This post was originally published in June of 2013.
Life begins at the end of your comfort zone—so true.
I love this saying, and wish I could take credit for thinking it up. In my humble opinion, whoever came up with it is a genius—and when I saw it on a fridge magnet many years ago, I bought several of them to give as gifts to people I recognized as being entrenched in their comfort zones. (Sometimes it really does take one to know one.) Having given most of them away, I am now down to just the one that lives in its special place on the side of my fridge, where I can see it every day.
A client of mine, upon seeing my fridge magnet, took this sentiment to heart in a big way and when it was finally time to celebrate a truly terrific and hard-won milestone in her life, she decided to reward herself with a big cake inscribed with those words. After some hard inner work, she was able to embrace a vitally important understanding: in order to become emotionally free, she needed to make the conscious choice to move past what was comfortable for her and actually start living.
I’m so happy for her—and for all of us who eventually arrive at this place within ourselves.
What is a ‘Comfort Zone’?
Although this expression has become a catch phrase in self-help psychology, the term can be misleading. A comfort zone is really anything but comfortable. Neither is it an emotionally healthy place to be, and a lot of people unwittingly become stuck in them for long periods of time.
A comfort zone most often stems from family-of-origin dynamics. Over many years, we grow to know those well and easily fall into them. Sometimes a comfort zone can be the result of a negative feeling we’ve developed about ourselves, and we can hold onto that defective—and untrue—self-image well into our adulthood.
For example, one of my favorite comfort zones when I was growing up was to be a ‘good girl’ at all costs and to never make any waves, because I understood at a very early age that there would be difficult consequences awaiting me when I tried to speak my truth or act in a way that my parents didn’t appreciate. That particular comfort zone tenaciously had its roots in my faulty core beliefs about myself. Built up over a lot of years, those beliefs informed me that my opinions didn’t matter and that I somehow didn’t deserve to be treated as a valuable member of my own family. And, in the short run, it became more ‘comfortable’ for me to believe that and act as if it were true, than it would have been to challenge those beliefs and face the potentially uncomfortable consequences. With my wiser adult self-awareness, I see now that this was the perfect environment for many of my long-lingering comfort zones to develop and hold me hostage—until I learned about the pain that accompanies us when we make the choice to stay trapped in unhealthy behaviors.
The Two Kinds of Pain
What really happens in a comfort zone?
Comfort zones provide us with what is referred to in 12-Step literature as the ‘easier, softer way out’—until it no longer feels like that for us anymore, which is when change can happen. When we get stuck in a comfort zone, it’s like getting used to clothes that are just too small for us—until that magnificent moment when we realize we’ve outgrown them. But until that time, we continue to practice our learned behaviors in order to protect ourselves from the perceived potential pain of evolving and growing.
What many people don’t understand is that there are two distinctly different types of pain: there is the pain that goes on and on, and the pain that has a light at the end of the tunnel. When we choose to remain in a comfort zone, we are ultimately choosing the former because if we keep doing the same things, we keep getting the same results. As the profoundly wise saying goes, if nothing changes, nothing changes. Although that choice can appear easier, it will only feel like that in the short run. In the long run, the pain continues.
All addictions are comfort zones. If you are struggling with any form of addictive behavior, you’re using it in an attempt to shield yourself from the harsher realities of your life. As understandable as this coping strategy may be, addiction is ultimately a twisted form of self-care—with ‘twisted’ being the key word. There is nothing self-caring about hurting yourself over and over again just to be able to keep your eyes closed and stay in denial. That will only serve to create the kind of pain that never ends.
Coming out of Your Comfort Zone—Yes, You Can!
I don’t always agree with everything good ol’ Dr. Phil says, but every once in a while he comes up with something great. An example of this is the question he inevitably asks almost every one of his TV guests:
How’s that been workin’ for ya?
Interestingly, virtually every time I ask this question with my clients, I get the same response: “Not so well.” And when that is the case—when we finally recognize how stuck we are—the next question that needs to be asked is:
Are you ready to try something different?
When we decide to raise the bar for ourselves and choose a healthier behavior, most of us will immediately experience will be an overwhelming feeling of fear. This is a reasonable response because we are basically giving up an option that has felt like a security blanket or a best friend. We need to be gentle with ourselves when we make this courageous choice—we need to allow ourselves to vent, grieve, cry our tears, and then get on with facing reality outside of our comfort zone.
And let’s remember to pat ourselves on the back for being so brave!
It might help you to know that the second experience you’ll have is a marked increase in your self-respect—and in my opinion, nothing is more valuable than that. Once you’ve made the choice to actually feel your fear and embark on the journey of recovery from your comfort zone anyway, you will automatically feel better about yourself, even if you’re still a little scared. You will undoubtedly recognize that you’re now on the right track, even when this decision leads you into growth periods that make your hair stand on end. We all have times like that, whether we stay in addiction or choose recovery from our unhealthy coping behaviors. During these times, we need to remind ourselves of the two distinct types of pain and re-commit to being on the higher path, the one that will ultimately lead us to freedom from our addictions.
The truth is that you alone are responsible for making the decision to leave your comfort zone—but the good news is that you don’t have to do the inner work this requires by yourself. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for the help you need. There is no shame or stigma in needing help from others—the real tragedy occurs when we try to protect our pride and our egos by not asking for assistance. I have needed help many times over the years, and I still reach out for it today when I need to. I so appreciate the many people who have been there to help me, and I am profoundly grateful to be able to pay it forward with others who come to me for this.
Will you choose to opt for the pain that will actually end?
Are you ready to live the amazing life of freedom that awaits you at the end of your comfort zone?