“We shall have no better conditions in the future if we are satisfied with all those which we have at present”, said Thomas Alva Edison. Leaving the comfort zone is essential to take mental oxygen. Outside that area we expand our vision of the world, learn new things, test our strength and modify our habits. In a word: we grow. Only one thing stops us: fear.
Why are we afraid to leave the comfort zone?
The fear of leaving the comfort zone is the expression of other deeper fears, which form a psychological tangle that keeps us tied to a situation that isn’t ideal for our growth and that can even be counterproductive, causing us harm.
Although it may seem contradictory, sometimes we prefer to remain in the known, even if it causes us suffering, than to explore the uncertain. The saying “Better known evil than good yet to know” perfectly encloses that way of thinking. Understanding what stops us, what are the fears that keep us paralyzed, is the first step to leave behind the problems of the comfort zone.
1. Fear of losing control. The comfort zone is a space where we believe we have everything under control. Getting out of that relatively safe space scares us because it means we must learn to flow with the course of events and recognize that we actually have very little control over the circumstances.
2. Fear of uncertainty. The control zone is a space where we can foresee with certainty and a negligible margin of error what will happen. Leaving that space implies throwing oneself into the unknown, which generates fear and anxiety. When everything is possible, the enormous amount of possibilities generates vertigo. And that scares us. That is why the fear of leaving the comfort zone is rooted in the fear of uncertainty.
3. Fear of failure. Leaving the comfort zone involves risk, and every time we risk something we face the possibility of failure. The fear of failure is paralyzing because it represents a double blow, to our social status and to the image we had of ourselves. That’s why we often prefer to stay in that area where we have a certain degree of acceptance and “success” guaranteed.
4. Fear of rejection. “Be obedient, study, work, get married, have children, get a mortgage, watch TV, borrow money, buy a lot of things, and above all, never discuss what you’ve been told to do”, said George Carlin. If leaving the comfort zone involves challenging the socially pre-established path and the expectations that the others placed on us, it’s normal that it generates fear. It’s the fear of disappointing the others, the opinions of the others and, above all, the rejection of those who don’t understand us or share our vision of life.
5. Fear of personal change. Sometimes the fear of leaving the comfort zone is due to an excessive attachment to our “ego”. We reject the new or the different because we fear that it unbalances the image we have formed of ourselves. We’re afraid of losing everything we identify with because it means taking a step in a frightening direction: questioning ourselves, questioning our thinking and the beliefs on which we base our identity. That’s why we prefer to remain attached to the stereotypes that underpin our “ego”.
The bad part of the comfort zone
The comfort zone is a more or less restricted space of behavior where our activities and behaviors are adjusted to a routine and a pattern that minimizes the level of stress and risk. It gives us a state of certain mental security. There is no doubt. The benefits are obvious: an acceptable level of satisfaction, low anxiety and relatively little stress. However, the disadvantages of the comfort zone are so many that it’s not worthwhile to stay prisoners of that small space.
– It prevents us from reaching the maximum of our potential. An experiment conducted in the early twentieth century, showed that a state of relative comfort generates a constant level of performance. But if we want to maximize our performance we need to increase slightly the level of anxiety until we reach a state of “optimal anxiety”, which is just outside our comfort zone. This state of “productive discomfort” is what allows us to grow and become the person we can be.
– It will be increasingly difficult for us to deal with change. As we become more comfortable with the known, our backpack of tools for life will be reduced, so that it will be increasingly difficult for us to cope with new and unexpected changes. Their impact will leave us increasingly frightened and helpless. On the contrary, taking on new challenges and actively seeking novelty will allow us to feel more comfortable about the uncertain and unknown, so that we can better solve the problems when they arise.
– We will close ourselves to new ideas and creativity. Creativity needs to feed on novelty. Even synectics, a creative technique that involves uniting known concepts to give rise to something new, demands that we be able to open ourselves to the new. If we lock ourselves in our comfort zone, we close the door to creativity and impede the flow of new ideas, stopping behind the walls of the old and known.
The comfort zone represents the past made present, it’s a vain attempt to minimize the uncertainty of the future. Getting out of that space that we have built more or less consciously scares, because it means recognizing that we don’t have control and that anything that doesn’t fit into our plans can happen. However, staying forever in the comfort zone means condemning us to immobility. And that is even worse. Because as Hellen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing”.
How to overcome the fear of leaving the comfort zone?
There are people who can leave their comfort zone taking a big leap because are able to manage that level of anxiety. There’re others who need to take small steps at a time. No matter what strategy you use to leave the comfort zone, what is really important is that you expand your horizons.
The secret lies in finding a balance, so that novelty generates a beneficial anxiety, an anxiety that’s not harmful but gives us the psychological boost necessary for daring to change. These exercises to get out of your comfort zone will help you embrace the novelty. Remember that you cannot become the person you want to be if you cling to what you are, paraphrasing the writer Max DePree.
Yerkes, R. M. & Dodson, J. D. (1908) The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology; 18: 459-482.