Each of us has our own “comfort zone” which, more than an actual place, is a psychological/emotional/ behavioral construct that defines the routine of our daily life. Being in one’s comfort zone implies familiarity, safety, and security. It describes the patterned world of our existence, keeps us relatively comfortable and calm, and helps us stay emotionally even, free from anxiety and worry to a great degree. Creating a comfort zone is a healthy adaptation for much of our lives. But so is stepping out of our comfort zone when it’s time to transition, grow, and transform.
Experiencing a little stress and anxiety now and then is a good thing, too. If all you ever do is stay wrapped in your little cocoon, keeping warm and cozy, you may be missing out on a lot, like new experiences, challenges, and risks. And looking at the bigger picture, if you can’t step out of your comfort zone you may experience difficulty making change or transitioning, growing, and ultimately, transforming; in other words, all those things that define who you are and give your life meaning.
Very simply, what we fear most about challenging ourselves is that we may fail and/or get hurt. But most of us have the ability to rise to the occasion, overcome hurdles and obstacles, and actually succeed in accomplishing something new and challenging.
In my book Transitions, I describe a major life change and how I was affected and changed by it. Many years ago my husband had a wonderful job opportunity that promised to be very fulfilling but it meant that we had to move across the country. The physical move would be hard for both of us but my husband would be going to the safety of a job and the familiarity of a work environment.
It would prove much harder for me. I closed my New York-based practice, left my hospital affiliation of many years, sold my weekend house in Connecticut, and left behind family and many dear friends. Essentially, except for my husband, none of the “externals” with which I identified was making the journey west with me. Looked at one way, I was free; looked at another, I had lost my home. Was I out of my comfort zone? You bet.
For the first time in longer than I could remember, I had a lot of time on my hands. In my new home I knew few people. Immersing myself immediately in work was out of the question, since California has its own licensing requirements for physicians. Without the comfort of all my old roles—doctor, mother, daughter, friend—I was suddenly just a person.
Wandering anonymously around San Francisco I often asked myself, “Who are you now?” There was an exhilarating freedom in not having to meet anyone’s expectations, but it was also disorienting to be thrown so totally back on myself. I was often lonely. Psychological and emotional issues I was sure I was done with found their way back into my consciousness. Clearly, something was happening to me; it was a process I myself had initiated, but I no longer felt in conscious control of it.
Thanks to the disruption of my old life and the soul-searching that resulted from it, I was about to learn to see the world in some very new ways. Everyone I met had a story to tell, and I began to see that my own uncertain search had opened me up to listening in a new way.
As a psychiatrist, of course, much of this was familiar territory to me. In one way or another, I'd long been exposed to or directly focused on the problem of how people got themselves through transitions. But for the first time, I found myself thinking about that territory in a new way. What was it that enabled some people to cope with the big changes in their lives while others seemed undone by them? Of course, many factors contribute to the mix, but it seemed to me that when individuals could find a conscious, meaningful structure to encompass the events of their lives, they could take more responsibility and feel less lost.
I recently revisited that time in my life. My conclusion: Before I made this major move I had allowed myself, on many occasions, to step out of my comfort zone—sometimes because I had to, sometimes to try new things, and sometimes to take bigger risks because not doing so would keep me in the life in which I was already firmly established.
Here are 5 huge benefits of stepping out of your comfort zone:
- Your “real life” is out there waiting for you. Your real life exists beyond the bubble of your own personal thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Your real life is the sum total of ALL of your experiences, not just the one’s you’re comfortable with.
- Challenging yourself pushes you to dip into and utilize your personal store of untapped knowledge and resources. You have no idea what you’re made of unless and until you venture outside of your own familiar world.
- Taking risks, regardless of their outcome, are growth experiences. Even if you make mistakes or don’t get it right the first time those become experiences you can tap into in the future. There really is no such thing as “fail” if you get something out of the experience. And just so you know, “FAIL” re-framed means “First Attempt in Learning."
- Don’t settle for the mediocre just to avoid stepping out of your comfort zone; it’s too big a price to pay. Your challenges and risk experiences are cumulative. Every time you try something new, and allow yourself to be open to whatever experience arises, you are learning, and expanding your repertoire of life skills and self-knowledge. As you do this you also expand the size of your comfort zone.
- Leaving your comfort zone ultimately helps you to deal with change—and making change in a much better way. Life transitions are all about change. Each time you transition you move to another level. Inevitably, these life transitions transform you.
It may seem overwhelming to step into the unknown. But instead of thinking of the “big picture," break down what you want or need to accomplish by making small changes. Small changes accumulate and each builds upon the last. Try to make small changes that take you out of the everyday and familiar, yet are not too emotionally challenging. We are all such creatures of habit. Change your daily and/or work routine. Try something new—food, music, and activities you’ve never done. Undertake a creative project of any kind in which your thinking is channeled in a new way. Add newness to your life. Be open to experience.
My takeaway: I have within myself the ability to make big change. I did it once. I can do it again.
You can, too.