"In truth, comfort zones are not really about comfort, they are about fear."- Cylon George
"We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure — all your life. It’s as simple as that." – John Gardner
As an animal species like any other, bent on our own survival, we are predisposed to seek safety; hence our natural inclination towards the comfort zone. In the comfort zone our activities tend to minimize risk and stress; we create a rut of routine behaviors, a place of stasis and neutrality. We can predict outcomes, because change is minimal; we’ve seen it all before. By stepping out of our comfort zones, by challenging ourselves, and attempting new things, we’re running a risk; anything could happen. That said, taking risks is how we grow, how we stretch ourselves, and how we master new tasks.
"Did you ever do something you were really proud of when you were in autopilot mode?" - Carolyn Gregoire
Creativity is inherently linked to novelty and experimentation. There can be no surprise that it is also linked to happiness. And creative people, who regularly risk failure and vulnerability, when counter-balanced with the joy of flow, also have increased opportunities to build emotional resiliency.
As children people tend to take risks: everything is new, everything is a challenge, and our minds are designed to explore, experiment, soak up new information, and make new associations. During this period, we develop in body and mind at an amazing rate. At some point we start to make the connections between actions and consequences, and to project future possibilities. We learn to inhibit our actions to avoid potential failures, and the resulting blame, shame, or pain. In so doing, in creating these buffered comfort zones, we protect ourselves, but we restrict our growth as well. The tendency is for these comfort zones to solidify as we grow older, limiting our experiences, and our access to the world. If we could consciously make the decision to break down those self-imposed barriers, I believe that our lives would be more fulfilling in the end. After all, it is the peak experiences in life that we remember and treasure.
“In becoming a person who regularly takes calculated risks, challenges yourself, and tries new things, you'll cultivate openness to experience, one of what's known in psychology as the "Big Five" personality traits. Openness to experience -- which is characterized by qualities like intellectual curiosity, imagination, emotional and fantasy interests, and a drive to explore one's inner and outer lives -- has been shown to be the best predictor of creative achievement.” - Carolyn Gregoire
There is a difference between failure and fault that's important to distinguish. The Oxford English Dictionary defines failure as a “lack of success in doing or achieving something,” a rather neutral definition. In contrast, it uses the adjectives: unattractive, unsatisfactory, misguided, and dangerous to define the word fault. In reframing the idea of failure, you lose that sense of intrinsic judgment. In many ways we learn as much if not more from our failures than we do our successes. The fact is that if we try new things, we are destined to eventually fail at something. Getting comfortable with the idea seems a worthy effort. Mistakes and failures can even be funny in the right light. The most embarrassing moment I’ve ever had is now my favorite story; I can’t tell it without cracking up, and I take every reasonable opportunity to tell it.
I’ve just given a bunch of reasons to step outside the comfort zone, but maybe you have some of your own to develop and contribute. It might be worth it to take some time to think about them, and write them down… maybe put them somewhere visible for when your determination falters. Having this list easily accessible could help you manage stress, and maintain motivation.
The next question is how does one actually do it? The inertia is real!
I have a bunch of ideas I’ve gleaned from life, from conversations, and from articles I’ve read on the subject:
The first step might be to identify what it is that you want to do but are afraid of. If you’re aware of the things you desire but avoid, then you will have some concrete goals to work towards.
Then perhaps figure out what specific fear lies behind the avoidance. Is it fear of failure, disappointment, physical harm…?
What is the positive possibility, the answer to “what if this works?” How would conquering this fear benefit you? Answering these questions will on some level reframe fear into opportunity, turn nervous energy into excitement, and create a new narrative. This might sound like an “easier said than done” moment, but it’s one of those things that would become easier with practice. (AND once this perspective is well thought out, a little EMDR would probably be very helpful in working through the fear).
In making changes, I would take baby steps, small changes that are easy to make. It doesn’t even matter how small as long as they are heading in the desired direction. Whatever is doable without being too stressful would be fine. If it’s too stressful, it becomes difficult to maintain, so it’s better to make small easy changes towards overcoming fears. Each small successful change will lead to increased comfort when attempting the next.
When things do become uncomfortable, as they inevitably will, it might help to try to rest in the discomfort, and breathe through it. Really, we’re talking about a kind of exposure therapy, exposure to discomfort. Over time, with the afore-mentioned baby steps, it would become more comfortable.
More important than the size of the step is the frequency of the efforts. Remember, in stepping outside of the comfort zone you’re trying to build a habit out of change itself, and habits are the product of repetition.
We all have our comfort zones, (mine is alive and well). It’s lovely to have them as a retreat, a place to rest and regroup, a place of comfort and safety. That said, it seems like too much time spent there means denying oneself a lot of the richness life has to offer.