The miracle often lies outside our comfort zone
We can only move forward with our personal development if we're willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable
I was dealt a royal flush of deeply uncomfortable situations last month. I had to tell a friend that I didn't like the first chapter of his book. I had to tell a potential colleague that I didn't "share her vision". The last one doesn't even bear repeating.
Anyway, I held my breath, gritted my teeth and somehow found a way to navigate the unbearable awkwardness of it all... even if I cringed so deeply at one point that I feared full-body rigor mortis.
Afterwards, I told my mother about my bad luck. "That's not bad luck," she said at once. "That's growth and maturity."
She had a point. I felt considerably more assertive after working up the nerve to broach these awkward conversations. In fact, other uncomfortable situations began to seem comfortable and cosy by comparison.
Most self-development authors remind us that growth can only take place in the 'discomfort zone'. Marianne Williamson touched on it when she ran for Congress in 2014. She quoted fellow empowerment author Sam Daley-Harris who said "The miracle often lies outside our comfort zone".
The late American philosopher, Wayne Dyer was known for saying "when you squeeze an orange you always get orange juice", while Brian Tracy - a well-regarded motivational speaker and sales training expert - tells participants at his seminars that they can only move forward when they "are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable" when they try something new.
The comfort zone is safe: The pattern is familiar and the pace is unchallenging. The discomfort zone, on the other hand, is an uncharted territory where we can only learn by trial and error. The comfort zone is, well, comfortable, but the discomfort zone is where real growth and progress takes place.
The 'I'm-feeling-overwhelmed' conversation with your manager at work; the 'this-isn't-working' chat with your boyfriend; the 'have-you-been-avoiding-me?' phonecall with your best friend: welcome to the discomfort zone.
Humans are hardwired to avoid discomfort, and change is invariably uncomfortable. We tend to only enter the discomfort zone at the eleventh hour or when the comfort zone is no longer comfortable.
But what would happen if we were more comfortable with discomfort? We'd be more confident and assertive, yes, but how would our lives look? Would we be better able to endure macro-discomforts if we learnt to adapt to micro-discomforts?
Many self-development authors and motivational experts make it their business to leave the comfort zone on a daily basis. They say 'yes' to social situations that they would rather avoid and they tackle the most unappealing item on their to-do list first rather than last.
They expose themselves to new environments and fresh sights, smells and sounds as much as possible because they know it introduces them to new opportunities just as it builds new neural pathways in the brain.
Some are even in the habit of taking cold showers to prepare for the inevitable discomforts of life... or at least for the day the water heater breaks down.
Of course, it doesn't have to be that dramatic. Leaving the comfort zone could be as simple as picking up the phone rather than sending a text message or mixing up your morning routine.
It's also a good idea to re-examine your beliefs and honestly ask yourself if they were shaped in the comfort zone. Perhaps you never go to restaurants on your own or you refuse to initiate contact when you're interested in someone romantically. Are these authentic belief systems or comfort zone cop-outs? As for the old "I'm terrible with names" yarn - remember that it's often a comfort zone cop-out for not even trying to remember.
The comfort zone can constrict as we get older. Spontaneity is often curtailed and old habits die hard. I spoke to Dr Christiane Northrup, author of Goddesses Never Age, about this last year. She said she felt her boundaries closing in after her divorce from her husband. Her solution was to throw herself into an immediate discomfort zone: she joined a local Argentine tango class.
The comfort zone can also become the status quo in a group. The more members, the more entrenched the pattern. The only way out is to lead by example... or take your leave entirely.
Workplace comfort zones are perhaps the best example of this dynamic. The mundane plod of the 9-5 makes it very easy to become complacent. However, progressive companies have initiatives in place to counter this.
"Comfort is not the objective in a visionary company," writes James C. Collins in Built to Last. "Indeed, visionary companies install powerful mechanisms to create discomfort - to obliterate complacency - and thereby stimulate change and improvement before the external world demands it".
Speaking of which, Elle magazine in the UK has an interesting strategy in place to counteract complacency and encourage dynamism in the ever-changing media landscape. They 'hot-desk' in an open-plan office, changing desks every day.
Nobody enjoys the first few tentative steps out of the comfort zone. However, when we learn to think of it as the trough before the peak, it becomes considerably easier to move forward.
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