“Get out of your comfort zone!”
What comes to mind when you hear this phrase? Most of us might imagine things like traveling to a new place, trying a new sport or hobby, or taking on a job or position that seems intimidating to us. We often speak about “leaving our comfort zone” as a positive experience. We expect that by doing so, we will experience a certain level of discomfort as a temporary price to pay for the eventual self-improvement that we will achieve.
While the activities mentioned above certainly introduce a level of mental discomfort, they are all quite practical, physical tasks. However, there’s another type of comfort zone that doesn’t necessarily involve jumping into a taxi on the other side of the world, but jumping into a new mindset that challenges everything you know.
I have begun to think about different comfort zones existing on a spectrum that stretches from the more “practical” challenges (like going sky diving) to more “ideological” challenges. These ideological challenges are ones you can face simply sitting in your bedroom, or in a classroom, when someone around you introduces you to a new idea that might challenge how you understand reality.
From the moment we are born, we are taught how to understand the world around us.
We are taught certain norms about culture, nature, relationships, habits of consumption and how to set up a “successful” life. Over the past few years I have been introduced to several new ways to conceptualize my reality that breaks down these norms, and exposes me to new ways of thinking - from challenging my ideals about what is right to eat, to challenging how I see relationships.
These new ideas can be extremely uncomfortable, as they can shake up our reality: one we have found security in. Suddenly, our conceptualization of reality becomes a lot less certain, and we find the need to defend our current mindset. “Sure these new ideas are interesting, but they just don’t fit with the way I was raised, so therefore they are not for me.” When I found myself having this reaction to these new ideas, I began to recognize that I have some comfort zones that exist purely in my mind.
The question then arises: So what? Even if I recognize that I have certain ideological comfort zones, why should I be motivated to leave them? Why should I allow new ideas to change me, and my habits, which build up such a crucial part of my core identity?
To understand why we should accept discomfort and leave these zones, it might be helpful to understand what keeps us in them in the first place. We will try to understand this by using an example from the more “practical” side of the spectrum: taking on an intimidating position, such as a leadership position, volunteer role, etc.
When looking at this position that lies outside our comfort zone, we begin to worry about what might go wrong. What if I’m not the right person for the job? What if I mess up? What if my inadequacy has negative consequences for others?
Once we begin to map out what insecurities place this position outside of our comfort zone, we can identify one major thing that seems to always stop us in our tracks: fear.
We fear the negative consequences of taking risks. We fear inadequacy, and we fear failure. When it comes to more ideological comfort zones, the fears seem to only grow stronger. We fear changing our perspective of the world. We fear realizing (and admitting) that we might have been wrong about something. We fear that if we allow ourselves to be changed by controversial ideas, that we will lose aspects of our lives that have been so important to us: the approval and understanding of our friends, and the comfort and sense of community that comes from adhering to the norms we’ve been taught all our lives. Fear, I believe, is the main (if not only) thing that creates our comfort zones and limitations.
This still does not explain why we should pay attention to fear. What would we have to gain by tackling fear? Well, what is the opposite of fear? By dictionary definitions, the opposite of being afraid is being brave. But when we look at the experience of fear, the experience of allowing it to guide our decisions, we find that the opposite of this experience is actually freedom.
This is what we have to gain: freedom.
Leaving your comfort zones, especially the ones that exist in your mind, does not mean you will be left without adversity or discomfort. Usually, in fact, it leads to the opposite. But internalizing new realities and allowing new perspectives to shift your conceptualization of the world around you allows you to recognize constraints you may never have noticed you lived within, and the freedom to leave them.
When we receive new information about, for example, gender and relationships, let us first understand why this reality lies outside of our comfort zone, and what “boundaries” it shows us exist around us. Let us be critical to those boundaries, instead of trusting them and only remaining within them. There may be something beautiful on the other side.
I want to point out two important things to keep in mind during this process:
There is a difference between leaving your comfort zone, and expanding your comfort zone. When we try to understand new ideas, we must jump into them: we must educate ourselves about this new reality, and try our best to let it change us. Sometimes, this leads to us feeling that our old mindset doesn’t fit us anymore. Maybe, after being exposed to this new reality, our old reality seems constraining or outdated. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes we find that, although we are now aware and understanding of this new reality, the new information doesn’t necessarily challenge where we were standing before. This is the process of expanding your comfort zone, but not necessarily leaving it, and can be a valid outcome. All we can do, after understanding new perspectives, is ask ourselves critically: does my old mindset actually fit my desires and beliefs, now that I have received this new information?
Even though I see some comfort zones as more practical, and others as more ideological, I do not feel that there are any that exist solely as one or the other. Even the most practical challenge, like learning a new sport, requires a shift in mentality. On the other hand, changing your ideological perspective can be completely meaningless if it does not lead to actual, practical changes in your actions and choices.
By tackling our fears, we rip out the roots of our insecurities and mental limitations. And if the opposite of fear is freedom, then that is a good enough reason in itself to want to start that process.
Will we succeed in life without a change in perspective? Probably.
Will we be happy? Maybe.
But will we be free?
Many of my writings on this blog will focus on the nasty beast of fear. I am constantly recognizing its presence everywhere I look, and its reign has lasted long enough. Today, I challenge my fears of inadequacy and inconsequentiality by stepping outside of my comfort zone and writing my first blog post.
I hope you will ask yourself today, and every day: what comfort zones do I live in? Both physically, and mentally? Why do I exist within these zones, and what might I stand to gain by stepping outside of them?
Let’s be honest with ourselves, and face our fears together <3