Stepping Outside Our Comfort Zone

Years ago, when the kids were much younger, our family used to take beach vacations with a close friend and her family. This friend and I shared a similar level of adversity to risk, and while the guys would take the kids to jump off cliffs or snorkel in caves, we would stay behind, congratulating each other on our affinity for the “zone”… the stretch of ocean closest to the beach, where the waves weren’t too high, there were no jellyfish or any other creatures, and we could just float the afternoon away.

The “zone” was perfect. As we often joked, we loved it precisely because “nothing ever happened in the zone.” In other words, we were safe. We didn’t have to think. We didn’t have to be on guard for any real or perceived dangers. We didn’t even have to worry about spilling our drinks, so peaceful was the water there. It was, by every definition, a comfort zone.

As humans, we are programmed to seek situations where we can minimize our stress and risk, to create our own comfort zones. For each of us, this mean something different, of course. For me, the comfort zone is all about a feeling of coziness (unless I am on a beach vacation, in which case see above). As an introvert, my comfort zone often has to do with staying in, not having to make small talk with people I don’t know, and wearing the closest thing to pajamas I can get away with. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of that, of course, and I can argue that it is just who I am, and how is that a bad thing?

The trouble with a comfort zone is that if you spend too much time there, it actually shrinks. Comfortable clothes go from jeans to sweats to actual pajamas. Not wanting to make small talk becomes never wanting to meet new people because of the effort it takes to get to know them and to share something of yourself. In time, new experiences become a risk, and what we categorize as a new experience grows to include anything that pushes or stretches us to be more than what we are now. Because we have so severely limited the stimulation in our lives, any stimulation starts to feel like too much. It is easier, safer, to stay in the “zone”.

In the 1995 movie French Kiss, Meg Ryan plays Kate, a woman whose fear of flying combined with her habitual comfort zone keep her from enjoying a trip to Paris with her fiancé. He takes the trip without her, meets someone new and breaks their engagement. She swallows her fear and flies to Paris to win him back. One thing leads to another and she eventually rejects him after coming to a powerful realization:

“I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to protect myself from exactly this situation. And you can’t do it. There’s no home safe enough, there’s no country nice enough, there’s no relationship secure enough, you’re just setting yourself up for an even bigger fall and having an incredibly boring time in the process.”

In other words, why not step outside the zone? The water is just fine… and you will be, too.