“Every time you step out of your comfort zone….You are creating a new comfort zone!”- Jeff Faldalen
A comfort zone is the place in which you feel a sense of familiarity and safety, somewhere you have been before, possibly countless times. It might be a physical location, such as your bedroom or a grove of trees in a nearby forest. It could also be a state of mind. It requires little change and almost no risk. Some people remain entrenched in the same circumstances for most of their lives, since they either don’t realize that there are options or they are too intimidated by them to take that step beyond the door.
Philosopher and author Joseph Campbell has said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” What if you knew that your fondest desires and most fervent heart longings were in those cavernous depths? Would you have the courage to take that step?
Contemplate what you were taught about change. If you lived in a home in which chaos reigned, it is likely that it would be unwelcome, since you might never have been certain what to expect from your family members. Compound that with mental health issues or addiction and the fear may be multiplied. Perhaps you grew up in circumstances in which there was predictablity and stability. When change was about to occur, you were informed and included in the decision making, as much as possible. What would your relationship be with change in either circumstance?
In 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson pioneered the concept of the comfort zone as they explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. To experience peak performance, sometimes a touch of relative anxiety is helpful as a motivator. Not the over the top, heart racing out of control, jumping out of your skin anxiety, but the mild and manageable feelings of being out of your element.
One of concepts in the practice of yoga is ‘going to your edge’. What that means is stretching your body just so much, to avoid injury. The longer you practice, the farther out the edge, since your body is adjusting to the various postures, known as asanas, which translates to ‘seat’ in Sanskrit. This is as true off the mat as on it. When you go to your edge in your relationships, you are setting good boundaries and asking others to respect them. In your career or creative endeavors, you may be taking well- considered risks, rather than impulsively diving into new situations.
Another example is that of dipping your big toe into the water if you don’t yet know how to swim. The confidence that is required to jump in and splash around, comes from instruction and experience.
Change requires a leap of faith that you will land safely. If you were taught resilience, there is a greater likelihood that you will find change less daunting and more desired.
The Daring Young Man or Woman on the Flying Trapeze
Consider the analogy of the trapeze artist who needs to release the swing on which their fingers are grasping in order to leap forward and grab hold of the one heading in their direction. If they played it safe and kept swinging back and forth on the current trapeze which they gripped, it wouldn’t be much fun to watch, would it? The audience is enthralled when in that moment of in-between, the performer is in free flight mode. The exhiliration the artist experiences is contagious.
What Are You Afraid Of?
Common fears that prevent going outside the perceived circle of safety include:
- Being rejected and abandoned
- Being seen as ‘weird’ or different
- Having to start all over again
- Loss of all we think we need to be happy and whole
- Lack of control
Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and author of The Gifts of Imperfection, shares her definition of comfort zone: “Where our uncertainty, scarcity and vulnerability are minimized — where we believe we’ll have access to enough love, food, talent, time, admiration. Where we feel we have some control.”
Although it seems like a dichotomy, living in the ‘just don’t know’ is as important as remaining in the pseudo-safety of our bubble of familiarity. The desire to shake things up a bit, comes at a cost. It means ‘leaning into the fears,’ asking. “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I fail, succeed, am rejected, seen as weird, need to begin anew, lose it all and feel out of control?”
A helpful exercise is to list as many of the experiences you have encountered in which you were feeling uncertainty and yet you prevailed. Perhaps it related to taking on new responsibilities at home or on the job. Maybe it was entering into recovery from addiction or treatment for depression or anxiety.
What Are Some of the Ways You Have Stretched Your Comfort Zones?
Some of mine have included:
- Taking an Outward Bound Course in New England in January of 1981
- Going to Graduate School to earn my MSW (Masters in Social Work)
- Holding jobs in various and sundry therapeutic venues
- Marrying and adopting a child
- Starting and maintaining a business with my husband for 10 years
- Providing care for my husband during a lengthy illness
- Re-creating my life after he died in 1998
- Raising a child as a single parent
- Going to seminary to become an interfaith minister
- Becoming a free lance journalist
- Healing following a series of life challenging health crises
- Travelling extensively afterward
- Performing (storytelling) on stage in NYC
While these might seem challenging for some, the greatest area, that I call my growing edge, is letting go of perfectionism and workaholism. Needing to have all the answers to whatever questions might arise. Having to perform at optimal pace and proficiency in every area of my life. Being all things to all people, a.k.a ‘people pleasing’. Not wanting to disappoint. Crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s. (My inner editor is a harsh task mistress) Not letting anything slip through the cracks. Feeling a need to exceed expections; mine and everyone else’s.
What I have learned is that the more I am able to sit with the discomfort of being out of my element and perhaps in a bit over my head, the greater my capacity to move beyond it. It is when I struggle against the ill at ease feelings that I am more likely to remain entrenched. Here’s to new comfort zones.