We human beings have a knack for converting soothing refuges into stagnant places that trap our potential. These familiar places are commonly called “comfort zones.”
No judgment, no guilt and no condescension. We are wired to avoid discomfort, to seek safety and enhance pleasure. Modernity has been a blessing and a curse. We’ve become masterful at creating tools to improve our lives which sometimes pervert into escapist habits.
Relentlessly seeking comfort zones – or worse, rabbit holes– becomes an end in itself, when it should be a temporary means to a greater goal.
Pema Chödron illustrates that we can grow in three different concentric circles: 1- the comfort zone, 2- the learning/challenging zone and 3- the excessive risk zone. Here is my extended analysis of her categories:
1- The comfort zone is necessary at times to rest, relax or gather our breath before facing a rough situation, but it can become dangerously limited. If we stay too long in this zone, we become stagnant and can suffer frustration, resentment and anger. We usually believe that our negative mood has to do with external circumstances having power over us, but it doesn’t necessarily. I criticized my employer for many years – and I assure you, there were good reasons for that – until I realized that the core of my dissatisfaction was me holding back my potential out of fear of exposing myself.
2- The learning/challenging zone is uncomfortable, dissonant, sometimes repellent, but that’s where we feel alive and grow. That’s where –with persistence- we develop a sense of possibility and fulfillment. We might feel stressed at first, but that feeling will subside. In this zone, we naturally minimize our binging tools in order to be present and focused on our new experiences. Our soothing tools become treats not distractions. Two years ago, I transitioned from being a full-time employee to a consultant and was in a huge learning/challenging zone. During that period, I easily let go of a lingering secretive habit coming from my glamourous youth in Paris: a cigarette once in a while. The anticipation of pleasure -and afterward the guilt- were taking too much of my mental space. I needed all my energy to create my new life.
3- The excessive risk zone is astonishing but overwhelming like vertigo. Too much groundlessness – too big a gap. It can even be traumatizing if we jump into this zone without being ready. It has been salutary for me to continue working as an independent contractor for my previous company while exploring new ventures. At times, I have judged myself for not being courageous enough to adopt a more radical transition, but learning to grow into more mature and less reactive relationships with my co-workers has actually been an important learning/challenging zone for me.
So, why should we bother to challenge our comfort zones on a regular basis?
I see three compelling reasons:
- The comfort zone paradigm is a no-fear-free zone. We can live in the safest town, safest home, with the safest lockers, and still be afraid of being robbed or attacked. There is no way to escape the discomfort of fear, even if we heavily numb ourselves with our comfort tools.
- Remaining in one’s comfort zone is ultimately deeply dissatisfying. I don’t know anyone who admits to having a comfort zone who also doesn’t have the desire to challenge it. All human beings want to stretch and grow themselves. For many of us, this need is coming from a profound desire to open our heart, and connect with others. When our essential needs are met (around emotional and physical safety), we naturally want to give back our surplus of well-being to others. Whether we are a leader who cares about our direct reports, a service provider who cares about our customers, or a human being who cares about pets, we want to help others.
- If we don’t challenge ourselves and give back to others, the surplus of well-being returns us to our comfort zones where our starving egos take over! Then, there is never enough food, drink, cigarettes, money, HBO series, physical sensations, recognition or accumulation of knowledge to reassure our bottomless ego-cups. Encumbered by crutches, life shrinks.
So for this summer, why not challenge our comfort zones and move towards the most meaningful learning edge of our current development?
For me, it means to continue trusting the process of letting go of the familiar, while creating space for the new, with no certainty of the result… Wow. What a fulfilling terrifying summer lies ahead!
What about you? What are your soothing tools? Which ones keep you in your comfort zones? Which ones support you in your learning zones? What are your current learning edges? I’d love to hear your thoughts.