Comfort zones. We can’t see them and we can’t touch them, yet we’re often advised to get out of them. And at all costs, do not get stuck in one.
Self-help gurus warn that too much time inside these intangible bubble barriers is the antithesis of personal growth. If we want more satisfying work, relationships and lives, we need to push out of our comfort zones. Or do we?
In her book, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum says that comfort zones can be a place of much gratification – as long as we’re effective within them. “The key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of your comfort zone,” she writes. “Stay in safe waters but plunge as deeply into them as possible. If you’re good at something, do it a lot. If you’re bad at something, just don’t do it.”
Relationship expert and clinical social worker Debbi Carberry agrees that we can “shine brightly” in comfort zones. And our relationships can thrive in them too. “The comfort zone means safety, contentment, connection and predictability,” she says. “All of which the human brain loves.”
So, why the perception that our relationships are more likely to fizzle than sizzle once they enter comfort-zone territory? “The problem is that comfort is confused with the real relationship killers of complacency, indifference and disengagement,” says Carberry. “This is when someone comes through the front door and doesn’t speak to you, but plonks down on the couch and waits for dinner. That’s not someone being comfortable. That’s someone showing that they don’t care.”
The workplace – amid a chorus of advice on how to get ahead and make an impact – is another arena to consider comfort zones. Andy Molinsky, professor of organisational behaviour at Brandeis University, spent a year talking to workers about comfort zones for his book, Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone.
Although Reach generally encourages readers to leave their comfort zones, Molinsky also says we can achieve career success by staying put. “There are times when you actually don’t need to give the speech, make the point, or take the chance,” he writes in Harvard Business Review.
Molinsky says we should only move out of our comfort zones for something we really care about, not because external influences or peers make us feel that we should. And he adds that if we have our sights set on getting comfortable with a new skill, such as improving public speaking or networking, we need to commit to mastering it. “If you don’t have the time to fully prepare and follow through, it’s not worth moving forward.”
Meanwhile, if we want to move forward on the fitness front, common motivational mantras such as “Push harder!” “No limits!” and “Enjoy the pain!” centre on embracing discomfort.
But signing up to the latest program that promises to push your body and mind beyond your comfort zone won’t work for everyone, says personal trainer and fitness instructor Ashlee Chandler. “If you don’t feel comfortable doing the exercises, or the program is going to take more time and money than you’ve got, you could risk quitting all together,” she says. “You can still get results with a consistent and effective program within your comfort zone.”
Chandler gives the example of a 92-year-old man she has worked with. For the past 15 years, he’s had the same fitness routine – five weights exercises that work the major muscle groups, three times a week. Does it work?
“Well, how many over-90s do you see strapping on a weight belt for some squats or walking easily up stairs?” Chandler says. “You just have to know what you’re doing, like what you’re doing, and do it well and regularly,” That’s advice we should all be comfortable with.
Stay put or edge out? Considering comfort zones
• Will moving outside your comfort zone add value to your life?
• Are you doing it for something you really care about? Or are you succumbing to external expectations?
• Are you ready to give the activity your best shot?
• Forget what everyone else has, or is doing. Are you genuinely happy where you are?