What is a comfort zone?
The comfort zone can be seen as a circle within which lay all the things that make you feel at ease. Everything outside of that circle will consequently make you uncomfortable, and you will naturally want to avoid stepping outside.
Things that make you feel comfortable are usually things you know to be pleasant. Outside of the comfort zone are both things of which you know they are unpleasant, but also a lot of things of which you have no idea how they make you feel because you’ve never faced them before. This means that learning anything new, or truly developing yourself in a way you’ve never done before is going to be awkward by definition. If you want different results, you must get out of your comfort zone.
That zone is often pictured as a circle with a solid line, a clear border. In my experience, it is more of a spectrum. You are most comfortable in the center of the circle. The farther you go outward, the less comfortable it becomes.
Why it’s dangerous to step outside your comfort zone
If you move too far away from comfort, you can also end up in a zone where you are no longer safe, into the danger zone. Somewhere in the balance point between comfort and danger, there is an area where you are out of your comfort zone but still within your safety zone, that is where the magic happens.
If you step out of your comfort zone, it is important to remain within your safety zone. Outside of it, you can endanger yourself, sometimes immediately. Though even if there is no immediate danger, but you go so far out of your comfort zone that you get a panic attack, the brain still stores that as a very dangerous, traumatic event. Having said that, the safety zone almost always is larger than your comfort zone. The mind tends to perceive danger much greater than it actually is, making “outside the comfort zone” easily feel like “into the danger zone.”
A lion behind the bush!
Imagine you are a hunter-gatherer, still part of the food chain and dependent on wild nature for your survival needs. You are foraging for food and see a nice bush with berries. You decide to pick some, and as you walk up to the bush, you hear something move behind it. It might be a lion getting ready to attack. What do you do? Do you assume it will all be fine and pick the berries? Or do you turn the other way just to be sure? It turns out the brain is prone to turn away. Think about the risk/reward analysis. The consequences of missing one meal and looking for another bush are far smaller than becoming a meal for the tiger. This means you are evolutionarily wired to take a negative outcome much more seriously than a positive one.
This ties into the comfort zone vs. danger zone idea pretty strongly. It’s safer to stay with what you know than to venture out into the unknown that might be filled with danger. Though this keeps you safe, it also keeps you the same.
Our unrealistic perception of danger and the fear reaction it triggers can make it difficult to work with the comfort zone. It’s a matter of carefully exploring the outskirts of that zone to really learn where it starts and ends. Once you start to actively and consciously train yourself to enlarge your comfort zone, you’ll soon start to live for the love of adventure instead of the fear of danger.
How to Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
In every learning process there is a learning curve, whether you are learning to speak a foreign language, to play a musical instrument, or to meditate, but also when working on personal growth, engraining a new way of thinking, or changing your outlook on life. The beginning of every learning curve is the steepest.
The less you know, the more you can still learn. If you want to optimize your performance, look for a new direction in your life, or feel the need to break free from your old patterns, you have to learn new things. Look into the mirror and ask yourself whether what you believe about life still fits with what you want to accomplish.
As soon as you get on the path of personal growth, you will soon learn that your mind is full of conditioned ways of thinking, imagining lions behind bushes everywhere! In a lot of cases, it is important to carefully see whether the lion was ever actually there. And that is uncomfortable.
That uncomfortable feeling you have when you approach the end of your comfort zone is, in a way, a signal that you have reached the most informative, and therefore the most valuable part. If you look at it that way, you can embrace that uncomfortable feeling because you know it is going to pay off for you at the end. Kind of like with muscle soreness, if you are training hard it hurts your muscles, but you know if you can work through it, you will come back stronger next time. You can then lift that same weight more easily or even lift more weight with the same effort. Because you know it is worth the effort, you accept the pain.
If you often pose yourself a mental challenge and learn new things, you will start to recognize that uncomfortable feeling as the magical area where you improve at an amazing speed. Because you know that next time you can handle a bigger challenge with the same ease.
Start Practicing with Discomfort
The trick is to strategically and consciously take one or two steps out of your comfort zone so it can still catch up and grow little by little . Then, after practicing enough, you will arrive at a point where you can feel comfortable with something that would have had you panicking before.
Not because I mindlessly pushed my own boundaries and endangered my life, but because I slowly and carefully allowed my comfort zone to grow with me. The goal of discomfort is not to feel uncomfortable, but to enlarge your comfort zone.