Get out of the comfort zone! This phrase has become omnipresent, becoming one of the most common tips for the personal growth. We all know that getting too comfortable is not positive, that at some point we have to take the reins of our lives and take action. That’s true.
It is also true that it is important to face new challenges, overcome fears, learn to deal with uncertainty and not cling to the old habits that end up choking us. But every medal has its reverse, so it is no less true that there are times when staying in your comfort zone is the best choice. There are times when it is infinitely smarter NOT to get out of that family area where we feel comfortable and safe.
The dangers of rushing out of the comfort zone
The current culture of self-improvement glorifies the act of leaving the comfort zone. It is easy to say that every obstacle brings us closer to success, that the one who does not risk does not succeed – although we forget that it often also fails miserably – and that we need to overcome the fear of get out of our comfort zone to achieve great things in life, but we shouldn’t forget that each of these actions has consequences. And we may not be willing to deal with some of those consequences or it could just be not worth it.
Get out of the comfort zone – because everybody does it, because it is what “the doctor has prescribed” for us – without properly weighing the risks and benefits that this step entails, it may be a rash decision that we might regret in the future. Actually, getting out of your comfort zone does not mean throwing yourself into a vacuum without a parachute, but carefully preparing the ground to take each step.
In addition, living obsessed with the idea that we need to leave our comfort zone can become the safest recipe for mental breakdown. The comfort zone is also a space of calm where we can rest and regain strength, so we do not need to live continuously outside it. Therefore, there are times when staying in the comfort zone is the best we can do.
From the comfort zone to the panic zone – through the learning zone
Andy Molinsky, professor of organizational behavior at the International Business School of Brandeis University, referred to three spaces related to the comfort zone.
1. Comfort zone. This is the comfort zone that we all know, where we are comfortable and feel relatively safe as we move through familiar situations, guided primarily by our habits and customs, so that we experience very little anxiety.
2. Learning zone. It is a “stretch” zone in which we expand our horizons. All situations in which we experience a certain level of anxiety are included, usually because they are new or involve a challenge. However, this anxiety is not exaggerated, we can manage it, so that we turn it into a fuel of motivation and productivity.
3. Panic zone. It is an area where we face situations for which we are not prepared and we experience an anxiety level that is too high and we do not know how to manage it. In this area we usually feel paralyzed or blocked by fear or the level of anxiety is so great that we fall mentally under its weight.
When we enter the panic zone we can experience so much fear and anxiety that we are likely to run terrified towards the comfort zone and dare never leave it again.
On the contrary, growth occurs in the learning zone since there is when we reach our optimum levels of productivity and motivation. However, to take advantage of it, we must prepare ourselves – at least minimally – for what we can find in these new situations, imagining possible action plans to overcome the obstacles that await us.
When is it convenient to stay in the comfort zone?
• When you have already experienced many changes. Sometimes life pushes us out of the comfort zone causing us to face difficult situations for which we were not prepared. When we have gone through a complicated period, it may be a good idea to return to the comfort zone and stay in it for as long as we need to replenish the psychological energy we have spent. We must not forget that taking our forces to the limit, demanding too much to ourselves, can make us hit bottom emotionally and then it will be much harder to recover.
• When you like staying in the comfort zone. If you say to yourself: “I don’t want to leave the comfort zone because I feel comfortable and it’s what I have chosen”, you don’t have to feel guilty for not wanting to add more challenges or anxieties to your life. We are all different, if you are in a place because you have chosen it and you feel full and happy, you probably do not need to leave your comfort zone – at least for now. After all, we cannot lose the sight of the fact that leaving the comfort zone only makes sense if it can make you feel happier, not if it will make you feel more miserable.
• When there are good reasons to stay in the comfort zone. Sometimes it just isn’t the most appropriate time to get out of your comfort zone. Maybe there are no minimum conditions or you have not prepared enough. If you’re going to take a big step or make a major change in your life, you should make sure it’s the right time – not the worst. You just have to make sure that you have good reasons to stay momentarily in that area, not that these are excuses motivated by fear. To find it out, imagine that you have a magic eraser. If you could erase the anxiety, would you like to take that step? If the answer is positive, you must prepare to expand your learning zone and create the conditions. But if it’s really not what you want to do, you don’t have to take that step just to “expand your limits”, especially if it generates unnecessary anxiety.
Knowing your stress tolerance level is the key for growing
It is important to understand that the comfort zone is a subjective concept in which different factors intervene, including our personality characteristics and the level of stress tolerance. An introvert, for example, might find the idea of going to an event more problematic than an extrovert.
We also respond to stress differently, so it is possible that the learning zone of some people is smaller than that of others and they enters the panic zone faster.
Each person has their own limits and that is not necessarily negative. What is negative and counterproductive is to copy what others do to get out of their comfort zone, because that may be the perfect recipe for failure and frustration.
The secret to growing up without entering the panic zone is to apply that old Greek aphorism: “Know yourself.” We need to understand our limits and know our levels of tolerance to stress and uncertainty. Only then can we gradually expand that learning zone without getting too far.