Three ways to expand your comfort zone, safely
Many of us are experiencing mixed emotions as lockdown eases and we are encouraged to return to a ‘more normal life’. On one hand, we may feel a sense of relief that the Government deems is safe enough for us to go out more and socialise, and we might feel energised by the prospect of going back to work.
On the other hand, some of us are feeling daunted by the prospect of returning to a more socially integrated lifestyle, and testing ourselves ‘out there’ again. Things that once seemed quite routine, like taking the kids to school, going to the office, or going to the pub, may now seem like a big deal. I’m encountering this issue more and more in my coaching work and I call it the ‘Contracted Comfort Zone’. One client summed it up nicely when she said ‘My comfort zone has basically shrunk from the size of a hot-air balloon to the size of a peanut, in the space of three months’.
The good news is that this is reversible. It just takes a bit of time and effort. Like a new pair of shoes, your comfort zone needs a good old stretch to get it back to where it serves you best.
Stepping out of your comfort zone versus growing it
We hear a lot about stepping outside our comfort zones in order to grow. Roy T Bennett famously said, "Change begins at the end of your comfort zone". And under normal circumstances, I would agree with this. But, for now, at least, things are different. We face significantly higher risks while going about our everyday lives. And our comfort zones may have shrunk accordingly, firstly because our basic survival instincts have kicked in, encouraging many of us to hunker down and wait for the danger to pass. And secondly, because we have become accustomed to a less adventurous life.
Change begins at the end of your comfort zone
- Roy T Bennett.
Writer and professor John A. Shedd famously said, "A ship in a harbour is safe, but that’s not what a ship is built for". Again, under normal circumstances, I would agree with this. But who would allow their ship to set sail in the midst of a hurricane?
After months of lockdown, simply stepping out of our comfort zone because restrictions are easing may be frightening and difficult for many people, especially when there are still so many risks and unknowns.
I view the next step for people with Contracted Comfort Zones as ‘growing and stretching’ their comfort zones safely, rather than simply stepping outside of them.
The long-term consequences of a Contracted Comfort Zone
As a short-term strategy, the Contracted Comfort Zone makes a lot of sense. It’s conducive to surviving and sticking to the new rules. So why do we even need to grow our comfort zones at all? Why can’t we just stay as we are, safe and comfortable in our bubbles?
Because humans are wired to learn and solve problems. If we stop learning and solving problems, we stop growing, and if we stop growing, we lose our resilience in the face of new problems, and we stop achieving things. And if we stop achieving things, we lose the recognition we need from others and we see our self-worth and mental well-being start to deteriorate.
Three things you can do to grow your comfort zone, safely
So, what can you do to expand your comfort zone on your own terms, without taking risks you’re not comfortable with? Here are three areas of focus that I find helpful:
1. Own your risks
As businesses start to re-open, they are required to pull together a COVID-19 risk assessment. This sets out the main risks they face in relation to coronavirus, and what actions they will take to reduce and manage these risks.
If you are wrestling with a Contracted Comfort Zone, you could create your own, simplified version of this for your personal life. Try writing down the risks that are holding you back. These are the scenarios and worries that keep you awake at night or stop you from doing the things you want to do. These might be COVID-related or they might be concerns about your own abilities, relationships or your career prospects.
Write them down, with a rating out of 10 for how scary they are to you. Next to each one, write down at least three things you will do personally to manage that risk and make it feel smaller. Now imagine that you have completed those actions. Review the ‘scariness score’ to see how far this has decreased now that you have identified the actions to bring the risk under your control.
Life is inherently risky, and progress only happens when we take some form of risk. Every time we use the internet we run the risk of catching a virus of a different type, even with the best anti-virus software in place. But can you imagine trying to run your life without using the internet? Aiming to eliminate all risk would be both unrealistic and counter-productive. But actively identifying and managing our risks can be very empowering and can enable us to grow our comfort zones, with a higher degree of safety.
2. Reset your boundaries
Boundaries are there to create a respectful space between you and other people. They represent the red line that you do not want others to cross. They protect your physical space, your right to your own views, your right to do your job well, your right to a work-life balance and potentially your health.
Many people have trouble defining their boundaries. If they aren’t clear about their own boundaries, then they can’t defend them or communicate them to others. And if they can’t communicate their boundaries, they can’t reasonably expect others to respect these. I see many examples of people feeling hurt, offended, angry or conflicted by others trampling over boundaries that were simply not signposted in any way. Sometimes, the first moment a person becomes aware they have crossed a boundary line is when the other person goes quiet, bursts into tears or flies off the handle.
Now could be a really good time to take a step back and work out where your boundaries lie, and which boundaries you have been allowing others to breach. Only you can decide where the line is drawn. Once you’re clear on this, communicating and defending your boundaries can be a truly liberating experience. It can reduce the amount of time you spend dwelling on, and being held back by, other people’s thoughts and behaviour, freeing you up to spend your mental energy on learning, growing and moving forward instead.
3. Create healthy stretch
When was the last time you really challenged yourself? Or tried something new? If you can’t remember, you could be compromising your personal resilience.
Personal change and growth happen in what is known as the ‘Stretch Zone’, which lies between boredom (where we have an insufficient challenge to keep us stimulated) and the Panic Zone, where we are under too much pressure and stress to perform well. We need to create healthy stretch to practise our problem-solving skills, build resilience to the inevitable challenges that life will throw at us in the future, and ultimately to achieve our full potential.
You can start at home on a daily basis. It’s all about setting micro-challenges... as you challenge yourself more and more, you’ll eventually reach a point where not much bothers you.
- Matt Prior.
You can expand your comfort zone and build resilience by stretching yourself to learn new skills, taking on new challenges in different parts of your life, or by joining new communities of people who are pushing themselves in directions and ways you value.
Writing for Red Bull, adventurer Matt Prior talks about the importance of starting small and starting today. "You can start at home on a daily basis. It’s all about setting micro-challenges... as you challenge yourself more and more, you’ll eventually reach a point where not much bothers you".
Achieve your potential
Your comfort zone has its uses, especially in a global pandemic. But unless you actively stretch it, it may hold you back from achieving your potential. So take control of your risks rather than worrying about them, set out your boundaries for all to see, and start to challenge yourself in small ways that develop your personal resilience and empower you to handle beautifully whatever life has in store.