Written by Anna Bartter
Comfort zones can be wonderful places – but there are psychological benefits to pushing ourselves beyond their boundaries.
Ah, a comfort zone. You know, that warm, cocooning, safe space where you can just cruise through the days, never worrying about feeling scared, or failing, or just plain stressed. It could be an easy, familiar work set-up, the nice boyfriend you really should break up with, or spending Christmas at your mum’s again rather than running away to a beach in Thailand.
It might feel good, but what does living in our comfort zone really do to us?
Psychotherapist Roxy Rhodes explains that “a comfort zone is simply a psychological state of mind where a person is not being tested, stretched or challenged and feels safe and in control. It feels secure and stress-free – and although it’s a mental state, it’s often tied to places of familiarity, such as our home or our parents’ home.”
Why we like comfort zones so much
If the first thing you do when you start a new job is unpack your favourite mug and pin photos around your desk, you’re creating a comfort zone. And a new home just doesn’t feel right until you’ve found the kettle and made that first cup of tea, right?
As humans, we’re hardwired to crave comfort and familiarity. Rhodes says that we “tend to try to build comfort zones everywhere we arrive, replicating things we know and recognise.”
She continues: “We really do love our comfort zones. Nothing stressful happens there. We’re always achieving at a predictable level and can be perfectly happy, relaxed and content. It’s a risk-free zone where we rarely face threats or unpredictable surprises – we have a routine in there that is unchallenged and allows us to feel in control.”
Liking our comfort zones can also be linked to a fear of failure. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really enjoy making mistakes or falling short. It’s tough for even the most emotionally mature person to accept, and we tend to go out of our way to avoid situations where failure is a risk. That means we can hold ourselves back from opportunities, in an attempt to shield ourselves from potential shame and humiliation.
So why rock the boat? Given the choice, it’s natural to want to stay safe.
The bad news is that constantly operating within our comfort zones inhibits our growth, both literally and emotionally. While feeling secure and confident are undoubtedly great attributes, there are a few compelling reasons to feel the fear.
What are the advantages of pushing boundaries?
If you think about the times you’ve learned and achieved the most, chances are you took a risk and guess what – it paid off. “Our progress, and indeed our growth as people, entirely depends on whether we are willing to challenge our comfort zone,” says Rhodes.
You can’t make progress by staying still. Rhodes likens this to our early life: “Babies innately understand that any new skill we ever learn takes place outside of our comfort zone. When a baby tries to walk and stands up and falls down and stands up and falls down – at no point does it think ‘nah, maybe I’ll just crawl forever!’”
Before we grew up and became aware of failure, we were inclined to push ourselves and this builds resilience: a crucial human coping mechanism that helps us maintain good mental health. After all, to err is human.
Leaving our comfort zone changes our brains
The good news is that challenging ourselves becomes easier the more often we do it. “By forcing ourselves to do things that feel scary, we’re actively affecting our brains,” says Rhodes. “We’re causing new neurons to fire and new pathways to form – and if we repeat the uncomfortable behaviour enough, it forces our comfort zone to grow and encompass the new behaviour.”
So the more you sign up to speak publicly at work, the sooner you’ll feel comfortable doing it –until eventually you won’t give it a second thought. You might be pleasantly surprised how quickly you can get comfortable with things that used to terrify you (although I’m still giving massive spiders a wide berth).
We’re quick to tell children that the only guaranteed way to fail is not to try; maybe it’s time to take our own advice. Feel the fear – and go for it. Your brain, and your future, will thank you.
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