“We may live in an online world, but we have stone-age programming in our brains.”
Our comfort zone is the place where we are least likely to feel threatened or in danger — it is our safe place.
We are all wired by instinct and evolutionary programming to spend as much time as possible within our comfort zone, because safety means survival.
The problem is that when our brain is pushing us to stay comfortable, it’s trying to do what’s best for our survival in the short-term, and neglecting our goals and aspirations for the long-term. It helps us survive, which is good, but most of us want more out of life than to simply survive.
Our comfort zone might be more aptly described as a familiarity zone — we return to the people, habits, and environments in our comfort zone because they are familiar. Familiarity allows us to feel safe, let our guard down, and relax. Unfortunately what’s familiar isn’t always what’s best for us either, but our comfort zone can’t tell the difference.
Civilization has evolved faster than our brains have, and thriving in the digital society of today means repurposing some of our outdated instincts.
The only thing to fear…
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
Our comfort zone controls us through fear — remember, for thousands of years, the avoidance of fear kept us alive.
The diagram shows a visualization where the ‘fear zone’ is the immediate outlier of the comfort zone. This is the headspace we’re in when we consider doing something that makes us uncomfortable. Low self-confidence, making excuses, and worrying about others’ opinions.
Social fears have an acute ability to trigger the voice in our head that tells us to abort — i.e. public speaking, failure, being laughed at, standing up for what you believe in, telling someone you’re unhappy with them, someone telling you they don’t want you around anymore.
We often attribute failure as being the cause of our fear, but fear of failure is more likely a fear of failing in front of others.
Historically, a human’s survival has relied on being a member of a community. Fitting in was literally a matter of life and death, and this is why our social fears can be so crippling.
In his book, Your Comfort Zone is Killing You: Finding the Courage to be You, author Billy Anderson refers to the fear of what other people think as the ‘big & nasty,’ because it is the number one fear that holds us back.
Luckily, we can use fear to our advantage instead — to exercise our courage, expand our comfort zone, and improve our life.
Expand your comfort zone
“Having courage is being scared and doing it anyway, because the something you want is bigger than the fear itself.”
Being scared is a good thing — if you’re never scared, it means you are coasting through life, not maximizing your gifts, and not living true to the person that you’re meant to be. If you’re never scared, you are not being you.
Our voice of fear chimes in at the very thought of leaving our comfort zone, because it wants us to live a safe and boring life. Anderson calls this voice the ego or ‘inner critic’, because it’s constantly criticizing, hammering away at our ideas and self-worth.
If left unchecked, It will keep you from getting what you want and being the person you’re meant to be.
While we can’t fully control our inner critic, we can take steps to manage it.
The muscles in your body don’t grow and get stronger overnight. Courage is no different — the more you step out of your comfort zone, the quicker and bigger your courage muscle will get. Over time, your comfort zone grows and the panic zone shrinks. The things that used to scare you no longer do (or at least, not as much). The things you once considered impossible may now seem to be in your reach.
A study by Gardner & Bell in 2005 describes the benefits of exposure to fear: “Only by gradually exposing ourselves to the feared stimulus, albeit in a controlled and supported way, can we make significant progress in the recovery process. Just as a patient with a pulled muscle is advised to stretch gently to the point of discomfort but not to pain, so a phobic sufferer must enter a process of desensitization through exposure. This process is accomplished in small increments that combine bearable discomfort with feelings of progress and achievement. No phobic sufferer has to metaphorically or literally leap into a snake pit or wallow in worms to attack phobia successfully” (Anderson, 59).
Next time you feel fear, you might benefit from perceiving it as an opportunity to shift control away from your inner critic and back to you. The more you can exercise your courage muscle by stepping outside your comfort zone and deep into your courage zone, the more your comfort zone will expand.
Keep in mind that courage is relative — what courage looks like to anyone else doesn’t matter. What courage looks like to you is all that’s important.
Simply by acknowledge your inner critic each time it comes, you will gradually be less and less impacted by its voice.
Will Your Comfort Zone Kill You?
Considering that the comfort zone is all about safety and survival, it won’t literally kill you. But it might keep you from ever really living, which you might say is even worse.
Luckily you can make your comfort zone work for you. Expanding your comfort zone and sidelining your inner critic will empower you to live life how you truly desire.
Like courage, confidence is not an innate ability but rather a skill to exercise and grow. Seneca once said that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Well, some say that confidence is what happens when courage meets expertise.
By reading this article you’ve added a little bit more expertise. Now take the next opportunity to exercise your courage muscle, and you’ll be one step closer to true confidence.
Unless you face your fear when it comes, you will hide the true you, and inevitably end up being like everyone else. And there are already enough people in the world trying to be like everyone else! In fact, you are doing OTHER people a disservice by not being you, because you’re adding to the polluted pool of conformity and depriving us of experiencing your uniqueness.
In the words of Dr Seuss, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
The choice is yours — live your life as an unbridled expression of your truest self, or be shackled by self-imposed fear and anxiety.
If you enjoyed this post and want to know more about mastering your comfort zone, you need to dive into the work that inspired this piece. Check out the great book by Billy Anderson that will leave you feeling inspired to live your life to fullest.