Sailing Beyond The Comfort Zone
How breaking your own rules—and fear-based habits—can change the way you see yourself.
My sister Kim is the only one in the family who would rather eat glass than get up on stage. She doesn’t sing, dance, or act, and harbors zero celebrity aspirations—save for her lifelong ambition of having Jennifer Aniston’s arms. So when she sent me a video of herself doing the cancan on stage at a theme park, I was aghast and impressed, to say the least. This was about as far outside of her comfort zone as she could get. Her explanation: “I was having such a good time at the show, and I’d had a few margaritas, which helped,” she said, “but above all, I knew my kids would get a kick out of it.” Which, of course, they did. “I didn’t just phone it in up there, either,” she told me. “I really hammed it up.”
While beach reads and poolside naps may be the sweet spot of vacation, this brief window of time also presents an opportunity to do something else: Stretch the edges of your comfort zone. With the office thousands of miles away and your defenses down, you may be more willing and able to try something you never have, and the benefits could extend way past your paid time off.
Of course, the notion of leaving your comfort zone, a place of warmth and security, is not exactly appealing—at first. But you may risk more by not stretching its outer limits.
“Comfort is overrated,” says Friedemann Schaub, MD, PhD, author of The Fear and Anxiety Solution. “Most of us are in survival mode, but we’re not thriving. Comfort is an excuse, basically. You need it when you’re a baby, but as an adult there are more important things than being comfortable.”
Are You Comfortable—Or Cramped?
There’s a tipping point for comfort that can work against the very life you want. That’s because the whole point of a comfort zone is to give you a sense of control. “The more out of control and anxious you feel about your life, the smaller that zone gets,” Schaub says, causing you to go from being snug to being stuck. This can and does have repercussions in all areas of your life: personally, professionally, socially, romantically. Because unless you’re willing to take a small risk and step outside of the familiar, you don’t stand to grow or gain.
There’s another good reason why vacation is the place to start stretching: Because with the noise of your everyday life dialed down, you can finally tune in to what it is you want—and don’t want—in your life. “We get so caught up in our day to day that we stop hearing our inner voice,” says Bethany Williams, author of Live Your Dreams: Empowering You to Live the Life You’ve Always Imagined. “It’s only when you’re away from your house, your job, your bills that you start to hear it again. This is when you might decide you’re at the wrong job or with the wrong person, and recognize what you want to change. Vacation gives you the chance to dream up a new reality.”
The very fact that you’re on vacation means that you’re already pushing at the edges of your comfort zone, simply because you left your house. “When you’ve made a decision to travel,” says Schaub, “you’ve made a decision to expand your comfort zone.” Here are a few powerful strategies for taking that brave step even further.
Stretch With Care.
While some people may take the first opportunity to launch themselves out of a plane, you don’t have to take drastic measures. The goal is to stretch your comfort zone, not obliterate it. “Listen for the playful curiosity,” says Williams. “Feel for the emotion. If you’ve never had a desire to go scuba diving, then skip it. Instead, tune into that inner whisper that tells you what’s worth trying.” Start by listening for your own curiosities, interests, and urges. Maybe scuba diving’s out, but snorkeling seems fun. Perhaps you’re a bit shy but are itching to get up and dance with everyone else. It might be just as simple as striking up a conversation with a stranger that opens up a whole new world to you.
Find Your Motivation.
The Comfort Gauge
Twelve Questions To Ask Yourself Before You Step Outside The Zone
The experience of stretching your comfort zone should be exhilarating, not excruciating. Ask yourself these questions to get clear on why something is or isn’t worth doing.
1. Whose idea was this in the first place?
2. How do I feel when I consider doing this?
3. What emotions come up?
4. What has stood in the way of me trying it before?
5. How long have I been thinking about doing this?
6. Is there someone I’m trying to impress? If so, is it worth it?
7. Who does this matter most to?
8. What am I really afraid of?
9. What will it feel like when I’m doing it?
10. How do I imagine I’ll feel afterward?
11. How might I see myself differently as a result?
12. What will I get or gain by trying?
Curiosity, playfulness, fascination—these will get you to the edge of your comfort zone, but that first leap requires that you know why you’re doing it. “Ask yourself, what are the positives here and what will I get out of it?” says Schaub. The urge to snorkel may come from the pure exhilaration of being in the water and seeing fish up close. Maybe you really do want to meet new people. Or, if you’re like my sister, you want to show your children what it means to take risks—and to not take yourself too seriously. “It’s natural to care what other people think, especially when those people matter to you,” says Schaub. Peer pressure alone shouldn’t be your motivation, nor should you ever do a terrifying thing purely to save face. But taking part to engage with and have fun with other people is always a great reason—especially if they’re people you love.
Question Your Inner Authority.
One of the dominant ideas working in favor of comfort—and against you—is the idea that you “can’t” do a thing, or that it’s not you. So when that inner voice starts to bark, hear it for what it is: fear. Don’t mistake that fear for the real you, because you’re always evolving, whereas fear stays the same. Who says you can’t flirt with someone new or sport a daring two-piece bathing suit? Who says you can’t go on an offshore excursion? No one. Challenge that habitual, knee-jerk fear, and start to see yourself as someone who does new things.
Fast Forward To The Good Part.
It’s easy to assume the worst-case scenario when attempting to step beyond the familiar. So one way to bust out of this is to imagine how you will feel after you’ve taken that risk. “Put yourself in a time machine, and think about how gratifying it will be to think about the experience you had before you’ve had it,” says Schaub. “Envision the positive outcome. Remember, your subconscious can’t distinguish between reality and fiction, so if you live it as a positive experience, the inner resistance becomes smaller.”
Once you have taken a step, tried a new activity or food, explored something new, you need to make the effects of it last. And how you do that, says Schaub, is to anchor the experience. Relive it in your mind and reflect on it—how great and capable you are, how much fun you had. Boast a little. “In so doing, you change the picture you have of yourself, from someone who is small and safe to a person who is bold and capable. And each time you become more empowered.”
Do It Again.
Clinging to comfort, says Schaub, is a habit—and one you can break. Which is why you want to make stretching that zone a practice, not a one-off. “It can happen faster than you think,” he says. “Once the mind gets a taste of how good it can feel, it wants more of it, simple as that.”
This can have long-lasting effects, if you let it. “Einstein said we only use 10 percent of our brain. I believe most of us are only living in 10 percent of our potential,” says Schaub. “Naturally, when you take more risks, life becomes more interesting and you become more interesting, too. Once you’ve come out of the comfort zone, the door is open, and things are never the same.”
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