4 Things I have Learned about the C-Word
No, not that C-Word! Comfort; as in living a comfortable life. There is this aversion to the word. Stepping out of your comfort zone isn't easy.
If I could only jump into your head right now and have a look at all the c-words flowing through it! And no, this is not an article about THAT C-word. Although being in your comfort zone is treated with as much aversion. The word I’m talking about is COMFORT. Leading a comfortable life, living in your comfort zone. How dare I use the word! Experts in the media make it sound like it is a hellish place to be. It is so awful no one should be there and once you leave it is paradise. You start leading this amazing successful life full of colour and beauty.
People talk about stepping out of your comfort zone like it is as easy as going to the grocery store. I read and hear about all kinds of reasons why staying comfortable stunts your growth. We all need to grow, learn and build resilience by leaving “the zone”. And I get it. I hear you, but it is not as easy as all that. There is a story behind the action, there is something people aren’t talking about.
People who have ventured outside the zone are telling you all the benefits without any of the work. They talk about what comes after you step out, way after! Why aren’t people talking about the anxiety, the night sweats or the breakdown you are going to have. The 2 a.m. meltdown where you curl up in a ball in your hallway and the inner critic rips you to shreds. The self-doubt ebbs and flows daily. Obstacles and roadblocks are littered across your path and there are 100’s of new sabotage tactics you will try.
No one told me about the excuses and stories I was going to tell myself. I stepped out of my Comfort Zone and simultaneously stepped in dog shit and quicksand. I thought all I needed was the courage to step out of my Comfort Zone and life would make sense again. I thought right outside my Comfort Zone was the key to life, the universe, and everything. The life I wanted was on the other side of the door, all those things are, but they weren’t waiting on the doorstep. They are miles down the road.
Our comfort zone is a psychological state in which things feel familiar and you are at ease and feel in control. There are low levels of anxiety and stress. It is our “expert” place and is safe and predictable. Brené Brown, in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” (Hazelden, 2010), describes our comfort zone as: “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.” Back in 1908, there was this famous experiment conducted by researchers on mice which found with the right amount of stimulation, mice reached an optimum level of performance. If there was too much stimulation (stress), or too little, the mice stop doing the task. We now know this level as “optimal anxiety” level where we all perform our best. In an anxiety neutral environment or with too much stress or overwhelm, we underperform to our potential and are not living our best lives.
Our comfort zone is our foundation. It keeps us stable and allows for a retreat in times of extreme stress and anxiety. Through my journey to reinvent my professional self I have learned the comfort zone is not such a horrible place to be sometimes. The problem occurs when you don’t get out of the house to see what actually is outside. There are 4 key things about comfort zones:
1. You need it.
Your comfort zone is a safe and secure place to recharge; a home base. You are looking to grow your Comfort Zone, not abandon it. Getting through the fear into the learning and growth part of your life requires energy and it comes from the security of having a peaceful place to rest.
2. It grows and shrinks
Your comfort zone grows from the risks you take and the lessons you learn from your failures. If you are always succeeding, you are not outside your zone. If you are not challenging yourself and growing, your zone will shrink. It’s a muscle needing exercise.
3. It’s surrounded by fear
Period. It will always be surrounded by fear. We will always feel fear and self-doubt when we step outside the zone. With practice and self-awareness, however, we recognize the fear zone for what it is, a path to bigger things and as we grow the comfort zone, our fear zone shrinks.
4. We are all wired to have one
It is part of our psychological make-up. It is part of us as once, back in the day of cave-dwelling and tiger attacks, our aversion to risk and change kept us alive. As humanity evolved and our brains became more complex, we need risk and challenge to feel alive. The aversion is still there, and it can be a fight to redirect the energy from staying alive to being alive.
You can’t avoid the fear zone nor will it ever go away. I don’t push through my self-doubt; I stop and listen to the things it tells me and then I choose to go forward. My inner critic is still there telling me I don’t know what I am doing. The difference now is she doesn’t rip me to shreds, I thank her for the information, and I remind her I’m not supposed to know. I remind her I am learning and I’m in charge. I will take a risk when I want, and I will recharge when I need. I will grow my comfort zone by learning, trying and failing. The perfect time for stepping out of the comfort zone is now. Find something small and do it.
Stepping outside your comfort zone is a lot like putting cold feet into hot bathwater. You know the water will not burn you, but it can still be too hot to jump right in. You might have to dip your toes a few times before it doesn’t hurt so much. You need time to warm up to it but you will never get used to the water if you don’t take a dip.
Where my career is concerned, I am out of the quicksand. Self-doubt and anxiety don’t push me around like they used to. Maybe I jumped too quickly into the hot tub but maybe I did exactly what I needed to do to get me moving and to expand my comfort zone. I didn’t burn to death nor did I drown in the quicksand. I am starting to leave the fear zone and make my way to the learning and growing phases, but I can still smell the shit on my shoe. It is a reminder of where I have been and where I am going.