I don’t know about you, but there are times I really like my comfort zone. It has routine, predictability and… well… it’s comfortable! That is, until it becomes like autopilot. Over the last ten years or so I have learned the importance of experiencing some “discomfort”. Then I realized that I’ve actually been outside my comfort zone a lot, especially since I moved away from home.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines comfort zone as "a situation in which you feel comfortable and in which your ability and determination are not being tested". We know what’s coming and we can plan our next move with confidence. Many people like to stay inside their comfort zones due anxiety or fear of failure. It’s a nice safe place to be. I was one of these people! However, as an educator and psychologist I understand and talk a lot with people that failure is how we learn and grow. Comfort and safety simply keeps the status quo.
Comfort zones minimize stress and risk. Life stress is often pretty high, so doesn’t it make sense to minimize it? Yes, to a point, but a little bit of healthy stress can provide motivation to take action, and ultimately grow.
It is when we are in those slightly, or not so slightly, uncomfortable situations that we tend to grow and accomplish things; often things of which we never knew we were capable. We flourish with challenge because we need to exercise our minds, bodies and confidence. We make changes that lead to personal growth.
We also become more creative when we open up to new experiences. It allows us to see things differently, from other perspectives, and to experiment with new ideas. It also brings joy when we find out new characteristics about ourselves and discover interests or talents we didn’t know before.
A 2013 study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science found that as we get older our comfort zones get smaller. You may have noticed this with some of your parents or other older friends/family members. I think I have even noticed it in myself… !
However, by staying active, learning new and demanding skills, and maintaining a strong social network we can stay sharp. The research shows that just getting out and doing any old activity may help us stay active but it doesn’t improve our cognitive ability. We need to get out and do something new and challenging! It’s the perfect opportunity to learn and experience something new that’s on your bucket list: sailing, painting, a new language, computers skills, travel, change careers, etc.
One of the real joyful benefits of going outside of our comfort zones is that we learn that we can adapt to change more readily, and that doing uncomfortable, risky things actually becomes more comfortable! Change becomes easier, which is awesome because change will always be there in our day to day lives. By going outside that zone more regularly we gain confidence and may even look forward to trying more new things.
After I moved away to college, I sought out new comfort zones. But I also kept experiencing regular changes in classes, living situations, social, family and school situations. I kept growing whether I wanted to or not! But you know what, it got easier each time. Sometimes when stress gets too high I revert back to my comfort zone(s) because I need to stop and pause. I just have to remember not to stay there too long.
As always, balance is important. Being outside our comfort zone brings different levels of stress and discomfort to each of us. Some may move outside more often and further out than others. Remember, some stress is good, but too much stress is unhealthy. Being outside our comfort zone takes a conscious effort and finding a balance is key, but they are worth it, because finding the joyful things in life is what makes life so amazing.
When I think of some of the things I wouldn’t have tried without consciously taking risks and understanding I would be uncomfortable, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today. Thanks to moving away to college knowing no one, changing my major, graduate school, living by myself for a while, job interviews, public speaking, and moving across the country to name a few, I now have a wonderful family, a good job, am blessed with so many great people in my life, I wrote a book and am working on others, I have expanded my professional and personal interests, and I have this blog!
Staying inside our comfort zones keeps us comfortable. It doesn’t help us grow. After all, I believe that continually growing as a person is what this whole journey of life is all about.
What are you looking at outside your comfort zone? Step outside! Go get it and experience it!
Embrace risk. Grow outside your comfort zone. Spread the joy!