Grow And Thrive Inside Your Comfort Zone
If you are a fan of personal development content, chances are that you are constantly reminded of how beneficial it is to leave your comfort zone. Because without pushing your boundaries you just won’t learn anything new, you will get stuck and, most likely, die as a dull and bitter old drag.
I know — I have read enough of it, too. At some point it used to make me anxious and think — am I pushing myself hard enough? Am I trying new things and throwing myself into new circumstances often enough? Or maybe I already began settling into my patterns, but I am just not realizing this?
Let’s not engage in these annoying thoughts anymore. It is time to look at the other side of the coin, which is equally — if not more — important.
Leaving your comfort zone can be beneficial — I will not deny it. However, some amount of comfort is also essential for your personal growth.
What “leaving your comfort zone” really means
Let’s take a look at two different definitions of a comfort zone.
“The comfort zone is a psychological state in which one feels familiar, safe, at ease, and secure.” — Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
This is a mere description of a comfortable emotional state.
“The comfort zone is a behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.” — Alasdair White, From Comfort Zone to Performance Management
The second definition points to the correlation between being free of anxiety (i.e. inside the comfort zone) and the level of performance people can achieve in this state. It implies that being at ease, “without a sense of risk” is directly related to a “limited set of behaviours” or “steady performance”. In other words, it is related to a stagnant situation, where nothing changes — neither for the better, nor for the worse.
Now, this is where the common fallacy about the comfort zone and growth lies. The message we are constantly getting from all the “leave-your-comfort-zone” advocates is that feeling uncomfortable is the key to our personal (or professional, social, spiritual — you name it) growth.
This is not the case.
“Step out of your comfort zone” is a misleading slogan because it highlights the consequence, rather than the merit of our growth-oriented actions. It suggests that the way to our personal development is simply making ourselves feel uncomfortable. And while it is true that the process of growing, or evolving, often triggers uncomfortable feelings — they are not the essence of what we are looking to develop.
The attitude we need to develop in order to grow is not just stepping away from comfort, but stepping out of our habitual way of doing things. Jon Kabat Zinn calls it “The Beginner’s Mind”. This attitude may be followed by discomfort, but doesn’t have to be.
Even if we intend to learn purely from our feelings of discomfort (which is a great way to learn, in my opinion), the Beginner’s Mind is what we need to develop first, so we can observe these feelings without judgement. Otherwise, we run the risk of interpreting our experience through the “programming” we developed in the past. This often results in noticing our own discomfort, then blaming it on somebody or something “out there”. This is not the way to initiate personal growth.
What is the Beginner’s Mind and why you should cultivate it
“When we adopt the mind of a beginner, we endeavour to look at things as if for the first time, free from the influence of the past or speculation about the future. We open ourselves to what is here now, rather than constructing stories about what we think is here. Much like a scientist who observes without bias, beginner’s mind allows us to collect raw data. This opens us up to new possibilities, rather than being confined by habits and conditioning.” — Tracy Ochester, Attitudes of Mindfulness: Beginner’s Mind
Beginner’s Mind is one of the seven interdependent elements of the mindfulness attitude, described by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book Full Catastrophe Living. It means the ability to look at our experience — both internal and external — as if we were seeing things for the very first time, without assuming that we “already know this stuff”. It is realising what a given phenomenon is like in the present moment, rather than perceiving it through the filter of our past experiences.
This means listening to what your friend is telling you now, rather than interpreting her complaints, thinking: “oh, she is always saying this just because she doesn’t like her job”.
This means being able to enjoy your coffee every day without assuming “I have had coffee so many times before and it tastes just the same as always”.
This also means being able to focus on reading an article without “already knowing” where the author is going, working according to your current energy level, staying attentive while exploring a new city… and many other things.
Beginner’s Mind is akin to adapting an attitude of a child, who is open to play, explore and ask questions without bias.
Can you already see how this mindset can contribute to your growth more than just stepping outside your comfort zone? Or rather — that the Beginner’s Mind is the essence of what we mean when we talk about leaving one’s comfort zone?
It is not about simply getting rid of the comfort. If it was, we could assume we grow from experiences such as riding a stuffed bus, queuing for the check-out in a supermarket or frantically looking for a parking spot in a jam-packed parking lot. These situations certainly make us feel uncomfortable.
But more than about the discomfort, it is about the ability to look at things with fresh eyes.
This is what growth implies. You are striving to be a person that you are not being yet. You are getting to know or see what you yet don’t know or can’t see. You are relating to your experience in a new way that you didn’t even think was possible. Again, it is all about adapting and cultivating the Beginner’s Mind.
Two ways of accessing the Beginner’s Mind
First way to have more of the Beginner’s Mind in your life is changing your external circumstances. This is what most people refer to when they tell you that you must step out of your comfort zone. This way is straightforward and doesn’t need much explanation. It can be implemented through a myriad of actions, which are only limited by your imagination.
You can change your job, move to another country, go to a new coffee place, meet a stranger on a blind date… It is about arranging a change in your circumstances that will put you in an unfamiliar setup. This way, of course, you become a beginner. You don’t have any judgment about the new situation yet.
This is also the way to go if you want to make yourself feel uncomfortable at the same time. What you will gain is the chance to observe what triggers your discomfort and how you react to it. Very valuable lesson indeed. But my point is — it is not the only way.
The second approach is consciously training the Beginner’s Mind in situations that you perceive as very familiar. A famous example is encounter with a berry. Or a raisin.
“Take a raisin and put it in your hand. Pretend you have dropped off from another planet, and you have never seen a raisin. With an inquisitive, open, non-judgmental perspective, examine the raisin. Explore it. Smell it, feel it, taste it. Engage your senses, in the moment, in a non-judgmental way. With all your attention, be one with the raisin.” — Amira Posner, The Mindfulness Meditation Institute
This exercise might seem ridiculous — I know. But you cannot realise the impact it has on your mind before you actually spend those 10 or 15 minutes just being with the raisin and engaging all your senses. I dare you to try it out and observe what happens with your thoughts and your attention. Only then can you tell me that it is baloney.
Of course, raisin is just one way to practice. It can also be eating your dinner, brushing your teeth or shopping, while being fully engaged in the experience. The point is to exercise the Beginner’s Mind in a familiar environment, with the things that you assume you know very well. Check it for yourself — if you look attentively, you can always find something new in that which you thought you knew so well. (For example — I noticed that a raisin has seeds. Just like a grape, of course, but it came to me as a surprise!)
The Beginner’s Mind is like a muscle that you train and employ according to your will. If you master it with a raisin, you will soon be able to use it in any area of your life. You will be able to see complex problems at work in a new light, just because you will look with no judgement or presumptions. You will see what is really going on between you and your partner. You will start being more honest with yourself about which friends you really enjoy seeing, and which of them are just your another habit.
This second way of adapting the Beginner’s Mind can be successfully practiced inside your comfort zone, too. But why cling to this comfort so much? — you may ask.
Once again — you don’t have to. Feeling the discomfort is a great way of exploring yourself. However, with all this talk going on about leaving our comfort zones, we should not forget that emotional comfort has its great advantages, too.
Grow your feeling of comfort, because you need comfort to grow
Even if we embrace the “leave-your-comfort-zone” approach, most of us will only leave it in order to… expand it. This is ultimately why we decide to kick ourselves out into the unknown — so that we can eventually be at ease in a wider array of circumstances. We leave our comfort zones to grow our comfort zones.
A certain amount of comfort, paired with the Beginner’s Mind, is a great way to invite growth and top performance. And when I say “comfort”, I obviously don’t mean external factors like comfort food or a fancy car. I am talking about the internal comfort of the emotional realm. This is something you can learn how to give to yourself.
The following four examples illustrate how emotional comfort facilitates growth.
Achieving optimal performance
“Anxiety improves performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached. Beyond that point, performance deteriorates as higher levels of anxiety are attained.” — Robert Yerkes, Optimal Anxiety
If stress or anxiety take over, you are not capable of achieving optimal results in whatever you want to accomplish. Therefore, if your personal growth requires some kind of focused action, you need a certain level of emotional comfort to perform this action. This will ensure that the eustress (positive stress that motivates you to achieve) in your life doesn’t turn into distress. The latter will not help you achieve anything.
Appreciation increases outcomes
“Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fund-raisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group — assigned to work on a different day — received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told the fund-raisers she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard her message of gratitude made 50% more fund-raising calls than those who did not.” — Harvard Mental Health Letter
The positive influence of gratitude and appreciation (which are 100% comfortable feelings) has been largely explored by studies in psychology, neurobiology and social sciences. These feelings were found to have a stimulating effect on the hypothalamus, which is a part of brain responsible for many bodily functions. They encourage virtuous cycles in our brains, as well as during social interactions.
On an experiential level: if you strive to do more, have more, make more of something (in other words — grow), it certainly helps if you can appreciate what you already have. Then the need for growth becomes more like a curious game or experiment, rather than something you “must” do to feel happy and balanced.
Periods of integration are important
“Integration is the process of mixing disparate groups and incorporating previously disconnected entities into one larger entity.” — GoodTherapy.org
Even if you decide to grow by “leaving your comfort zone”, it is still necessary to have periods of comfort every once in a while, so that you can integrate the lessons learned during your adventures. I am saying this with certainty, because I experienced a lot of unknown in the past two years — sometimes without much emotional comfort. If you challenge yourself to do new things all the time without allowing pauses for integration, you are missing out on a chance to process it all fully and maximise learning outcomes.
Vegetation cycles of plants are a beautiful metaphor of this. The process of accelerated growth and producing new stems during springtime ceases in the summer and autumn. This way, the tree’s energy can be invested in producing fruits.
Creativity requires a certain level of safety
“To enhance creativity, there should always be a safety net below the people who make suggestions.” — Teresa Amabile, How To Kill Creativity
According to the commonly accepted Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, feeling safe is the second most important need of humans. And it is essential to feel safe first, if we want to fulfil any “higher” needs, like creativity. This is because without a basic sense of overall safety, we wouldn’t dare to take the risk of throwing new ideas on the table.
This is clearly noticeable in how all of the human societies developed. Only after agriculture and cities were established, some social groups were granted physical survival without having to produce their own food or worry about shelter. It was in these conditions of basic safety that people started inventing more abstract systems — like writing or science.
Empower yourself: embrace comfort along with discomfort
Feelings such as appreciation, self-love, acceptance or safety construct your basic comfort, in which the seed of real growth is rooted. To make it sprout, the Beginner’s Mind is a necessary nutrient. Remember to nurture your seed consistently.
Good news is that both the feeling of inner comfort and the attitude of a beginner are qualities that you can actively develop. There are many ways to do it — I leave it up to you to find your favourite self-help book, meditation practice, mentor, support group… Options are endless.
And the feeling of discomfort? Of course it will appear sometimes. But you know that it is not your goal to feel uncomfortable. Discomfort is your teacher — one of many. It is just another part of your experience that comes to pass. Your job is to observe it without judgement, whenever it appears — and gradually learn how to comfort yourself.