“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Have you switched off yet? You might expect this kind of quote from a resilience coach but even I accept that it’s been massively overused. Usually, it accompanies a photo of someone camping on the edge of a precipice, diving with sharks or public speaking. It’s become so associated with physical acts and classic fears that it’s often easy to forget what a comfort zone really is. So how would we define it?

The classic comfort zone

I think there are two aspects to a comfort zone and the first one can be summed up like this:

Your comfort zone is somewhere that you feel safe or at ease.

We all need to feel like this sometimes. If you live perpetually outside your comfort zone then your cortisol levels are probably constantly through the roof, which is problematic for both physical and mental health. It’s impossible to build resilience if you are running on empty 24/7. So, sometimes a comfort zone is a great time out. But living constantly inside our comfort zone can be problematic too. And that’s when the second aspect comes into play:

A comfort zone is a settled method of working or approach that requires little effort and yields only barely acceptable results.

Those aren’t my words but those of Oxford Languages, reflecting the more negative side of a comfort zone. Yes it feels safe and warm in there but no it’s not a growth incubator. Being inside a comfort zone doesn’t require much from you but won’t give much back either. In fact that second definition “yields only barely acceptable results.” Ouch. Who wants to look back on their life and feel like they only ever achieved barely acceptable results. 

Comfort zone blindness

What I find interesting about comfort zones is that they can be tricky. I personally spent a number of years living inside mine with no awareness that I was stuck in that safe, warm, unchallenging space – other than a general feeling of discontent. Stuckness. Waking up in the morning and wondering why I just felt a bit bored. For me never challenging the limits of my comfort zone affected every other area of my life too. I didn’t really feel grateful, confident or content because I was never challenged or expanding my perspectives and skills.

No one said it was going to be easy (but it’s worth it)

Perhaps the trickiest thing of all about comfort zones is that when you’re about to step outside of yours you can feel a pull to step back. You might be about to take up a new sport, apply for a job you’re not sure you can do, ask someone out for the first time or walk into a room full of strangers. You’d have thought that – given how good for us these things really are – our minds would be cheering “yeah! Go on! Amazing! This is going to be so constructive!” But, more often than not what actually happens is that we stop. And we pause. And into that pause steps the voice of fear. “What if they say no?” “What if I fall?” “What if no one talks to me?” And sometimes that fear can grow to feel so overwhelming that we don’t move at all. This is what happened to me every time I tried to break out of my comfort zone in my 20s. I didn’t help that by being quite the boozer. I have to emphasise just how much harder it is to do this – or deal with any mental health issues you’re having – if you’re boozing etc heavily. It enhances all the things that will keep you stuck, from paranoia to anxiety.

Embracing uncertainty

As a coach I’m going to say that this all boils down to how we cope with uncertainty. If you want to bring in the cave man and women type arguments here you could say that for thousands of years humans survived by seeking out certainty. Doing everything we could to avoid situations where we didn’t have a good idea of the outcome. For example, approaching a strange animal without a spear and not being sure whether it would attack. However, today while we don’t live lives that have the same degree of risk we still look for high levels of certainty. When we detect uncertainty it can act like a brake on everything – rather than dive into it we often stay put because something inside us tells us that’s what we need to do to survive. Which actually isn’t the case because many of the risks we’re potentially going to take – even if we do indeed fail publicly and miserably – aren’t going to result in being eaten by a Sabre tooth tiger.

Comfort zone – a bit of resilience coaching

Sometimes stepping outside your comfort zone starts by looking at what’s in the way and asking questions like:

  • Is this a genuine obstacle?
  • Are you judging this level of risk appropriately?
  • How much of this is fear speaking?

Maybe you can take steps to mitigate the risk – training for a marathon, practicing giving a speech or learning how tides work before going for a big sea swim. All this can help remove some of that fear. But at some point the time will come when your feet have to leave the ground, metaphorically or physically. That’s the moment where being prepared or practiced, well informed or trained can be really useful. That can allow you to trust the next step, which is always going to be jumping off into the unknown.

Outside of your comfort zone is where you’ll find growth, new experiences, fulfilment, love, belonging and many of the things you might feel your life is currently lacking. That could be up a mountain – or today it might just be leaving the house. Either way, perhaps it’s time to take that step.

Resilience coaching is a process of working with your comfort zone, identifying when you need it and giving you the confidence, courage, clarity and instinctual understanding of when it’s time to step outside it.

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