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Getting Into Your Growth Zone

How patterns of behavior restrict us

In Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, the father of industrial capitalism, suggested that people were fundamentally lazy and would only work for money. While what he said flies in the face of what we know today about intrinsic motivation, he did have something of a point. We like to be comfortable. More importantly, we like to be psychologically comfortable.

Human beings thrive on structure and consistency. While a portion of the population are high risk takers, most of us prefer to feel safe. To ensure that sense of safety, we tend to establish patterns of behavior that lend an air of predictability to our daily lives. We often euphemistically refer to this as our ‘comfort zone,’ but, if we look a bit closer, what we find nested inside our comfort zone is a little rabbit hole—our complacency zone.

The complacency zone isn’t necessarily a negative; it’s simply a flat, featureless landscape that holds no surprises. Living in this space, however, results in us failing to fully engage in our lives, and can often lead to a sense of feeling unfulfilled, directionless or lacking purpose. These feelings are the centerpiece of existential depression; that subtle, cloying sense of incompleteness that doesn’t so much paralyze us as it does haunt us, ringing hollow in our deepest heart.

Outside of our comfort-complacency zone is our growth zone. This is a rich, vibrant landscape that prompts us to move, rather than sit still. It isn’t necessarily a place where we climb mountains, wrestle alligators or leap tall buildings in a single bound. It is, however, a place where we have the opportunity to thrive.

The good news is the complacency zone isn’t an inescapable wrap-around; more often, it shows up in bits and pieces. Our first task in stepping out of it and into the growth zone is to discern where it is we feel stuck. It may be something within us, our relationships, our work, or our spiritual life.

This discernment engages a certain amount of self-awareness, as well as honesty. It’s difficult for us to say out loud ‘I’m too tired to go the gym’ is code for ‘I’m not taking care of myself,’ or ‘I play golf every Saturday morning’ is code for ‘I don’t really enjoy spending time alone with my wife anymore.’ The difficulty lies in the fact that each pronouncement leads us closer to an underlying truth. ‘I’m not taking care of myself’ may be speaking to issues of self-worth, sadness or self-valuation. ‘I don’t really enjoy spending time alone with my wife anymore’ may be speaking to the transitory nature of relationships, falling out of love or the specter of being alone. This can be hard stuff, but becoming comfortable with our discomfort is the engine of our growth; it’s the thing that prompts us to move.

This kind of self-examination does come with a bit of a caution, because outside our comfort zone is our panic zone—the place where we have gone too far, too fast and have to white-knuckle our way back to being grounded. Exercising the social and emotional intelligence, as well as the self- and other-compassion, to balance our forward motion against the context of our complacency allows us to engage the present moment without leaving too much wreckage behind.

© 2015 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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