The Psychology of Comfort Zones

“Get outside of your comfort zone!” is an instruction each and every one of us have heard from motivational speakers and parents alike throughout our entire lives. What they mean is, try something new! But what does it actually mean to break outside of one’s comfort zone, and what are the benefits of doing so?

We all have a comfort zone—a place that feels safe and familiar. For me, it was working in a non-profit setting in a city I’d called home for the entirety of my adult life, Washington D.C. Being surrounded by friends and loved ones and working in a professional field in which I felt secure was incredibly cozy, but I gradually began to feel stagnant. Everything was easy, and I just wasn’t growing. Fast forward a year and a half and I’m working my first for-profit job in Chicago, IL. What a change!

A comfort zone can be described as “a psychological state in which things feel familiar to a person and they are at ease and in control of their environment, experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress.” Therefore, it can be assumed that stepping out of one’s comfort zone will raise anxiety and generate stress to a certain extent. Why would we want to do that?!

Many psychologists and social scientists believe that leaving your zone of comfort can enhance levels of focus and concentration. Alasdair White, the man who coined the term “comfort zone,” hypothesized that to achieve high performance, one has to experience a certain amount of stress.

Psychiatrist Dr. Abigail Brenner, author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life, outlines her top 5 reasons to begin stepping outside your comfort zone as follows:

  1. Your “real life” is the conglomeration of all of your life’s experiences, not just the ones you’re comfortable with. Experiencing your “real life” in its totality is important to becoming a better-rounded person.
  2. Pushing yourself to do uncomfortable things releases your “personal store of untapped knowledge and resources.” You don’t know what you actually know and how strong you actually are until you’re challenged.
  3. Risks are growth experiences, no matter the outcome. In Dr. Brenner’s estimation, FAIL can mean “first attempt in learning.”
  4. Settling for mediocrity is an incredibly high price to pay for the feeling of relative safety. Letting your comfort dictate your experience is no way to live.
  5. Stepping outside of your comfort zone helps you learn how to deal with change, thereby expanding your comfort zone!

Over a century ago, in 1907, noted psychologist Robert Yerkes told of a behavioral space in which, in order to maximize performance, humans must reach stress levels that are slightly higher than normal. He called this space “Optimal Anxiety” and it’s just outside of our zone of comfort.

However, as we all learned in ninth grade psychology, the feeling of safety is second only to physiological requirements in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There’s a reason most humans want to stay in an area of relative comfort and safety—it keeps us alive. The same Robert Yerkes that presented the idea of “Optimal Anxiety” reported that, “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.”

So how do we find the perfect balance between this passive state of seeking comfort and active state of seeking growth? How do we find this “Optimal Anxiety”? Alan Henry, editor-in-chief of Life Hacker, suggests the following:

  1. Do everyday things differently. Take a different route to work. Try a new restaurant without checking Yelp first. Go vegetarian for a week, or a month…Look for the perspective that comes from any change, even if it’s negative. Don’t be put off if things don’t work out the way you planned.
  2. Take your time making decisions. Sometimes slowing down is all it takes to make you uncomfortable—especially if speed and quick thinking are prized in your work or personal life.
  3. Trust yourself and make snap decisions. We’re contradicting ourselves, but there’s a good reason… Sometimes making a snap call is in order, just to get things moving.
  4. Do it in small steps. It takes a lot of courage to break out of your comfort zone. You get the same benefits whether you go in with both feet as you do if you start slow, so don’t be afraid to start slow.

His last suggestion rings particularly true to me. We are creatures of habit, and we love our comfort. In order not stress yourself out too much, therefore inching out of that “optimal anxiety” level, don’t be so hard on yourself! Growth is growth.

References

Beck, Melinda. “Anxiety Can Bring Out the Best.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 18 June 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.

Brenner, Abbigail. “5 Benefits of Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone.” Psychology Today. N.p., 27 Dec. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.

Henry, Alan. “The Science of Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone (and Why You Should).” Lifehacker. Lifehacker.com, 03 July 2013. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.

White, Alasdair. From Comfort Zone to Performance Management. N.p.: White & MacLean, 2009. Print.

Yerkes, R & Dodson, J. – “The Dancing Mouse, A Study in Animal Behavior” 1907 “Journal of Comparative Neurology & Psychology”, Number 18, pp 459–482

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