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Why Is It So Hard to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone?

If you feel stuck, consider whether you're stuck in your comfort zone.

Key points

  • Habitual attempts to avoid dysphoric emotions can last a lifetime, guaranteeing you'll never realize your fondest hopes and dreams.
  • The primitive child defenses of dissociation, displacement, denial, and repression explain how we manage feelings we can't tolerate.
  • Once established, defense mechanisms last indefinitely because, however unconsciously, they're constantly being reinforced.
  • You have defenses that can sabotage you by making you not vigilant but hyper-vigilant, not cautious but over-cautious.
 Ivan Bertolazzi, creator/Pexels free photo
Source: Ivan Bertolazzi, creator/Pexels free photo

If you somehow feel stuck in life, have you thought about what might be contributing to that stuckness? Ironic or perverse as it seems, staying within your so-called comfort zone—your confined band of safety and security—can trap you in ways that end up making your life more of a struggle than you ever imagined.

Still, the very idea of a comfort zone—as in, peacefully settling into a state of mind that forestalls worrisome fears of failure and rejection—can be incredibly alluring. At least it sounds like something we might all aspire to. Our life would be so much easier if we could regularly fend off anything that precipitated disturbing feelings of anxiety or depression.

It may well be that the majority of us end up succumbing to this allurement, despite its preventing you from reaching your goals—both as regards personal achievement and building strong, lasting, gratifying relationships.

Plus, surrendering to its enticement can eventuate in interminable frustration with yourself, and with life in general. And the habitual attempt to avoid dysphoric emotions can operate as a lifelong hindrance, virtually guaranteeing that you'll never realize your fondest hopes and dreams.

Intimately related to your comfort zone are your psychological defenses. Although designed to free you from the quagmire of unpleasant or unbearable thoughts and feelings, they ultimately can prevent you from reaching your full potential.

These self-protective mechanisms, linked in turn to whatever you associate with personal survival, first arose at a time when you felt overwhelmed by obstacles you perceived, however inaccurately, as mortally threatening.

Nonetheless, it's crucial to recognize that these defenses, while instinctively moderating or eliminating distressful feelings of fear or vulnerability, can be just as hurtful as, initially, they were helpful.

When you're a child, it's all too easy to feel overwhelmed. You hadn't yet developed skills to successfully confront your (mostly irrational) fears. You lacked the maturity and insight to logically evaluate what constituted serious danger versus what was merely a temporary setback or minor deviation from your day-to-day environment. Additionally, not yet having developed a theory of mind, you were apt to take personally negative things that didn't at all pertain to you.

In these scary instances what compelled your behavior was the urgent need to:

  • distract yourself from what felt precarious,
  • replace personally intolerable emotions with ones that felt more acceptable, or
  • shut down your feelings completely.

Note here the primitive psychoanalytic defense mechanisms of dissociation, displacement, denial, and repression, all of which suggest how you managed to alleviate what, at an early age, you didn't possess the cognitive capacity to resolve.

Why It's Such a Struggle to Break out of Your Comfort Zone

I have previously written about how to extricate yourself from this defeatist trap—self-imposed, illusory, and ultimately not especially comfortable. It's a trap masquerading as the solution but it actually worsens the original problem. Here I'll simply expand on why it can be such a tremendous struggle to escape such a seductive state of false tranquility—one far less likely to lead to contentment than disillusionment, regret, or remorse.

A point that cannot be overemphasized is that once established, defense mechanisms last indefinitely. When subconscious parts of your being "volunteer" to safeguard you from anxious or despondent feelings you're not mentally tough enough to bear, the immediate reduction of these adverse feelings is experienced as reinforcing. And that, regrettably, allows them to "take hold" of you.

Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), postulates that within all of us exist various well-intentioned sub-personalities that aim to help us adapt to circumstances we find alarming. They do this by devising strategies to render these circumstances more tolerable. And because in the here-and-now they're successful in carrying out their mission, you're likely to become dependent on them—even to feel addicted to them.

Paradoxically, in their dedicated efforts to protect you, they themselves get trapped—hopelessly trapped. Their generalizing what they believe could render you non-functional becomes perilously over-generalized, and these self-defensive parts become rigidified. Zealous and conscientious as they are, they won't permit you to venture forth in ways that, indeed, would be good—if not, frankly, imperative—for your healthiest, most complete development.

In their risk-adverseness, they inhibit your growing your resources and taking judicious chances—in short, living an ambitious, adventurous, creative, and fulfilling life (as contrasted to one prone to feeling lifeless and insipid).

They hold you back from being all that, ideally, you could be. They're not able to appreciate that the child they once intervened to protect is now an adult with far more knowledge and expertise than was true in the past.

When therapists talk about your "inner child," they're usually referring to the wounded child part of you that left you the adult with serious (and largely unconscious) doubts as to whether you were—or could be—good enough. And obviously, if the adult-you still carries such inner-child doubts, you won't permit yourself (or rather, your defenses won't permit you) to "go for it." You'll be afflicted with one "yes, but..." after another. You'll become a master of procrastination, stall out or give up prematurely, or criticize your behaviors as somehow deficient.

So finally, it's not really you that's holding yourself back. It's your sub-personalities—or defense mechanisms—that prohibit you, they're indiscriminately guarding you against anything they (mostly erroneously) assess as hazardous risk-taking.

As I emphasized in my earlier comfort-zone post: Afflicted by strident messages of imminent danger, whatever energy and resolve you might have in pursuing a project or desired relationship will be depleted. After all, the bullying voice inside you is continually shouting: “Don’t!”

So, ask yourself: Would you rather lead a life of caution, however self-constricting, or one (not risk-free but not that threatening either) of enthusiasm, novel undertakings, adventure, and discovery?

NOTE: The reference section below should arm you with many practical methods for calming or quelling your anxiety, so you can face challenges likely to promote your happiness and well-being.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

References

Fábrega, M. (n.d.). 8 ways to break out of your comfort zone. https://daringtolivefully.com/comfort-zone

Forbes Coaches Council. (2018, Apr 17). 13 mental tricks to get yourself out of your comfort zone. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/04/17/13-mental-…

George, C. (2021, Apr 19). 10 ways to step out of your comfort zone and overcome your fear. https://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/10-ways-step-out-your-c…

Itani, O. (2020, Aug 20). How to get out of your comfort zone and fully step forward into your growth zone: 10 steps to follow. https://www.omaritani.com/blog/comfort-zone

Jenn. (2020, Aug 30). https://healthyhappyimpactful.com/ways-get-out-comfort-zone-quotes/

Kunst, J. (2012, Aug 22). From comfort zone to courage zone: How to take that leap of faith. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/headshrinkers-guide-the-galaxy/…

Page, O. (2021, July 12). How to leave your comfort zone and enter your "Growth Zone." https://positivepsychology.com/comfort-zone/

Rubenstein, C. (2010, Sep 2). Are your comfort zones holding you back? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/now-is-everything/201009/are-yo…

Seltzer, L. F. (2015, Oct 7). Courage in relationships: Conquering vulnerability and fear. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201510/coura…

Seltzer, L. F. (2019, July 10). How to tackle challenges: From comfort zone to courage zone. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201907/how-t…

Seltzer, L. F. (2020, July 6). How to talk to—and tame—your outdated defenses. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/202007/how-t…

Stutz, P. & Michels, B. (2012, May 8). The comfort zone: Hiding in plain sight. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-tools/201205/the-comfort-zo…

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