I still remember the terror I felt the first time I went outside my comfort zone.
I was three years old.
I hadn’t gone there intentionally. I was pushed. The fact that the pushing wasn’t intentional, either, didn’t matter. I was still terrified. That moment forever changed me. And changed the course of my life.
First things first. What is a comfort zone? It’s a place where things are familiar to you. A place that feels comfortable to you. No two comfort zones are the same. One person’s comfort zone might be another person’s greatest fear. I know this to be true. My comfort zone — what’s familiar to me — often elicits a fear response from people. How I choose to live makes most of my loved ones scared for me.
There’s a question that begs here. If comfortable feels good, what’s wrong with feeling comfortable? Well, nothing, in one sense. And everything in another. It’s great to feel comfortable. But not all the time, and not in everything in your life.
You see, feeling comfortable can become a problem. Or, more precisely, feeling TOO comfortable can. It makes you take things for granted. It makes you stop exploring yourself, what you’re capable of. It makes you afraid the minute you stop feeling comfortable. It limits you.
I’m making you feel uncomfortable right now. By talking about it. But, bear with me while I illustrate what I’m talking about.
Think about the early days in your serious intimate relationships. When you first started getting serious, you were pushed outside your comfort zone. Way outside. You felt so open, and vulnerable. Your guard was down. But you were OK with it because it felt SO good there. The exhilaration you felt from falling in love with someone was stronger than any fear you felt. Your fear was on hold. For a while. Then, one day, you started to feel uncomfortable. You might not have known why, but you knew how to respond to this feeling. You pulled back in some way. Your discomfort at being outside your vulnerability comfort zone made you afraid.
How did you pull back when afraid? By taking the other for granted, choosing to see the flaws, instead of the wonder. By not exploring your vulnerable self, choosing to shut down, instead of opening more. By putting up your guard, choosing to limit yourself, instead of growing.
You’re squirming now.
Lesson one: get to know your comfort zone
If you want to move outside it, you need to get to know your comfort zone. Intimately. To know its core rules, and its more nuanced ones.
My comfort zone is a place where making changes is routine. So to go outside my comfort zone, I have to get very deliberate. And go big. Things that happen on a daily basis rarely send me there, such is my comfort with change. I also have to be interested in an area before I’m willing to extend my comfort zone in it. Extreme sports, for example, have never interested me, so I put in no effort there. But I’m drawn to push my physical activity boundaries in other ways. This is one of the more nuanced rules.
Over the years, I discovered that if I decided to explore a new facet of my life, nothing got in my way. Except for in one area. I did everything to avoid pushing out my boundaries in one area for 30 years.
Going to that place of real, deep, unconditional love with a significant other. Love terrified me because being vulnerable terrified me. Being open to scrutiny at such a deep level was too far outside my comfort zone. I couldn’t go there. At least not until I did the necessary self-work. Considerable effort later, love no longer has me running scared. Love has me opening up more and more every day. Unconditional. Vulnerable. And it’s wonderful.
Time for you to examine your own comfort zone. Thinking back over your adult life so far, ask yourself:
- Which things feel easy to you? Easy in the sense that they provoke little or no fear in you?
- Which things make you feel scared? Scared when you’ve done them, or scared when you think or hear about them?
- What have you instinctively tended to avoid doing? And why? (Like me and extreme sports.)
- Are there people in your life who live in ways that make you feel uncomfortable? This may manifest in different ways. By your making judging comments about decisions they make. By your rolling your eyes when they tell you what they’re going to do next. By your telling them why they’re wrong to be doing whatever.
Have a look at your answers, looking for common themes. Take a step back, and see what it tells you about your comfort zone. You should have a picture of what it looks like.
Lesson two: change is good
I’m not saying this because making changes is within MY comfort zone. I’m saying it because making changes is how you grow. Moving beyond your comfort zone is how you grow.
I’d go so far as to say that beyond your comfort zone is where all personal growth lives.
If you do the same thing you’ve always done, day in, day out, you won’t grow. In fact, you barely think when you do this. Yet an astoundingly large number of people live like this. Because they don’t like change. Because they fear change.
Instead of fearing change, you should fear not changing. The things you fear about change are imagined. The things that happen when you avoid change are real.
Here’s what’s real about them. And why avoiding change will cause you trouble down the road. First, you won’t grow as a person. You won’t live up to your amazing potential. And I know your potential is truly amazing. Second, you’ll get bored. When you’re bored, you’ll distract yourself to avoid feeling that way. And your distractions won’t be good for you. Sugary treats, alcohol, binge watching TV shows, shopping for things you don’t need. Being bored for any length of time stresses you out. So you go into autopilot mode to deal with that. And autopilot mode numbs your feelings. All of them.
It’s time to make a choice. Do you want your life to be defined by fear? Or defined by personal growth?
Lesson three: how to get more comfortable doing more things
Moving the boundaries of your comfort zone takes effort. A whole lot of it. But, here’s the truth. If I can learn to embrace unconditional love after 30 years of avoiding it, you can learn to embrace anything!
I’m going to share with you the secret to making changes in your life. Start small. Start with something that is low on your scariness scale. And that won’t take too long to complete.
I used to be afraid of heights. So terrified of them that, as a kid, I’d rather face the ridicule of my peers than jump off anything high. My mother, a nurse, had put the fear of god in me when I was four. I’d been found walking across the parapet of a bridge with a 200-foot drop on one side. So she described, in very gory detail, what I’d look like if I fell and went splat.
One day a few years ago, I knew it was time to make a change in my life. To overcome this fear of heights. As a result of my daily meditation practice, I’d realized my fear was all in mind. That it was more imagined than real. So I set about moving past it. I started by improving my balance, walking along as many low walls as I could find. Then I started choosing higher walls. And finally, I chose something that had always added an increased level of fear. Walking on a higher wall above water. I was living in Vancouver at the time, right by the seawall. And this proved perfect as the final step to overcoming my fear of heights. With an ease that surprised me, I walked along long stretches of the seawall every day. Fear of heights gone. Comfort zone expanded.
By starting small, I’d allowed myself to get comfortable every step of the way.
What can you take on that will allow you to get comfortable with change as you move towards your fear? What’s your equivalent of my fear of heights?
Lesson four: you are more powerful than you realize.
Once you start expanding your comfort zone, something amazing happens. You feel more powerful. Your fear subsides with every boundary shift you make. And this allows your true self — your powerful self — to emerge.
You start to feel more alive. More vibrant. More in control of things than before. More comfortable. All because you were willing to go outside your comfort zone. You feel more comfortable because you’re more comfortable doing more things. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s not.
Expanding your comfort zone makes you feel more comfortable in your own skin. And that’s what real comfort is all about.
The course of my life was changed at three by my being pushed outside my comfort zone. When I was younger, I understood that change was good, that I’d be fine if I did things that scared me.
Now I’m older, I understand that living outside my comfort zone has been the making of me. I am who I am today because of my constantly expanding comfort zone. Because I’m comfortable in my skin.