Our Comfort Zones!

Published Categorized as emotional literacy, Understanding emotions

We often hear people describe things as, ‘outside my comfort zone’ and when they do, it’s usually to describe doing something like: public speaking, walking into a room of strangers, travelling somewhere perceived as very different, or even making a change to a daily routine. People tend to have the ability to react or judge instantly whether something is in their comfort zone or not, but they don’t tend to consider what creates the defined boundary between things we are comfortable with and those we’re not.

So, what is going on when it comes to comfort zones?

Well, I think they boil down to: avoiding taking any risk that we perceive could trigger unenjoyable or uncomfortable emotions. Now as I type that, it seems obvious but the awareness of what’s going on for us when we are sticking rigidly within our emotionally safe zone, is rarely that conscious. We might know we hate the idea of performing in front of others, taking a leap of faith or leaving nothing to improvisation (and planning with the aim of controlling everything!), and we might be somewhat frustrated about this limitation within ourselves, but do we have awareness enough of what is going on for us enough to challenge it at all? Possibly not.

This inflexible avoidance of putting ourselves in situations where we might experience uncomfortable emotions can really limit our opportunities. It impacts on many things. Many of us feel safe when we’re in control and we’ve made things as predictable and certain as we can, but that can mean we avoid new opportunities and our lives can become stuck. We might think we’re happy in this ‘stuck’ place but it can mean there’s a whole load of possibility and healthy challenge we’re not even allowing ourselves to be aware of.

The uncomfortable emotions that can arise when we put ourselves in uncertain situations can include: insecurity, shame, anxiety, fear, confusion, resentment, panic etc. They are uncomfortable for sure, but most achievement worth trying for in life, requires us to accept and endure such emotions. And it’s strange we try to avoid emotions that it would actually be hard to avoid completely in an entire lifetime! Furthermore, each time we avoid an opportunity because we anticipate uncomfortable emotions, the fear grows and our avoidance can become more entrenched.

So what do we do?

Well the old book, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ by Susan Jeffers comes to mind. I’ve never read the book, the title’s enough in this context! However, I also think there’s a step we can do before we ‘dive in’ to whatever seems scary and that is about awareness. As with many things, I think taking stock of what is going on for us emotionally and learning to accept it, really helps. Ride those uncomfortable emotions and see them for what they are, and can be: transient, self-limiting, confidence knocking little neurological and chemical messages in your body that don’t always serve you well! It takes practice but bashing away at the boundaries of your comfort zone becomes easier and easier, the more you do it. That’s why emotionally intelligent people can seem fearless. They’ve been on this journey.

But our comfort zone doesn’t just limit positive and beneficial activities we can engage in. It also impacts upon how we behave. Several unhelpful behaviours that people engage in, are driven by this same avoidance of risking uncomfortable emotions and these can include:

  • Failing to be assertive (because we fear reprisals and all the discomfort of putting ourselves into a slightly vulnerable place).
  • Controlling behaviours (because we can’t risk the discomfort of the unpredictable).
  • Distracting and joking (guilty!) (because we want to escape the discomfort of whatever is going on).
  • Avoiding conflict – even of the beneficial kind – because we fear the uncomfortable emotions it can trigger.
  • Giving up easily – because we can’t endure the unenjoyable emotions we experience when we are not good at something e.g. shame, confusion, vulnerability
  • Ignoring someone who has upset us – because that’s more comfortable than the emotions you would feel if you addressed the issues (it also removes the upset the other person caused or it can ‘get back at’ the person who upset you and punish them).
  • Not asking for feedback – because you perceive you won’t manage the negative emotions that could be triggered.
  • Blaming others all the time – as accepting your responsibility in something that’s gone wrong can be uncomfortable.

So as with most things I write about, it is increasing the awareness of, and being curious about our emotions and their impact that can bring benefits. So next time you feel a wobble from a challenge to the safety of your comfort zone, take a look inside and think about what would truly be the best thing to do.