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Why Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone is Scary but Essential for Growth

A representation of a comfort zone with one half being cosy and the other half being a gilded cage

The Importance of Understanding Comfort Zones

Is your comfort zone a comfy cabin or a gilded cage?

We all encounter things in life that make us feel uncomfortable, and have a sense of where our boundaries are with respect to our fear threshold.

But an interesting thing about comfort zones is that they aren't fixed, they can shrink and expand under certain circumstances.

That can be of benefit to us if we can learn how to stretch and expand our comfort zone, but if we're not careful it can also cause us problems if we inadvertently allow it to shrink!

A woman crawling on the floor surrounded by barriers to represent staying within a comfort zone

If it starts shrinking on us, we can find ourselves in the unfortunate position of feeling less and less secure in a zone where once we were more than happy.

When this happens, our instinct is to compensate, but this can lead to us inadvertently restricting ourselves even further in an attempt to try and keep that feeling of safety - hence the idea of a gilded cage…we feel safe, but at what cost?

It’s important to understand how we exist within our comfort zones so that we can ensure that we’re not inadvertently throwing up barriers to being the best version of ourselves and living the best version of our lives.

The Psychology Behind Comfort Zones

There are a number of different factors that contribute to comfort zones, and this perhaps goes some way to explaining why across a population of individuals there can be such a wide variation in where the boundaries of their comfort zones lie.

So much about the way we are makes sense when we think about things from an evolutionary perspective.

Three human figures representing stoneage ancestors

Our brains are hardwired to seek safety because millennia ago any of our ancestors who weren’t wired that way would have fallen prey to the numerous dangers of daily living, leaving behind the ones who were most alert to threats, and they would then tend to pass on that trait to their children.

Generally, humans tend to fear the unknown and don’t like change, because change brings uncertainty, and with uncertainty comes risk - novel experiences could be dangerous experiences!

Past experiences also inform our perceptions of what is safe or not, so if we have endured a particularly stressful or traumatic event in our past then this can reinforce the instinct to stay within familiar boundaries; in so doing we are attempting to avoid re-experiencing the distresses of the past.

Having a well-defined comfort zone can provide us with not only a sense of security but also predictability, so it’s no wonder that we want to stay within these safe boundaries… it satisfies a basic psychological need when we do so.

However, there are times when striving to stay within our comfort zones can be an unintended self-reinforcement behaviour that contributes to keeping us a bit stuck in the long run.

A chalkboard showing concentric circles, the centre circle representing the comfort zone, the middle circle representing the growth zone and the outer circle representing the panic zone

For example, if we find ourselves in an uncomfortable situation and manage to quickly get ourselves back into our comfort zone, we are likely to experience immediate relief from the discomfort that was coming up for us, such as anxiety, stress, or panic.

This is what we call negative reinforcement - teaching the brain that by doing a certain behaviour whatever the something unpleasant is, it will go away or stop; making us more and more likely to try to stay within our safe boundaries…because no one ‘likes’ to feel discomfort.

But the more we do something, the more it is likely to become a habit.

At this point, we may not actually be consciously avoiding things, or knowingly trying to stay in our comfort zone, things just start to be on ‘automatic pilot’...becoming more and more deeply entrenched, and making it harder and harder for us to try out new things.

Have you ever felt like you just don’t want to do something new or a bit different, but can’t really put your finger on why? 

I know what I like and I like what I know!

Perhaps that’s your subconscious brain’s way of telling you it’s scared of something?

Emotional Regulation is an important factor to consider - as I mentioned above, comfort zones help us to manage our stress and anxiety because they help us to minimise our exposure to potential stressors, so at times when we are struggling we will naturally rely more heavily on our comfort zones in an attempt to help ourselves maintain our emotional stability.

Self-efficacy is also very important; the lower our belief in ourselves that we are likely to be successful in any particular endeavour, then the fewer risks we are likely to be prepared to take.

This then knocks on to our mindset and is likely to feed the self-perception that our abilities and intelligence are static, a so-called ‘fixed mindset’; whereas a growth mindset encourages the perception of challenges as opportunities for growth, as opposed to being threats.

We don’t live in a vacuum, humans are social animals and we live in communities.

A mature woman behind a barrier being held back by the words of a friend

This means that we are susceptible to influence by societal and cultural norms, along with the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours of family and friends around us.

So our environment is also important in the shaping of our comfort zones because we are likely to feel a pull to stay within certain boundaries and conform to whatever the expectations are of the community we’re living in.

Comfort zones are a natural result of our brain’s desire to protect us from harm, our past experiences, and the influence of our social and environmental contexts.

Understanding how they develop can help us recognize the importance of occasionally stepping out of them to foster personal growth, build resilience, and experience new opportunities.

It might not seem obvious at first, or intuitive, but embracing discomfort as a part of growth can lead to a richer, more fulfilling life!

Beyond the Comfort Zone: Conquering Fear, Doubt, and Setbacks

The most significant barrier to leaving your comfort zone is fear, and the thought of overcoming that can be daunting.

That’s fear doing its job; after all, the whole point of fear is to protect you by getting you to sit up and take notice of a potential threat and do whatever you need to do to avoid it.

A woman standing alone within a taped off area keeping her safe but separate from other people

The problem is that in the modern day and age, there are many things that we can perceive as threatening and dangerous, which actually aren’t…but our threat brain doesn’t know that!

So our threat brain throws our body into its natural fear response with a shopping list of physical symptoms - increased heart rate, shaking, churning stomach, sweating, to name but a few - which is overwhelming and designed to get you to retreat to somewhere that you perceive as being safe and unthreatening for you.

Learning to recognize and manage these physiological responses is essential in overcoming the threat response when it fires up inappropriately, and a good place to start is with practising exercises such as ‘5-4-3-2-1 grounding’ and ‘Box Breathing’.

It is very easy to overestimate the risks associated with new experiences, especially if we are prone to the emotional reasoning thinking habit (“I feel scared therefore it must be dangerous”) and this skewed perception can prevent us from taking a crucial first step into the new experience.

Another unhelpful thinking habit that can keep us firmly entrenched in our comfort zone is the self-critic.

We all have an inner voice that can be critical and discouraging at times, and it may persuade us that we are not capable or deserving of the success that could come from exploring outside our comfort zone.

When we buy into these stories that our minds tell us, we are developing a self-limiting mindset; this can significantly hinder our progress and development.

Common limiting beliefs include thoughts like "I’m not good enough", "I’ll never succeed", or "I don't deserve this" -  do you ever notice this style of thinking in yourself? 

A woman standing at the edge of a red square painted on the floor to represent her comfort zone

A complex and nuanced manifestation of a self-limiting mindset is Imposter Syndrome, and this version can prevent individuals from taking on new roles, or fully engaging in new opportunities.

Sometimes these patterns of thinking are so habitual that we may not even realise that we are doing them until someone reflects back to us what we’re saying…or rather, how we’re saying it.

Noticing that we are talking to ourselves in this way is the first step to being able to address these beliefs and is a crucial step in personal growth.

After all, we can’t do something about something if we don’t even recognise what that something is!

Reflective journaling can help us to raise our awareness of how we are referring to ourselves, as can enlisting the help of a trusted friend or family member to, gently and sensitively, point out to us every time we reference ourselves in a negative light.

The possibility of failing at something can be paralysing for some people, especially if they’re someone who has managed to negotiate their way through to adulthood without ever really failing at anything.

The thought of not succeeding can be enough to deter them from even considering a step outside of their comfort zone, but it can be helpful to re-frame failure into something more helpful.

Rather than thinking of it as a definitive end point, it can be helpful to see it as an opportunity for learning:

FAIL = First Attempt In Learning

A claymation depiction of a woman's pathway through life with various obstacles along the way

Encountering obstacles is a normal and natural part of any growth process, even though setbacks can be discouraging and potentially lead to feelings of frustration and demotivation, if we can keep in mind that they are opportunities to see something differently and learn something, not just about the thing we are attempting, but also about ourselves, then we can build resilience and develop a problem-solving mindset.

Reflection is a key part of transforming setbacks into learning experiences; by taking time to recover and reflect we can gain insight into what went wrong, what can be improved, and how we might move forwards more effectively from this point onwards.

Practical Strategies to Expand Your Comfort Zone

Once we have an idea about how we want to move forwards then setting realistic and achievable goals can give us structure…and structure can be quite containing for us when we are feeling uncertain in situations.

Breaking the goals down into small manageable tasks makes them less intimidating and more approachable - focusing on one small step at a time can really take the fear factor out of doing something new.

Celebrating milestones along the way is a way of positively reinforcing the new behaviours and training your brain to tolerate, and perhaps eventually even welcome, spending a bit of time outside of your comfort zone.

Each small win builds confidence and generates motivation to continue doing what you are doing - it develops a willingness to experience discomfort in the service of achieving a challenging goal.

In CBT there is an intervention called Graded Exposure which is used to treat specific anxieties and phobias, but the principles underlying it, i.e. taking a step-by-step approach, starting with easier tasks and progressively tackling more difficult ones, can be applied universally to help us venture out of our comfort zones regardless of what is waiting out there for us.

A woman stepping over a line painted on the floor to represent stepping outside of her comfort zone

The more we practise the willingness to step outside of our comfort zones, the more we build a tolerance for experiencing discomfort and to the uncertainty in situations; we build up familiarity not only with the thing that we are attempting, but also with feeling uncomfortable - we train our brains to realise that there is nothing dangerous happening and that the worst thing that can happen is the feeling of anxiety itself.

Granted, anxiety doesn’t feel pleasant, as I mentioned above, it’s not meant to, but it’s not dangerous and can’t hurt us, so over time we can literally get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable!

And do not underestimate the power of positive self-talk; affirmations can be really helpful and help us remain in a growth mindset!

Remind yourself of your strengths and your past successes - champion yourself and encourage yourself in the same way that you would support a loved one who needed a boost.

Don’t be afraid to actively seek constructive feedback from others, especially if you suspect that you may be susceptible to any of the unhelpful thinking habits mentioned earlier - your self-perception is often not very accurate.

Use their insights to grow, improve, and understand yourself - when feedback is truly constructive it is a valuable tool for development. 

The Long-Term Benefits and Continuous Growth of Existing Outside of Our Comfort Zone

How many opportunities have you let slip you by because the thought of grasping them made you hesitate and doubt yourself? 

When we develop a willingness to take on more challenging demands those around us will start to notice, which can lead to new opportunities - perhaps a new role or even a different direction in your career.

A figure surrounded by objects and symbols to represent opportunities due to having a growth mindset

A growth mindset fosters resilience and adaptability, which are crucial for problem-solving and innovation; these things lead to improved job performance and potentially more recognition in your field.

But this isn’t just about succeeding at work, applying these principles in your personal life can lead to deeper and more meaningful relationships. 

When we are more open to new experiences and viewpoints it enhances our empathy and communication skills, which strengthens our bond with friends, family, and partners.

This all then becomes a virtuous cycle because as we achieve the stretch goals that we have set ourselves, and overcome the challenges that they present us with, our confidence and self-esteem will naturally improve; positive self-perception enriches all spheres of our lives.

Learning isn’t just for children, it can be a lifelong pursuit.

When we adopt a growth mindset, learning becomes a lifelong journey of continuously seeking knowledge and skills which helps keep our minds both sharp and adaptable to change.

And in a rapidly changing world, the ability to adapt is crucial! It’s how our species has not just survived but has thrived. 

Embracing a growth mindset helps us to stay flexible and to be open to new opportunities that may present themselves, and helps make transitions smoother and less stressful.

It also contributes to a sense of purpose and fulfilment; engaging in new activities and acquiring new skills leads to personal satisfaction within a richer and more diverse life experience.

We can create a fulfilling and dynamic life that continuously evolves and improves, both professionally and personally…we just have to be brave enough to take that first step!

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