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The Comfort Zone

We all live within the comfort zone. It’s the arena of activities we have done often enough to feel comfortable doing again—all those once-difficult and fearful things that we now find easy and comfortable.

Imagine the comfort zone as a circle: inside the circle are those things we are comfortable doing, outside is everything else. The wall of the circle is not a wall of protection, it is a wall of fear, a wall of limitation. The illusion is that the wall keeps us from bad things and keeps bad things from us; the illusion is that we are wise enough to know which things will prove beneficial over the long-term and which things will not and weed them out accordingly. The truth is we will err on the side of caution and weed out too much, we will be over-cautious and weed out much that is beneficial and would operate for our benefit. When we do something new, something different, we push against the parameters of our comfort zone. If we do the new thing often enough, we overcome the fear, guilt, unworthiness, uneasiness, hurt feelings, and anger, and our comfort zone expands. If we back off and honor the limitation, our comfort zone shrinks. It’s a dynamic, living thing, always either expanding or contracting.

When our comfort zone expands in one area, it expands in other areas as well: when we succeed at something, we take that self-confidence and esteem with us into other endeavors. This is known as “positive transfer.” When we give in to our comfort zone, the zone contracts. For some, the comfort zone shrinks to the size of their apartment—they never leave home without anxiety. For a few, the comfort zone shrinks to a space smaller than their own body, these are people who in every aspect of their lives are paralyzed by fear and self-doubt and not being good enough. This is when the comfort zone has won its greatest victory. —That and suicide. The “it” some people refer to when they “just can’t take it anymore” is the need to constantly be confronting the comfort zone just to keep the fear at bay. Here is one of the great ironies of life: those who are doing what they want to do and are consciously expanding their comfort zone at every opportunity experience no more fear than people who are passively trying to keep life as comfortable as possible.

Fear is a part of life. Some people feel fear when they press against their comfort zone and make it larger. Other people feel fear when they even think they might do something that gets them even close to the ever-shrinking, in their case, boundary of their comfort zone. Both feel the same fear. In fact, people in shrinking comfort zones probably feel more fear. They not only feel fear, they feel the fear of feeling fear, and the fear of the fear of feeling fear, and on and on. The person who develops the habit of moving through fear when it appears, feels it only once—“a coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man dies but one.”

In the air conditioning trade, the “comfort zone” is the range of temperatures on the thermostat (usually around 72 degrees) in which neither heating nor air conditioning is needed. It’s also called the “dead zone.” That’s the result of honoring the comfort zone too much, too often—a sense of deadness, a feeling of being trapped in a life not of our desiring, doing things not of our choosing, spending time with people we don’t like.

This is my favorite method of expanding the comfort zone: learn to love it all.

(Peter McWilliams, adapted and modified from “Life 101“)

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