, she dances happily at the ball and then explains to Lord Gillingham: "A year ago, I thought I'd be alone forever. That I would mourn Matthew until the end of my days. Now I know that isn't true; that there will be a new life for me one day. And even if I can't decide yet what that life that should be, isn't that something for us to celebrate?"

Similarly, Lady Edith is traumatized by the secret birth and forced adoption of her illegitimate daughter. Her parents have no idea that she was pregnant, as she spent the pregnancy hiding out in Geneva with Aunt Rosamund. Edith returns to Downton dazed and confused and her family is so annoyed and concerned that Lady Mary goes so far as to say she would prefer to sleep on the roof in London instead of sharing a room with her sister. Through a series of conversations and moments of reflection amidst the chaos and excitement of their trip, it finally becomes clear to Edith what she must do. She sneaks back to Downton and arranges a secret agreement with one of her tenants so that her daughter can be raised in an open adoption -- so to speak -- on the estate grounds. This plan allows Edith to remain a part of her daughter's life. What makes this change significant is that Edith is finally making a deliberate choice to resolve a situation that has tortured her for months. The tenant arrangement was something Edith entertained with enthusiasm early in her pregnancy, before being convinced by Aunt Rosamund that an out of site adoption was best for her daughter, her reputation and her family.

Small Steps Sometimes Facilitate Big Change:

Many months have passed since Daisy said her painful goodbye to Alfred, thus coming to terms with unrequited love. In preparation for her travels, she shrugs off the significance of the trip asking: "What difference does it make if you peel potatoes in London or peel them in Yorkshire?" It turns out to make quite a difference indeed. A young, enthusiastic American who is working downstairs as the valet for Mr. Levinson (Lady Cora's brother) sees Daisy in the kitchen and is instantly smitten. The shameless advances of her eager suitor do not lead to romance for Daisy, as she does not reciprocate his feelings; however, the boost to her ego is a welcome one which she absorbs with kindness and grace. She is so elevated by the experience that she even recommends Ivy to take her place when she turns down an offer to move to America to become Mr. Levinson's cook and work alongside her suitor. It is clear that Daisy's generous gesture toward her nemesis, Ivy, represents a greater transformation. Gleefully, Daisy smiles and admits: "Mrs. Pattmore, if you knew what it feels like to have a young man court me... I'd kiss him if it wouldn't give him the wrong idea!...It will take me through to next summer!"

And what could top the final moments of the season, when Mrs. Hughes convinces the ever-uptight and decorous Mr. Carson to shed his shoes, roll up his trousers, take her hand and walk toward the ocean's waters, first with trepidation, and then with joyous abandon. Leave it to London to set the stage for these small, barefoot steps in the sand that just might lead to a larger and long awaited love!