Your comfort zone gets a lot of bad press, but then so does mine. The media (you know the media – all those people who know nothing about you, but claim to know exactly how you should live your life) have decided that your comfort zone is a bad place and you need to leave it as often and as extremely as you are able to.
It is easy to see why the general opinion is against your comfort zone: it looks as if you might be hiding in it, it looks like you might be lazy, or perhaps that you’re too scared to try something different. If you stick to your comfort zone you will be branded as risk-averse, you will be holding back progress.
Perhaps the lobbying against your comfort zone would be less pervasive if the media could bear in mind that they are talking about a zone and not about a single point. Your comfort zone covers a wide range of experiences, from those which are so familiar and well-rehearsed that you barely even think of them to those which push you to the limit of your comfort. Yes, of course, it is important to do things that make you a bit uncomfortable every so often, but if you are spending a lot of time outside your comfort zone, I suspect you are going to be feeling very stressed. That is because your comfort zone is the area in which you are your most effective, where you do your best work, where you are your own authentic self. When you step outside your comfort zone you are essentially trying on someone else’s life to see if it might suit you and unless it does suit you, it will be best if you only spend a brief amount of time there.
Here’s an example: say you have a perfume which you usually wear, it might even be the only perfume that you ever wear, your signature. Each time you apply it you feel happy and confident and ready to face the world. Then someone gives you a bottle of a perfume which is very different and you wear it once and you don’t like it. Whilst your favourite perfume is so much a part of you that you hardly know you’re wearing it, this new perfume will be at the forefront of your mind until the fragrance fades; you will be constantly aware of it, constantly reminded that something is different; you might feel self-conscious or you may even feel like you are not yourself. That is a very minor example of straying outside your comfort zone, but it is probably a very relateable one. I think we’ve all made a mistake with fragrance or make-up.
For me, an example of stepping outside my comfort zone might be going on a cruise to the Bahamas – I don’t like very hot places and I don’t enjoy being in a large group of people with whom I feel I have to be seen to be having a good time; I would be desperate for the experience to end. Inside my comfort zone I can happily join a group of complete strangers in a writing group or at a knitting event, chat with them, and come away reinvigorated; the challenges in this second scenario are manageable and work with my personality rather than against it. Of course, if I was the type of person who enjoyed extreme sports then pootling down the road to sit and knit for an afternoon might be a hideous idea. Interestingly, that is because it would be outside my comfort zone which is a point worth making: the opposite of comfort isn’t danger, it is discomfort. If you enjoy the thrill of a dangerous pursuit then you might well feel discomfort if you are expected to sit quietly and learn to knit. We might usefully ask if the person who is addicted to the thrills of an extreme sport is actually pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone by doing increasingly dangerous things, or if they are just doing what we all do – living within their personal comfort zone.
In fact, when it comes down to it, does your comfort zone even matter, or is it just a soundbite that the media have latched onto in order to exhort you to buy into something you wouldn’t normally consider? Your comfort zone is, perhaps, just a useful phrase for attributing your likes and dislikes, your default preferences, your personality. I knit, I write, I prefer colder to hotter climates, I don’t enjoy sports especially dangerous ones. I am sure there are people who knit who also relish extreme sports and I know there are people who write who would be most uncomfortable if you handed them wool and needles and offered to teach them to knit. Your comfort zone is such an incredibly complex thing and so intricately woven into your personality that it is actually quite scary that anyone should suggest you step outside it; they really are asking you to become something other than what you are.
If you come across someone in the media or in real life who seems to be saying that it is wrong for you to avoid things that make you uncomfortable, there is a lot worse advice to follow than Shakespeare’s from Hamlet.
“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou cans’t not then be false to any man.”