Raise your hand if you’re sick of hearing that life begins at the edge of your comfort zone. I know I am.
It is impossible to escape the gurus and influencers on social media who preach that choosing safety fully ensconced in your comfort zone is self-sabotage.
That without getting uncomfortable on a daily basis, I’ll never get anywhere in life, my lack of courage realized.
When you stay in your comfort zone, “you maintain flawed beliefs about yourself or you hold on to guilt and self-doubt”, the bestselling leadership writer and motivational speaker Jack Canfield says.
And Eleanor Roosevelt’s most-touted quote, “Do one thing every day that scares you”, is a maxim many influencers and life coaches live and die for.
I believed these quotes once. My experience, however, taught me something different.
When I pushed my comfort zone relentlessly, as the leadership experts advise, it led me straight into burnout.
I learned the hard way to define — and, more importantly, to honour — the boundaries of my comfort zone.
Since then, it has been a huge asset that has helped me make big strides.
By pushing myself in the name of getting uncomfortable, I had self-sacrificed to the point of exhaustion.
If I felt I was juggling more than I possibly could, I clearly had to hustle more.
“I just need to work harder,” I told myself. “I’m out of my comfort zone. It’ll get better. I’ll adjust.”
Creating a home we can thrive in
Literally, the comfort zone refers to an optimal temperature. But psychologically speaking, it is a state where a person feels at ease and in control of their environment.
How overcoming this state became the obsession of the self-optimization movement is curious.
An early reference was made in a 1907 research paper by the American psychologist Robert Mearns Yerkes, who found that in mice, “anxiety improves performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached”. (Yerkes was also a proponent of eugenics and his work is considered to be tainted by a racialist bias.)
The idea of using anxiety to enhance performance gained traction in the face of the economic deregulation of the 1990s and the resulting competitive pressures.
In 2009, the well-known British management theorist Alasdair White repeated established wisdom when he wrote that “in understanding and managing performance, the key is the management of the stress” and described anxiety as a tool to assist in performance management.
Yet a 2017 paper at the University of Leicester found that there was no empirical evidence to support this idea.
“Nevertheless,” the author wrote, “despite all the evidence to the contrary, the notion that stress is ‘good’ for performance is still being peddled by management textbooks”.
Contrast all this with what the early 20th-century developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development”.
This conceptual space, which is near the comfort zone, allows for healthy and gradual growth, the way children naturally learn new skills.
To me, it means taking on challenges deliberately, but only after having thought long and hard about my qualifications and carefully laying out each step.
It means playing to my strengths.
Having pushed myself to the point of illness, I now know what I’m no longer willing to tolerate. By recognizing and respecting my comfort zone, I can identify when a situation threatens my wellbeing. And by asserting my boundaries, I can get back from anxiety to a place where I feel psychologically safe and secure.
In a world of increasing demands on our time and attention, our comfort zone act as predictable space of mastery.
This is where we can seek refuge when the stress becomes too much.
They act as a container to shore up confidence, gain momentum, and think clearly.
When we spend less time grappling with discomfort, we can focus more on what matters most.
If the people who routinely push themselves past their comfort zones are metaphorically skydiving out of aeroplanes; those of us who choose to operate from within our comfort zones are serenely laying bricks; creating a home we can thrive in.