Comfort zone, friend or foe?

I keep hearing from people around me that we have to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone whether it is at work, at home or in our personal life. We make ourselves feel bad for wanting to keep doing things that give us safety, reduce our stress and help us cope with life’s everyday challenges. We are bombarded by messages around us  that life starts outside our comfort zone. Friends, family, social media, online platforms, people who are considered successful, coaches and mentors feed this motto to us. 

We are left self-loathing for not coming out of our comfort zone, for not changing a job, a relationship or a friendship that is not making us happy anymore; for not doing more exercise, travelling, healthy eating, contributing to the society, making it big and so many other things that we might think that others are so much better in doing than ourselves. The feelings of self-dissatisfaction are sometimes so strong that we start including in our comfort zone unhelpful behaviours to help us cope with those feelings. We might start avoiding people and social situations; overuse alcohol, drugs or food; spend too much time in playing games, exercising, shopping, watching TV and browsing the internet and the social media.

But is our comfort zone that bad? We forget to ask ourselves why we have created our comfort zones. What purpose do they serve? Creating comfort behaviours helps us deal with uncomfortable emotions such as fear, anxiety, worry, sadness, desperation, frustration, anger, guild, unhappiness and dissatisfaction. The comfort zone can offer relaxation, safety, a shield to protect us from the outside world, and a short lived opportunity to silence our inner critic. Stepping outside that zone is scary, stressful, risky and makes us feel vulnerable. The comfort zone was created to protect and help us cope, but the longer we stay in it, it stops serving the purpose it was created for. As the amount, frequency and length of time of engagement in our comfort behaviours increases, the degree of comfort decreases. We start realising that these behaviours are not working for us anymore and that they might have actually started hurting us and the people around us, but we struggle to change them. This feeds a vicious cycle where we keep repeating the comfort behaviours, but the comfort is now minimal or non-existent and the comfort zone itself becomes a reason of extra distress.

If you feel that this is you, what can you do?

Step 1: Acknowledge your comfort behaviours and the reasons you created them.

Step 2: Identify which parts of your comfort zone are providing you with comfort and which ones are not. Which behaviours leave you feeling safe, relaxed, protected and which ones leave you feeling guilty, ashamed, self-blaming and thinking low of yourself?

Step 3: Plan and Action

  • Decide which behaviours you want to maintain in your comfort zone as they are, which ones you want to tweak so that once again they can offer you the initial comfort and which ones you want to eliminate completely.
  • Start with one behaviour at a time. Visualise the bigger goal that you want to achieve, but set smaller, daily or weekly goals that could get you closer to the bigger goal. Keep a daily record of even the tiniest change you achieve, regardless how small you think it is.  Change should happen at your own pace, go with what you feel you are ready to manage and not with what others think you should manage. Sometimes there are small changes that you can implement within your comfort zone that can make you feel stronger and more confident to attempt the changes outside the zone. You could engage in reading self-help literature, practice mindfulness and yoga and keeping a thoughts and feelings diary.

The most important though is to be patient and compassionate with yourself. When you struggle to implement change, it is helpful to look at what is stopping you.  No need to beat yourself up for not managing the changes, even the small ones. Reflect on the difficulty and the obstacles, allow yourself to fall back for a limited time in the behaviours that indeed offer you comfort, but continue with your planning and action to implement the changes later on in the day or from the next day.