We are often told, almost ad nauseam, that in order to be successful and happy in life we need to be courageous! We need to constantly be moving forwards! We need to ‘step out of our comfort-zone!’ But do we? Really? What are some of the benefits of this. Is it really worth pushing through the discomfort that comes with it?
Ok, so confession time. I struggle a bit with change. It’s caused me anxiety in the past, and I don’t really like feeling like I’m not in control, so I thought I would have a look at this idea and see if it’s really as beneficial as many say it is.
So the initial question is…
What really is our ‘Comfort Zone’ anyway?
This was difficult because I can’t find much in the way of good, solid research regarding the concept and how it’s defined. Many of the books and articles that I’ve found seem to be anecdotal/opinion.
The closest theory I can find (and one I remember from my Psychology degree) was developed by the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky), is called ‘the zone of proximal development’ and applies to teaching and learning (aimed primarily at the teaching of children, but applies to adults too).
Basically, there are things we already know and are good at. But if we stay at this level for long, we’re likely to become bored. If the person teaching us pushes too hard this can lead to frustration we may feel defeated or give up. But if we are pushed just beyond what we already know, where a sense of interest and challenge are at a good level, then we will be in an optimal state for learning. This is ‘the zone of proximal development’.
So, similarly, our ‘comfort-zone’, as the name suggests, is the area where we feel comfortable and most at ease. It’s where we feel like we’re in control and know how far our abilities stretch. In this state, Anxiety and stress are minimal.
But, as with the centre in the ‘zone of proximal development’ theory, this area is where boredom is likely to increase whilst development decreases and we don’t feel challenged or that we’re meeting our potential.
Many argue (as the large number of articles and Youtube videos on the subject contests to…with such emotive titles as “Your comfort zone is killing you“*), that we shouldn’t be satisfied in this sphere, but should be pushing past where we’re comfortable, to a level of optimum performance.
So do We Really Need to Challenge Our Comfort Zone?!
In an article for ‘The Guardian’ entitled “Please stop telling me to leave my comfort zone” Melody Wilding describes the negative affects of constantly putting ourselves in challenging situations; how constantly pushing the boundaries in her career led to burn-out, and argues that our comfort zones is a “predictable spaces of mastery where we can seek refuge when the stress becomes too much”.
Ok, so some people are happy right where they are. They like to do the same thing every day, are happy with routine. I get that. Like I said, this is something I’ve struggled with. I can also understand the frustration of being told to put this at risk – we shouldn’t feel guilty wanting a degree of stability and predictability in our lives
It’s also important to note that pushing too far beyond the limits of what we’re capable of can push us into a ‘danger zone’. This is the ‘completely out-of-my-depth’ area where stress and anxiety are highest.
Personally though, from what I have found out, and personal experience, I think there are some very valid reasons for going beyond our comfort zone and challenging ourselves.
One problem I have with the idea of sitting in a safe bubble is that time doesn’t stand still.
Whether you like it or not, you are always moving forward and will inevitably face change…for better or worse.
We’re always being presented with choices. Sometimes this could be staying where we are or taking action, the easy way or the hard way…Other times the decision is made for us and we have no choice but to adapt. One fact that I have had first hand experience of is that:
What you run away from….must be dangerous!
The part of your brain responsible for the fear/fight-or-flight response is very primitive. It does a very basic calculation: If you run away or avoid something, then it must be dangerous, and once the connection is made, you could move into your ‘danger zone’ far more easily when facing a future challenge.
By stepping out of your comfort zone in a controlled, ideally incremental manner, and sitting with the fear a little bit, you can develop your coping mechanisms and increase resilience. You’re telling your brain that you can cope.
Things that you haven’t tried before that might seem scary now can quickly become normal as your fear subsides, and your ‘comfort zone’ expands.
If you want to improve, you have to embrace change!
So, for some, the idea of ‘going beyond your comfort zone’ might conjure up images of bungee jumping or sky diving…but these are very extreme examples! For some it could be joining a club or the local gym, or even asking someone for help.
Part of my motivation for writing this blog, for example, is that there are things about myself that I want to change or to improve upon, and I also want to help others do the same. If I didn’t think change was important (or possible), I wouldn’t be writing this!
Part of being a gentleman, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, I believe, involves taking responsibility. To aim to be (cliche alert) the best version of yourself that you can be, and this, ultimately, comes with challenges.
If you want to ask someone out on a date, become a good public speaker, get a good job, learn to drive a car,…or even start a blog(!) virtually anything out of your ‘normal’ routine…you have to take the first step, and this usually comes with an element of fear.
Life is and Adventure
We love a good adventure story. Everything from Lord of the Rings to The Goonies involved someone stepping out of the ordinary to face a challenge and become more than they were. Without a challenge there would be no excitement.
It’s like that scene from transformers where Shia LaBeouf’s character says “in fifty years, when you’re looking back at your life, don’t you want to be able to say you had the guts to get in the car”.
Luckily, when the fear subsides, and you look back at what you have achieved, you get to appreciate the rewards that follow….the gold at the end of the rainbow…or, at least, just past the edge of your comfort zone.
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References and Further Reading
Anderson, B. (2014) Your comfort zone is killing you: Finding the courage to be you *
Mardlin, E (2019) Out of Your Comfort Zone: Breaking Boundaries for a Life Beyond Limits*
*please be aware that I’m part of the Amazon UK Affiliate programme, so if you buy anything through some of the links provided, I may get a small percentage at no extra cost to you. This helps towards the blog and I only ever post things that I genuinely recommend.