January 18, 2022 by Amanda Reill
“In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.” - Abraham Maslow
Comfort zones can be a lifesaving gift. They can keep us from embarrassing ourselves, putting our bodies in danger, and risking our livelihoods on unreliable investments. When the term “comfort zone” comes up in conversation, it’s usually in reference to finding ways to expand beyond it. But your comfort zone is not necessarily an enemy - it represents the limits and boundaries that help us make wise decisions and avoid over-stressing our bodies and minds.
Still, like a goldfish that stays the same size as its habitat, we can also limit our growth potential when we remain too tightly bound by our comfort zone. If we’re never willing to move the fence posts or blow a gate open, we’re also unlikely to expand our opportunities or our influence. The pursuit of our goals and dreams are typically not possible if we’re not willing to make ourselves a bit uncomfortable.
We inherited a fight or flight instinct from our ancestors — that is, when faced with a serious danger, our adrenaline and cortisol levels skyrocket in order to give us the temporary strength we need to face a challenge. We’re more alert, in control of our bodies, and can perform incredible feats in this supercharged state.
The key to effectiveness in the fight or flight system is that the stressors are temporary. If we live in a constant state of hyper-arousal, we will push ourselves beyond our limits and become discouraged and exhausted. It’s impossible to maintain a constant state of stress and remain healthy.
Research by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in the early 20th century began to analyze how we process stressors, fear, and performance. They identified that somewhere between our comfort zone and our panic zone lives a zone of optimum performance. The right amount of stress is actually what creates successful people.
Comfort zones give us an opportunity to recoup and reflect before we’re ready to make our next move. They give us a much-needed reprieve from excess fear or over-exertion, preventing potential trauma from being in a constant state of stress. The key to using your comfort zone for good, however, is to develop a friendship with it rather than allowing it to rule your life. We can be ruled by our comfort zones without even being aware of it, and this is a dangerous and stagnant place to live.
One way to help build a friendship with your comfort zone is to draw a picture of it.
Follow these steps:
If we see our comfort zone as a “friend” and valuable tool, we’ll realize that a healthy comfort zone includes both healthy boundaries and regular expansion for personal growth.
More often than not, we feel stressed when forced outside of our comfort zone. But we can often forget that stress is not an innately bad thing! When we’re excited, our body is technically under stress. When we exercise, we are deliberately putting our body through stress for its greater health. Our most satisfying flow state experiences come when we’re facing a challenge of some sort. These are the payoffs that come from pushing the unhealthy boundaries of our comfort zone. It is easier to stay on the couch, but it’s not more rewarding.
Reframing your mindset to understand that the stress you’re intentionally taking on has the potential for a great payoff is the first step to preparing yourself to take a leap. Here are some other points to consider to help you push past your boundaries.
The body needs both activity and sleep. A happy life has a healthy balance of comfort and risk. Eliminating all comforts and safety doesn’t give us an opportunity to sit back and reflect on all we’ve accomplished. Trying to constantly push ourselves out of our comfort zone can breed dissatisfaction with who we are. But remaining in your comfort zone simply by default doesn’t nourish you or strengthen your muscles.
Rightly so, our bodies are designed to protect themselves. But rational thought is just as critical to our success and growth as our defense mechanisms. We should set boundaries, but we should also know why they exist. Maintaining an appropriate comfort zone is about being intentional with your decision to move in and out of it. Life is best lived on purpose.
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