Get out of the comfort zone! This phrase is ubiquitous, it has turned into one of the most common tips for personal growth. We all know that a life that is too comfortable is not good, that at some point we have to take over the reins of our existence and act. It is so.
It is equally true that it is important to face new challenges, overcome fears, learn to manage uncertainty and not cling to old habits that end up suffocating us. But every coin has its downside, so it's no less true that there are times when staying in your comfort zone is the best choice. There are times when it is infinitely smarter NOT to step outside that familiar area where you feel comfortable and safe.
The dangers of rushing out of the comfort zone
The current culture of personal growth glorifies the act of stepping out of the comfort zone. It is easy to say that every obstacle brings us closer to the goal, that those who do not take risks are not successful - even if we forget that they often fail miserably - and that we must overcome the fear of leaving the comfort zone to do great things in life, but we must not forget that each of these actions has consequences. And maybe we may not be willing to deal with some of these consequences or it may simply not be worth it.
Leaving the comfort zone - because everyone does it, because "the doctor prescribed it" - without properly assessing the risks and benefits that this step entails, could be a rash decision that we may regret in the future. Leaving the comfort zone does not mean jumping into the void without a parachute, but carefully preparing the ground before taking each step.
Furthermore, living obsessed with the idea that we must leave our comfort zone can become the surest recipe for developing a nervous breakdown. The comfort zone is also a quiet space where we can rest and regain strength, so we don't have to continually live outside of it. There are times when staying in the comfort zone is the best thing we can do.
From the comfort zone to the panic zone - through the learning zone
Andy Molinsky, professor of organizational behavior at the International Business School of the University of Brandeis, referred to three spaces related to the comfort zone.
1. Comfort zone. This is the comfort zone we all know, where we feel comfortable and relatively safe as we move through familiar situations, guided mainly by our customs and habits, in this area we experience very little anxiety.
2. Learning area. It is an area where we expand our horizons. All situations where we experience some level of anxiety are included, usually because they are new or involve a challenge. However, the anxiety is not exaggerated, but we can manage it, in order to turn it into a fuel for motivation and productivity.
3. Panic zone. It is an area in which we face situations for which we are not prepared and experience too high a level of anxiety that we do not know how to manage. In this area it is normal to feel paralyzed or blocked by fear or the anxiety level is so great that we psychologically collapse under its weight.
When we enter the panic zone we can experience so much fear and anxiety that we are likely to run back into the comfort zone in terror and never dare to get out of it.
On the contrary, growth occurs in the learning zone as we reach the optimal level of productivity and motivation in this area. But to take advantage of it, we must prepare - at least to a small extent - for what we can find in these new situations, hypothesizing possible action plans to overcome the obstacles that await us.
When is it convenient to stay in the comfort zone?
• When you have already experienced many changes. Sometimes life pushes us out of the comfort zone by making us face difficult situations for which we were not prepared. When we have been through a difficult period, it can be a good idea to return to the comfort zone and stay there for as long as it takes to recover the psychological energy we have consumed. We must not forget that pushing our strengths to the limit, demanding too much of ourselves, can cause us to hit bottom emotionally and it will be much more difficult for us to recover.
• When you feel like staying in the comfort zone. If you say to yourself, “I don't want to leave the comfort zone because I feel comfortable and that's what I have chosen”, you don't have to feel guilty for not wanting to add more challenges or anxieties to your life. We are all different, if you are in a place because you have chosen it and you feel fully satisfied, you do not have to leave your comfort zone - at least for now. After all, we can't lose sight of the fact that leaving the comfort zone only makes sense if it can make you feel happier and not the other way around.
• When there are good reasons to stay in the comfort zone. Sometimes it's just not the best time to step out of the comfort zone. Maybe there are no minimum conditions or you haven't prepared enough. If you're planning on making a huge change in your life, you should make sure it's the right time, or at least it's not the worst. You just need to make sure you have good reasons to stay in that area momentarily, which aren't fear-motivated excuses. To find out, imagine you have a magic eraser. If you could erase the anxiety, would you like to take that step? If the answer is yes, get ready to expand your learning zone and create conditions. But if that's not really what you want to do, you don't have to take that step just to "expand your limits," especially if it generates unnecessary anxiety.
Knowing your stress tolerance level is the key to growing
It is important to understand that the comfort zone is a subjective concept in which various factors intervene, including the characteristics of our personality and the level of tolerance to stress. An introvert, for example, might find the idea of attending an event more problematic than an extrovert.
Also, we respond to stress differently, so it is possible that some people's learning zone is smaller than that of others and that they enter the panic zone more quickly.
Each person has their own limitations and this is not necessarily bad. Negative and counterproductive is copying what others do to get out of their comfort zone, because it could be the perfect recipe for failure and frustration.
The secret to growing without entering the panic zone is to always apply the old Greek aphorism: “know yourself”. We need to know our limits and levels of tolerance to stress and uncertainty. Only in this way can we gradually expand the learning zone without straying too far.