When the world gets chaotic, it is natural to want to burrow into your comfort zone, that place or situation where things feel comfortable, easy, and there is no testing of your abilities or beliefs. In elementary school, the physical manifestation of my comfort zone actually had a name — “Yangie.”
It was a pink, green and white afghan blanket that my grandmother had crocheted for me, while each of my younger brothers got a red, white and blue version. We would place our most prized possessions on our blankets and pretend they were the only secure islands in a sea of molten lava.
Surrounded by my piles of comic books, snacks, and Barbie dolls, I felt that Yangie kept me safe from any external threats, imagined or real. Like a 1970’s precursor to wearable Snuggies or being curled up in layers of protective bubble wrap.
Now, there is nothing wrong with hanging out in your comfort zone. After all, it can offer a sense of control in these weird times. But if you are feeling stuck, dwelling constantly in that familiar place could be limiting your personal growth and preventing forward momentum. That is how Rachel Kitchens felt about her four-year relationship.
She started dating a great guy right after college. They shared numerous interests and a love for adventure. Things were easy and he was the first individual Kitchens could envision spending an entire life with together.
Her boyfriend followed Kitchens to a job in Germany for a few years and they settled into a comfortable routine when moving back to the United States. But then the relationship slowly stagnated, and her partner felt more like a best friend instead of the love of her life.
“We were no longer growing as a couple or as individuals, not bringing each other down but not building each other up either,” she explained. “We just sort of comfortably existed in a bubble, and when I became aware of that, I couldn’t really ignore it. In my most honest moments, I couldn’t picture a future with him anymore and something had to change.”
Kitchens struggled with those feelings for a year, recognizing it came down to understanding the difference between compromise and settling. Unhappy with the relationship and herself, she was thinking of breaking up when COVID-19 triggered mandatory stay-at-home orders worldwide.
Spending that much time alone with your partner for months can either strengthen a relationship, or cause problems to become more evident. For Kitchens, it was the latter.
“Sometimes it takes a long time for you to admit something to yourself and then even longer to act on it,” she noted. “But then COVID threw a curve ball our way. Being locked together in an apartment during quarantine gives you no excuse but to try and work things out, and we didn’t. I realized it was time to take action.”
The 27-year-old learned that there is power in gracefully admitting that a relationship is over. Getting out of her comfort zone and ending things proved to be a positive growth experience.
Dealing with long-ignored emotions, she has gained a clarity about who she is, and her desires in life and in a relationship. Kitchens has maintained a strong friendship with her ex, while opening up to a more fulfilling relationship with herself and romantic interests in the future.
Leave the Layers of Bubble Wrap
If being too comfortable has morphed into a long-time habit, you have to take deliberate action to leave those layers of bubble wrap behind.
Andy Molinsky, Ph.D., author of Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence, advises people to employ one of four tactics — conviction, customization, clarity and taking a leap — to make it happen. Here’s the scoop on each:
Conviction is a deep sense of purpose in the “why” of what you are doing. Differing by person, that strong conviction serves as the wind at your back when going against the grain of what you might ordinarily do.
For example, if you’ve always wanted to lead an organization because it amplifies the impact you can make on the world, you gain the motivation to step outside of your comfort zone because it will help achieve that goal. Molinsky advises people to locate their sources of conviction and embrace them in order to move forward.
Recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all version of stepping outside of your comfort zone, customization involves adjusting a situation to your liking. Making tweaks along the way can help you gain more comfort while nudging yourself to take the leap.
Let’s say that you have to give a presentation and hate public speaking. Customization can involve changing the words you use, delivery method, using a prop or wearing an outfit that makes the situation feel more authentically your own.
Confronting something outside of your comfort zone can trigger some intense emotions like fear and distorted thinking. Clarity is the ability to normalize reactions and have more evenhanded emotional responses, which removes impediments to stepping outside that zone.
Take a Leap
Trying a situation can lead to tremendous self-discovery.
“What I found in my research is that when people were able to notice themselves taking a leap, they often found that the situation wasn’t as scary as first perceived,” explains Molinsky. “The self-reflections based on actual lived experience will most likely help you avoid sort of a cycle of avoidance. If it is not as bad as you thought, it increases the odds of doing it again.”
Molinsky recommends building your “courage muscles” through repetition to make these new behaviors stick. The key is to start with doable tasks that generate small wins and then continue to stretch in further increments.
Here’s an example current and wannabe runners can relate to. If you wanted to train for a marathon, most athletes start running a few miles a day, build up their strength and then increase to longer distances before eventually being able to handle all 26 miles. The same applies to other situations that require a certain level of discomfort.
If you want to gain more confidence with public speaking, you might join an organization like Toastmasters that provides tips and practice sessions in a safe space, then volunteer to deliver short presentations as your next stretch goal and so on, eventually tackling something that once seemed insurmountable, like speaking at an industry conference.
Stepping out of your comfort zone can seem intimidating at first. But the initial discomfort is well worth the effort of greater fulfillment, well-being and happiness in life.