Thriving in the Discomfort Zone

Why it’s important to become comfortable with discomfort.

In every major milestone of my life, from leaving a decade long relationship I’d outgrown, falling in love, and leaving friends and family to move to a new city, to the smaller but equally significant milestones; accepting a job I wasn’t sure I was qualified for, confronting demons from the past, risking rejection for a lover, taking ownership over my own sexuality, all of those moments big and small, I have felt terrified. Terrified to leave something I’ve grown used to, even if it was no longer serving me. Terrified of trying something new. Sometimes even cripplingly so. What I’ve learned since is that no worthwhile aspiration can be accomplished without leaving your comfort zone.

I’ve known this about myself for sometime, but I am my own harshest critic.

I expect perfection from myself and am sometimes unkind when I don’t hit that mark. As women, many of us have been our own worst enemy. If it’s not our self-doubt holding us back, we let the pressure of taking risk and failing, or maintaining the outward appearance of perfection, block us from taking risk. It’s been proven that men engage in more risky behavior than women. Therefore, they’re more likely to benefit and grow, professionally or otherwise from those risks. Why is this?

Many women, myself included, find their inner self doubt is loudest when dealing with their most deeply felt dreams about their lives and their work, because we feel particularly vulnerable about them.

In situations where the boundaries of our comfort zone are crossed, inner self-doubt creeps up, spewing menacing lines in an attempt to get you back to a familiar place. The stronger the inner voice, the louder and meaner and more hysterical it gets, the closer you could be to taking an important step in personal growth.

I was raised to believe that fear was a weakness, and weakness was unacceptable. So, for a long time I avoided things that scared me in lieu of an easier, less confrontational lifestyle.

What I’ve learned is that personal growth significantly depends on new challenges and activities. If you’re not learning to live outside your comfort zone, if you’re not facing the things that scare you, you’re probably holding yourself back.

Let’s talk about being scared for a second. For me, it comes from fear of failing, fear of being rejected, or fear from being alone. That fear is powerful. I assume it’s different for everyone, but for me, it expressed itself in two main forms.

The first, it felt like my feet were glued to the ground and I was incapable of making a change without being physically forced against my will. It seemed impossible to move forward and become the version of myself I’d dreamed of. I didn’t make changes, but I wanted to. I felt stuck. It was a miserable period of my life.

The second feeling was once I started making those changes, my inner self-doubt got the best of me. I couldn’t get a good night sleep because my brain was swimming in fear, mainly about what other people thought of me. Would they think I was an imposter? Would they laugh at me? Would it be all be a joke to them? What if I failed? What if I made the wrong decision? What if. What if.

I was drinking most nights to cope with my nervousness, which led to feeling constantly tired, which lead to depression. I wasn’t motivated by getting strong, being creative, or furthering my career, all things that used to energize me. I felt social anxiety at work to the point of feeling hyper aware of my actions, my breathing, and my movements during one-on-one interactions. All textbook signs of panic attacks caused by anxiety. Somebody get this girl a xanax.

And then, after one particularly miserable week, I decided I needed to focus all that nervous energy into something positive.

I wanted to build things for myself. I decided that if I tried and failed, it would be better than not trying at all. Anything had to be better than this feeling, right? I made a list of the things I had set out to do when I started the journey of moving to a new city, but that had still scared me.

And then, I just started actioning them. I emailed that person. I signed up for that class. I let people in. I expressed my creativity and put my true self and personality out there for the world see. I remember after crossing each of these items off my list, the feeling of anxiety falling farther and farther away. Each accomplishment spurred an idea for another new creative venture or new experience. Pushing outside my comfort zone has connected me with people I might not have met otherwise. People who have influenced my life and led me to greater fulfillment, and becoming more self-aware. And so, I’ve kept pushing.

With each of these things, I had to remind myself not to gauge success on the opinions of others. In today’s world of instant gratification, it’s challenging not to link your self-worth with how many likes or views you get. What mattered was that I had done something I had wanted to do, but wouldn’t have done if I’d stayed in the comfort zone. If others could identify with it, or chose to recognize it, then that was a bonus.

What has been most surprising has been how rewarding it has been to have ventured through the borders of my own comfort zone, personally, professionally, and creatively. In fact, studies have shown that when you experience new things, your body creates brand new neurological pathways that fuel your creative spark and enhance your memory. How cool is that?

I still feel a pang of anxiety and self-doubt doing something out of my comfort zone. Just like any muscle, this skill needs to be repeatedly flexed to become stronger. Learning to use fear as momentum for growth will be ever-changing, and I’m sure will challenge me time and time again.

However, the progress I’ve made since those miserable days of the past has emboldened me, and brought me closer to becoming the stronger, more diverse, authentic version of myself that I’d envisioned. By removing limitations and challenging discomfort, I’ve found space to flourish.

Ultimately, you are the only one that can push yourself a bit further. So really, what do you have to lose?