Why you want to get out of your comfort zone - and how to do it
Posted July 23
Jeanette Lukens remembers wanting desperately not to be shy, so starting in college she pushed herself to do things that were quite opposite of her natural inclinations. She joined clubs. She answered questions in class. She volunteered to read aloud when the teacher asked.
She hated all of it, but became better each time she tackled the task. The worst was when she decided to become a teaching assistant in a geology lab. She was so nervous that she often threw up before class. Then she’d pull it together and go into the classroom to help the students learn new skills.
She was the most risk-averse person she knew, but Lukens nevertheless forced herself to try new things regularly. Beekeeping sounded interesting, so for five years she maintained a hive. She thought it would be good to travel, so she went alone to Guatemala to study Spanish for a month.
Lukens is a 37-year-old wife and mother of two toddlers, self-transplanted from New Mexico to Salt Lake City by way of Washington, D.C., and Alabama. She is expecting her third child in August.
“I am probably most comfortable not talking to new people and I hate talking on the phone,” she said recently during a — you guessed it — telephone interview. “But I realized that being very shy is not productive and I needed to change. I wanted to be a useful member of society, so I started forcing myself out of my comfort zone.”
Comfort zones are a hot topic with developmental psychologists, workplace gurus, academic researchers and others. Ever since psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson famously used mice to study motivation and stimulus in 1908, it has become widely accepted that people ramp up their performance when they’re a bit uncomfortable.
Trying new things, it turns out, is helpful. And there's no better time than summer to work and play differently and tear down routines, though you never want to abandon a comfort zone completely. Experts believe there’s a sweet spot between the comfort zone and the panic zone: People reportedly learn more, create more, accomplish more in that space. Folks who never leave their comfort zone short-change themselves, experts say. They don’t develop flexibility muscles to cope with inevitable changes and challenges — positive or negative — from new job opportunities or a chance to travel the world to job loss or the death of a loved one.
Leaving a comfort zone is both daunting and exciting, but people need to venture out to grow, says Jordan Johnson, a marriage and family therapist in Cottonwood Heights. “Interesting research shows that fear and excitement trigger the same chemical response. It’s just our own perceptions of the experience that differ.”
In the zone
Brené Brown, author of “The Gifts of Imperfection” and a social work researcher from the University of Houston, has described a comfort zone as “where our uncertainty, scarcity and vulnerability are minimized — where we believe we’ll have access to enough love, food, talent, time, admiration. Where we feel we have some control.”
Perhaps you aren’t terribly challenged at work, but perform consistently because you know your job. Or you’ve figured how to keep your home life humming along, stress-free.
Chances are, though, if you’re in your comfort zone at work, you’re not a star performer. And if something unusual happens at home, everything can be thrown off-kilter for those who aren’t comfortable with the unexpected or with change.
The Institute for Risk Intelligence has studied “risk inclination,” which founder and president Jim McCormick says dictates how willingly one leaves comfort zones. As people get older, that inclination shrinks, with one notable exception: Women become more “risk-inclined” in middle age, about the time they’ve wrapped up child-rearing obligations. "The result is new or second careers, new pursuits, adventures, exploration and experimentation.”
He notes that people who try skydiving often make their first jump during a milestone — “birthday 30, 40, 50, etc., getting married, getting divorced, becoming empty-nesters or changing jobs.”
Parents hope their children will be willing to take chances and try new things. It may be even more crucial for adults. The problem with just staying in a comfort zone, says therapist Johnson, is it gets too comfortable and people stop trying to improve their situation or themselves. When life throws a curveball — and it will — it can create chaos for those who lack resilience to cope.
He saw the ennui in his own life, so a year ago Johnson left a great job in his native Washington, D.C., area, leaving close friends and family support, and moved his practice out West amid mostly strangers.
“I was not progressing in life,” says Johnson, 32. The “major risk” of starting fresh was frightening, but gave him a needed jump start.
A dab of fear
“When you want to grow, do something that scares you,” urges Kristen Ulmer, former extreme skier and author of “The Art of Fear.” "You don’t have to take suction cups up the side of a building. But taking risks is ultimately what proves to be greatest for learning and growing.”
Chad Elliott was home-schooled in a small town and spent lots of time alone. He grew up "socially anxious." Eventually, he decided to deal with his fears. He went skydiving. He taught ballroom dancing. He started doing improvisation and now teaches it at Seattle Improv Classes.
“Each time I did one of these, I gained useful experience and my confidence became stronger,” he says. Nothing was as bad as he feared, but he knows people let dreams slip away because they’re afraid of looking stupid or making mistakes. His advice? “When you think you can’t do it, you have to. Otherwise you’re a prisoner of your past.”
Ramani Durvasula, a professor of psychology at California State University, says leaving a comfort zone offers many benefits. It can “build efficacy, generate courage and help people abandon self-doubt and trust themselves a little more.”
Trying new things is especially important as older adults move toward life-changing milestones, such as children leaving home, retirement, outliving a spouse, frailty or loss of independence.
One of the most famous studies on Alzheimer’s disease is relevant to pushing out of comfort zones. David Snowdon wrote a book about the so-called Nun Study, a longitudinal look at aging nuns. “Aging with Grace” shows those who continued to learn new things and venture out into their old age were far less likely to develop dementia than nuns who lived more sheltered lives.
“It is essential you leave your comfort zone as you get older,” warns Dr. Meredith Sagan, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist in Los Angeles. “A flexible mind creates a flexible and healthy body. If you let your mind get rigid by over-staying a comfort zone, your body will get rigid," which leads to deterioration and even death. You can avoid it, she says, by embracing flexibility in your thinking, your routine and your body.
Older people have established habits and coping strategies during their lives that they may need to abandon or change because those practices don’t fit twilight-year challenges, says certified counselor and life/relationship coach Jonathan Bennett of Columbus, Ohio.
“To live life to the fullest and handle the struggles of getting older, they will have to successfully adapt to new challenges, like the death of a spouse or the loss of mobility.” Plus, “as you get older, you’re running out of time to pursue your goals and dreams. You can’t wait around any longer for ‘later.’ If you have unfulfilled dreams, you’d better step out of your comfort zone before time runs out,” says Bennett, who runs The Popular Man website and business, coaching men on relationship and work success.
Empty-nesters are particularly prone to struggle, says Johnson. "They are going through major transitions and trying to figure out where their relationship falls. Married with kids, they know their roles, then changes occur and they look at each other and ask, ‘Do we want to make something new or keep doing what we’re doing?’ Some can’t deal with the discomfort.”
It's important to try. And there's always some benefit.
“I often tell my clients that if you do step out of the zone and it doesn’t work out, you will always have the comfort of knowing what the other path felt like — and nothing feels worse than not knowing the path less taken. More often than not — no matter how it turns out — taking that different path teaches you something about you. And that is always a win,” Durvasula says.
Leaving a comfort zone should not be like selling a house, to which you can never return.
Child development and other specialists often talk about attachment theory, which is the idea that children who feel secure and loved are more comfortable leaving a parent's side and exploring, says Johnson.
Comfort zones provide a base from which to explore and grow, too. When people don’t have a sense of mastery in some arena, they feel out of control, says Johnson. Being off-balance sometimes sparks a midlife crises. “I think it’s important to have something that anchors you."
Anchor, though, is not a synonym for imprison and it’s not supposed to make one lazy. “There’s no time like the present. But pace yourself," says Johnson, who believes the more people venture, the easier change and challenge will be.
People who are anxious particularly struggle. But leaving one's comfort zone can be episodic. Durvasula suggests starting small.
Rafael Hope says stringing enough "microsteps" together will build momentum. “Growth only occurs in a state of discomfort,” asserts Hope, who writes the Amen V Amen Jewish lifestyle blog.
He offers three suggestions:
• Order a beverage and request a discount for no reason. The goal isn’t to save money, but to force yourself into harmless discomfort.
• Chat with someone of the opposite sex at a grocery store, because studies show people are more afraid to interact with opposite-sex people.
• He likes CNN’s Mel Robbins' technique to stop procrastinating. “Every time you’re about to do something uncomfortable,” he says, “count backwards from five and physically move towards your goal.”
Bennett tells clients that enlisting a friend can provide “moral support, motivation and accountability” needed to break out of a comfort zone.
Keep goals specific, not vague: “I need a job that gives me more flexibility to see my grandkids” is better than “my job stresses me out,” says Bennett.
Sometimes benefits are not what you expect and wouldn't happen if you didn't take a risk. After she divorced, Cynthia Sikkema, 48, of Boise, took a job she didn’t want, doing something she abhorred: sales. "Nine months later, I was offered my dream job for a client I would not have met otherwise. That has happened over and over again when I went ahead and tried something even if it was painful or awkward. I met my husband on my 17th blind date and he’s amazing. That’s enough proof good things can happen if you push yourself.”
Some people go all in when they opt for something new. Larchmont, New York, attorney Robert Herbst, 59, wants to tackle America’s obesity rate. He still practices law, but he’s now a personal trainer, 18-time world champion and 32-time national champion powerlifter, has organized tsunami relief in Sri Lanka, and supervised drug testing at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Working at the games was “so far out of a normal attorney’s comfort zone that I was actually in a new comfort zone,” he says.
In a blog for Psychology Today titled “Happiness Is Risky Business,” A.J. Adams, a resilience coach, said to expect and prepare for failure. She also suggested knowing how much risk one can stand. The amount grows with practice.
That happened for Linda Ruescher, 65, of Tampa, Florida. She’s survived a tumultuous childhood, chronic illness, broken relationships and times of poverty. She counter-punched by learning new skills, from public speaking to podcasting and started an encore career.
“I never asked why. I only asked what’s next. No matter how impossible the situation, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. If something went wrong, I would find a way to be thankful for something.”
As life changes, comfort zones can vanish, she warns. She is now an accomplished musician, teacher, public speaker and the author of several books, including “The No Nonsense Support Group Guide.”
The more she stretches, the more ideas she has for new ventures, she says.
That is also true for beekeeper, teacher’s aide and congressional assistant Lukens, who worked for a time for U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico.
Does the fact that she tries new things banish all her anxiety?
Hardly, she says. “I am still intimidated by things. But if I want to do something, instead of talking about it, I can figure out how to do it. And I do feel like I gain. There are so many more opportunities if I am willing to pull the trigger instead of talking about ‘that would be fun to do some day.’”
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