Comfort Zones: How Comfortable Are They Really?

 Photography by  Arah McManamna

Photography by Arah McManamna

Comfort zones: We all have them but how comforting are they really? According to Lifehacker, a comfort zone is a “behavioral space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk.” Lifehacker isn’t exactly the type of source I typically use as research for my articles but this definition resonated with me.

As humans we like routine and familiarity. That kind of stability serves as a comforting home base for us to come back to, rest, and feel rejuvenated for more adventures. Comfort zones aren’t inherently bad, but they become so when comfort keeps us from living in alignment with our personal values or what’s important to us in life. Instead of being a cozy, restful home base, our comfort zone becomes a prison, a space where experiential avoidance runs rampant. If you read my last post, you’ll remember that experiential avoidance is avoiding experiencing events, places, people, thoughts, or triggers that are feared to be unpleasant or uncomfortable. That’s pretty much the definition of a comfort zone!

So here’s the ugly truth: Staying within your comfort zone actually ends up being more stressful for you. The things you’re avoiding tend to be attached to things that you value. When you’re not living in alignment with your values, internal friction, discontentment, anger, anxiety, and a slew of other not-so-nice-sounding emotions can arise.

Additionally, when sticking to your comfort zone, you end up missing out on all sorts of exciting stuff that could lead to personal growth including, closer relationships, increased creativity, new job opportunities, and some downright fun times! Think about it. Have you ever done anything you were extremely proud of when you didn’t start off feeling at least a little scared or nervous?

My guess is probably not.

Don’t get me wrong. Comfort zones are important to have and it’s healthy to spend time there, just not too much. It’s all about balance. So, how do you take some steps outside the comfort zone? Here are a few suggestions:

1.     Start Small

Order something different at your favorite restaurant, take a different route to work everyday, try listening to a new genre of music during your workout routine, or change up your workout routine while you’re at it! Pick one or two things that are small and low-risk. Experimenting in this way can help you see how rewarding and interesting it can be to step outside the box!

2.     Identify Your Avoidance

Explore some of the things that you avoid most often. What kinds of activities or situations send you running for your comfort zone? Maybe it’s social situations or dating a certain kind of person. Whatever it may be, try to identify it and ask yourself what’s behind that and what might it take to step outside the comfort zone safely. This is all grist for the therapy mill, by the way. Bring it up at your next session with your counselor or therapist and see what you can uncover.

3.     Make a Backup Plan

Have an exit strategy, a backup plan, or at least some breadcrumbs so that if you have a misstep when you’re out of the comfort zone, you can find your way back. Bring an understanding friend to the party with you or plan to just get drinks with the date who’s “not your type” instead of committing to a whole dinner. You’ll feel more confident walking into the unknown with a safety net.

4.     Push Yourself, Just Not Too Hard

It’s great if you want to push yourself to try new things, gain new perspectives, and have different experiences. Just remember that you are a human, you have limits, and it is much more productive to take it slowly than to try and revamp your whole life and then burn out on change.

5.     Return to the Comfort Zone

In light of the last suggestion, take a rest! After you’ve stepped outside of the comfort zone, feel free to go back and take a load off. Congratulate yourself, reflect on how it went, and bask in the cozy glow of the comfort zone. Unwined and rest up for your next adventure!