Your Comfort Zone, Friend or Foe?
I’ll start off by saying that your comfort zone is neither. It’s neutral. Taking a simplistic stance, your comfort zone is inanimate; therefore, it can neither keep you in it nor kick you out of it. What it can and does do is signal when you are approaching the boundaries of your comfort. Then it’s up to you to decide whether to forge ahead or shrink back.
What makes your comfort zone seem “friendly” is its predictability unfortunately that’s the very same characteristic that makes it your “foe”. It’s comforting to know exactly what you’re gonna get in life, when you’re gonna get it and who’s gonna give it to you. When you’ve been “getting” something for so long, you start to build certainty around that thing; it starts to sprout roots in your life and over time those roots grow strong and firm, not easily swayed.
If your tree bears a lot of fruit, you may think “I’ve got everything I need right here, I don’t have to try different fruit.” If your tree is barren but it provides a lot of shade, then you may think “At least I’ve got shade, some people don’t have any.” The point here being is that you can find lots of reasons to stay exactly where you are and as long as you’re okay with it and aren’t wishing you had more variety or maybe got a tan once in a while, then, by all means, stay there.
It’s when you get bored or tired of your predictability or maybe your predictability abuses you or doesn’t pay you enough, that your comfort zone begins to appear more like a foe and all you want to do is escape it.
Here’s the thing, you can’t escape your comfort zone. It’s always going to be with you and believe it or not, it’s necessary for your survival. Yes, you can get used to accepting certain realities, some of which may not be in your best interest but your comfort zone also serves as protection. It sends out warning signals when you’re in unfamiliar territory, like when you’re walking alone in a deserted park late at night or driving in icy conditions.
You’ve heard it all said before. Gone are the days of when you needed to look out for saber tooth tigers when you were out hunting but your early warning system, i.e. your fight or flight response, hasn’t changed with the times. Striking up a conversation with your crush causes just the same amount of heart pounding palpitations and dry mouth as would being confronted by a regular old tiger.
So while you can’t escape your comfort zone, there is something you can do to begin to live in harmony with it. You can practice expanding your context. I like to think of context as something similar to perspective. Your context is a container. Everyone’s container is different, a different size and shape. Your container is created when you’re born and it gets filled up first by the perspectives of your caretakers, then your teachers and friends, the media and then by your unique experiences, feelings and beliefs. Over time, your container gets really full, so you’re unable to accept new ideas and new perspectives and when that happens, the boundaries of your comfort zone stop expanding and you stop expanding. If a new idea tries to find its way into your container, it just bounces off because there’s no space for it to fit into.
Now let’s say that your context contains the belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman. All your experiences and people in your life support this world view so you’ve never felt any discord with this belief. Then, someone you love very much, an uncle maybe, announces that he’s in love with another man and you enter a complete state of confusion because you now have two perspectives that exist in your context in complete opposition to each other.
One the one hand, you can’t accept that your uncle is Gay and on the other hand you love him dearly but you can’t live in a state of discord so you have to decide which idea to hold on to. If you decide to hold onto the belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman, then you must discard your love for your uncle, thereby shrinking your context. On the other hand, if you decide to love your uncle and accept him for being Gay, then, your context expands because not only have you made space in your context by discarding that old belief, it expands even more to accommodate new perspectives about the GLBT spectrum.
The more you expand your context, the more your comfort zone expands, allowing you to try new varieties of fruit and step into the sun. As you expand your comfort zone, you teach your early warning system when to detect real danger and when it should take a nap.
I received a rude awakening to the limits of my comfort zone about a month ago as I sat on the edge of my bed having a good cry. I was crying because I was broke, very broke. Having -$400 in your checking account is not fun, especially when your monthly expenses exceed your monthly salary. My business expenses totaled approximately $45,000 in 2015, about $40,000 more than I actually had in the bank. I’d say they were all legitimate expenses but the spending was actually a cop out.
You see, I had a dream of becoming an entrepreneur and yet I was so scared of stepping outside the boundaries of my comfort zone, I did everything I could to not become an entrepreneur, namely, I spent more and more money getting “ready”. I bought courses, some of which to this day, I have yet to begin. I paid for coaching, sometimes only to be told what I already knew and then there were the weekend trips to attend self-improvement seminars which were all worth it.
I beat myself up for a while, analyzed my budget spreadsheet, and realized I had absolutely no more wriggle room. I had painted myself into a corner and my only options were to shrink or expand. Shrinking was out of the question. I had a support network around me that would not allow that to happen and I’m so grateful for the unconditional love that surrounds me. I did not want to look back on my life and admit that I didn’t even take advantage of the amazing opportunity that I had worked so diligently to manifest.
So I dug deep and came to understand that my dreams would not come true without taking some risks and one of the risks I had been trying to avoid taking was being seen and standing firm and true for what I’m passionate about. As soon as I made the decision to be seen, I discarded a ton of beliefs about my worth and value, making space for new perspectives and expanding my context at the same time.
Your comfort zone is merely an indicator for what you don’t know and haven’t yet experienced. Most people have a valid fear of the unknown because it might be dangerous but more often than not, the fear is irrational and could lead to personal freedom, a better relationship, a new job or a clear mind. If you’re afraid of the unknown, I have a tip for you, acknowledge it, get to know it, and seek support. Perhaps there’s someone you know who is very familiar with what you’re afraid of and can help guide you through it.
My new mantra is I REFUSE TO SHRINK and that begins with sharing my knowledge and walking my talk. What do you need to discard in order to make space in your context?
“The pain of every change is forgotten when the benefits of that change are realized.” -Tom Hopkins