Comfort, ease, and safety are core elements that contribute to our overall sense of well-being. We are wired to seek comfort, and familiarity feeds this neutral state of being. Our habits help us move efficiently through our daily activities and feel mentally secure. Getting too firmly set in our comfort zone, however, doesn’t necessarily free us from worry or depression. Rather, it can cause us to function on autopilot. As a result, we miss opportunities to grow and create and experience authentic joy.
Stress and risk
Our comfort zone can be defined as the space where our activities and behaviors minimize stress and risk. Sometimes, though, we’re not truly comfortable in our comfort zone; yet the thought of stepping outside it can cause anxiety and stress and even panic. Since stress is considered the cause of many illnesses, it makes sense to want to minimize it.
Children, in their innocence and fearlessness, are natural risk-takers. They know nothing about a “comfort zone.” They experience life with a sense wonder and curiosity. A leaf, an animal, the sky, a shadow—all can delight them. Beyond childhood, however, most of us succumb to conditioning that pushes us to seek a safe and familiar path.
Feelings of stress and fatigue are often caused by the constant discourse buzzing inside our minds. If you stop to listen, you’ll notice how that discourse is generally uninspiring rumination. When allowed free rein, such ruminating thoughts can become an internal tyrant telling us how flawed and incapable we are. Over time, we become psychologically conditioned to fear failure, though that’s what we expect of ourselves. We find ourselves stuck in a treadmill-like existence until a crisis occurs, forcing us to act or make a change.
Fear and growth
On the other hand, instinctive rather than conditioned fear can save our lives. It’s in our DNA to recognize a threat and self-protect, as did our ancestors. We are designed to move naturally between threat, action, and comfort. The space just outside our comfort zone is called “optimal anxiety,” where stress levels are slightly elevated—a healthy state. Venturing into this space motivates us to act. We build the flexibility and resilience not only to meet adversity but to take advantage of opportunity—as long as we to return to a state of comfort with relative ease.
Taking risks can be very frightening. While we tend to like things that are easy, even a path with a seemingly low resistance can be strewn with unknowns. Experiencing trauma such as death of a loved one, job or financial loss, or abuse can cause us to retreat into our default comfort zone and remain there. Yet, isn’t this life we’ve been given meant to be lived in a way that enables us to bring our best self into it? Allowing our best self to flourish requires courage.
Our lives are all about learning and growing. The more we learn to flex between comfort and action, the easier and less stressful life becomes.
Two courageous women
I’d like to share examples of two women I know who are in the midst of moving beyond their comfort zones. These women have taken risks to bring greater meaning and purpose to their lives.
Maria was recovering from the recent loss of one of her two war veteran sons to suicide. After several months of attending the iRest meditation program I teach, she shared how she was able to integrate the practices into her life. She now sleeps well and is able to fulfill her responsibilities as a speech pathologist for autistic children. An organization I’m affiliated with wants to videotape testimonials about services that have helped veterans and their families. When asked if she would participate, Maria said, “So you’re asking me to go beyond my comfort zone?” After a long pause she said that if it would help just one veteran she would do it.
Diane Madden Ferguson is a survivor of sexual trauma that occurred during her five-year tour in the Navy. When she got out, she married a man she knew from high school. During their 38 years of marriage, she raised two children, got a master’s degree, and had a successful career in law enforcement. After retirement, her life fell apart. She had never told anyone, not even her husband, about the sexual abuse. Two years ago she finally had the courage to step out of her comfort zone. Her healing journey began with therapy and culminated with the publication of her memoir, Undertow: A US Navy Veteran’s Journey Through Military Sexual Trauma, in 2016.
Fear and love as allies
I am the least likely person to venture beyond my comfort zone, having been a shy, introverted child. Yet, as I reflect back, I’m amazed at how many times I have gone far outside my comfort zone… and how many ventures (many of which did not pan out) and adventures have enriched my life.
Long ago a co-worker challenged me:, “Why don’t you travel?” I proceeded to make a hobby of traveling to far-off lands—usually alone. A friend said, “Let’s take a belly dance class.” I later became a principal dancer performing with a dance company for more than 20 years. Later a colleague said, “I have space in my office. Come start your own business.” And I did. Another colleague suggested joining a Toastmasters club to overcome my fear of public speaking. Now teaching, coaching, and speaking are second nature to me. Fear has been my companion along much of the way. But it always arose with a message compelling me to take the leap and experience the rewards—even when the chance of failure was great.
As I have learned to move beyond my comfort zone, I have found that fear always brings along its unlikely companions—love and joy. Somehow I knew that if I did that thing of which I was fearful, I would ultimately do what I love and enjoy what I do. I was inspired to embrace life and bounce back even when things didn’t work out. The words of two famous writers truly capture this message for me. In You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” And the poet Rumi wrote: “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”
Taking the next step
It’s never too late to recapture some of the innocence and fearlessness of your inner child and become comfortable outside your comfort zone. Rather than waiting for others or circumstances to push you into action, start by making small changes in your routines, traveling different routes, or trying new things. Notice when autopilot thinking is occurring, and relax with deep breaths to quiet your mind. Shift your attention to something you love or something that challenges you.
In order to grow and be transformed, you musk risk failure. But your life will be richer and more rewarding when you allow love and joy to be your allies, right along with fear.