The comfort zone is that space in which we feel comfortable and relatively safe. It is not only about a physical space, but also includes a forma mentis and, of course, an emotional disposition. Therefore, we all have an emotional comfort zone in which we spend most of our time.
What is emotional comfort?
Emotional comfort is a feeling of well-being, a feeling at ease in the environment and with oneself from which a certain comfort emanates. It implies the prevalence of pleasant and generally positive emotions, but without falling to extremes such as euphoria, although there may also be negative emotions to which we have become accustomed, so that their disruptive effect has diminished.
Experiencing that emotional comfort is fundamental to establishing bonds with other people. Only when we feel safe and enjoy a certain emotional balance can we open up and establish authentic relationships with others.
Emotional comfort is also key to our performance. Maintaining a baseline affective state allows us to focus on the tasks that we must perform, so that emotions do not become an obstacle but rather a facilitator of the activity. However, it’s not all that perfect. Living in the emotional comfort zone also has drawbacks.
The more emotions we experience, the more resilient we become
The emotional comfort zone is made up of a series of affective states that remain more or less stable. That means it doesn’t enhance emotional granularity, which is the ability to experience and recognize a wide range of emotions and feelings.
In fact, experiencing different affective states, including unpleasant ones, allows us to be more effective in managing our emotions and prevents us from assuming destructive strategies to deal with situations that overwhelm us, as psychologists from George Mason University confirmed. In their study, they found that people who were able to detect and understand their emotions were less likely to turn to drugs, alcohol, or food, using them as outlets or sources of tension release.
Other research conducted at the University of Kentucky confirmed that people with emotional granularity showed greater self-control and were less likely to respond aggressively to difficult circumstances, even if they were very angry. In practice, being able to experience a wide range of emotions and feelings is an important indicator of resilience and emotional self-control that helps us face obstacles without breaking down.
The trap that the emotional comfort zone sets for us
The emotional comfort zone also sets another trap for us: experiential avoidance. When we feel too comfortable with certain affective states, we can begin to avoid situations that generate “aversive” emotions in us, so that we end up becoming “slaves” of the emotions, situations or thoughts that we try to avoid at all costs.
Ironically, experiential avoidance ends up fueling the anxiety it is meant to eliminate because when we try to escape, deny, or repress unpleasant feelings or sensations, what we are actually doing is creating an inner battlefield. It is as if we declared war on each other. We generate a deep inner tension. And in that context there are no winners, there is only one loser: ourselves.
In fact, using experiential avoidance to deal with stressful life situations has been associated with more health problems, both physically and psychologically. Psychologists from Stanford University revealed that these strategies end up reducing positive affects and enhance a negative mood, compared to more assertive evaluation and coping strategies.
Get out of your emotional comfort zone without losing your balance
Obviously, it is not about becoming masochistic, but we need to accept that throughout life we have to go through different experiences to grow. Some will be nice, some won’t. Holding on to our emotional comfort zone will not allow us to fully experience those experiences, learn from them, and come out stronger.
It is understandable that, when faced with an unpleasant situation, we try to deny it or escape from it by taking refuge in our emotional comfort zone, but this avoidance strategy will only serve to make us more rigid and intolerant people, less and less able to deal with blows or negative events in life.
In order not to get too used to the emotional comfort zone, we can get out of it from time to time by daring to take on new challenges. Progressively exposing ourselves in controlled environments to experiences that generate a certain amount of fear, uncertainty or anxiety is not negative. On the contrary, it will help us become familiar with those emotions and with their physiological reactions to be able to face them better in the future.
In reality, the secret lies in expanding more and more that emotional comfort zone, so that we do not feel excessively uncomfortable with the affective states traditionally described as negative, but rather accept them and understand that they are as necessary as the positive emotions to which we try to hold on.
Feldman, L. et. Al. (2015) Unpacking Emotion Differentiation Transforming Unpleasant Experience by Perceiving Distinctions in Negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science; 24(1): 10-16.
Pond, R. S. et. Al. (2012) Emotion differentiation moderates aggressive tendencies in angry people: A daily diary analysis. Emotion; 12(2):326-337.
Gross, J. J. & John, O. P. (2003) Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. J Pers Soc Psychol; 85(2): 348-362.