One of the things that I have always struggled with is the idea of the “comfort zone.”
As someone who strived to succeed from a young age, I was always looking for ways to improve and get ahead. Every leadership seminar, self-improvement book, and life coach that I talked to discussed the importance of getting out of your comfort zone in order to grow. You couldn’t grow and be comfortable, after all. I heard the phrase “comfort zone” said as though it was a dirty phrase, only to be repeated in dark alleys by those who aren’t absolutely dedicated to growth. And I certainly didn’t want to be one of those people.
Similar to “the busy competition,” I have had a tough time distinguishing how I feel about the idea of the comfort zone because of this mindset. I seemed to always surround myself with people who brag about their growth and how much they avoid staying in their comfort zone. While inside that bubble, it is easy to get swept up in feeling shame for wanting to stay in my comfort zone. If getting out of one’s comfort zone was brag-worthy, shouldn’t I be striving to do that as much as possible?
Also like the busy competition, once I took a step back and reviewed this way of thinking, I realized how nonsensical it was. While those competing in the busy competition bragged about malnourishment and lack of sleep, those of us striving to avoid our comfort zones bragged about remaining uncomfortable for longer amounts of time.
If you live life jumping from one uncomfortable thing to the next, you are literally setting yourself up for constant discomfort...and it took me a long time and much self-reflection to realize that I didn’t want to live that way.
After a disastrous freshman year at college where I struggled to find where I fit in and ended up surrounded by people who made me feel less than for missing home, I decided to do something somewhat counterintuitive: come back to campus early for my sophomore year to help with freshman orientation. I was passionate about helping students like me who might struggle to integrate to college life, so joining the orientation staff initially had sounded like a no-brainer. However, as someone who literally had a meltdown every time I returned to campus after being home (through senior year, I might add), returning to campus early was not exactly appealing.
I remember the day that my parents brought me back to an almost-empty campus for my sophomore year so that I could begin orientation training. None of my roommates would be coming back until classes started, so my room was dark, quiet, and lonely. I asked my parents to stick around until I had showered and was ready to go to bed. My dad fell asleep on my bed in the main room, while my mom stood in the bathroom as I cried while I showered.
I knew that it hurt my parents to see me so upset, but sometimes you just need a good cry, you know? I did want to do orientation, and I think that orientation was worth the discomfort that I experienced. However, there was also an underlying shame to my tears.
Why couldn’t I be like my other friends and feel fine returning to campus? I was such a baby!
Then, my mom said something that just clicked.
“Your dad and I live 20 minutes away from our parents...are we not adults? Your Uncle and his family live two doors down from his parents...is he not an adult?”
Obviously, my answer to these questions was no. In fact, when I first arrived at college and started talking with others, I was surprised to find that so many people’s families lived so far away. Very few members of my extended family live farther than a half-hour drive away, so I struggled to imagine a world where the majority of my family wasn’t close by.
It hadn’t dawned on me that going 3 hours away to college would be difficult because I was always used to my family being nearby, which had made it even harder to accept that I was struggling.
Mom went on to ask, “Why would you do this to yourself? What’s the point in making yourself uncomfortable?”
At first, the answer was easy. I couldn’t just stay in my “comfort zone” (said with a scandalized voice) forever. Comfort was the root of all evil.
But...did that really make sense? If staying in your comfort zone is bad, and being comfortable should be avoided, that just meant that I should live my life hopping from one discomfort to another and never feel comfortable? As someone who struggles with mental illness and general discomfort in my brain and body every day, the thought of that makes me shudder.
Up until then, I believed that discomfort was just something I was meant to “get over.” This is probably one of the largest reasons that I’ve had trouble in the past recognizing the difference between dislike vs dread. I would do things that I didn’t even want to do just to put another line on my resume. So what if I hated it and was bad at it? It would make me (at least seem like) a better leader, right? Besides, if a little bit of discomfort leads to a bit of growth, shouldn’t a lot of discomfort then lead to a lot of growth?
But alas, I found that there’s a difference between doing something despite discomfort and doing something despite having absolutely 0% interest in doing said thing. There’s also a difference between taking half of a step out of your comfort zone and taking giant leaps outside of your comfort zone.
Making yourself somewhat uncomfortable for the sake of growth is very different than compulsively avoiding comfort because you’ve been taught that being comfortable is a bad thing.
I would argue that you should always strive to do what makes you happy and helps you to be your authentic self. If that’s hanging out in your comfort zone, great! If it involves taking a step out, go and get it! But stretching yourself way outside of your comfort zone just to do something that you don’t want to do won’t end well. It didn’t for me, anyway.
So how do I approach “getting out of my comfort zone” now? Well, instead of automatically diving head-first into something that will inevitably make me feel uncomfortable, I try to live in the moment and do what will make me happiest wherever I am. Sometimes, that means trying something new. Sometimes, that means hanging out on the couch and watching Frozen 2 for the zillionth time. If what I’m facing is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I will definitely take more time to analyze my feelings about it before I make a final decision. I try to figure out which path will lead to regret and do the opposite. The one thing that I am not doing is berating myself for craving comfort.
Whatever you choose to do day-by-day or moment-by-moment, just make sure that you’re doing what is right for you. And don’t feel guilty about chilling in your comfort zone, because choosing comfort isn’t something to be ashamed of.