The other day, Neko and I went for a walk by the (manmade) lake near our house. When we got to the point where the path was about to veer away from the lake, I asked her if she’d like to continue on the path and around the hill, or climb the hill and walk back along the top. She said she’d rather climb the hill but when I said, “Okay, we’ll go a bit further on the path and when it turns, we’ll go up the hill,” she gestured to the steep bank to our left and responded, “No, let’s climb the hill right here. It’s harder.”
She wanted to take the harder way because it would be hard work and therefore would be “better for us” in the long run. I told her it’s obvious that she’s my kid.
“Do you know what a comfort zone is?” I asked her.
“Not really… sort of,” she said.
I explained: “It’s basically all the things you’re comfortable doing. Things you do often or that you’ve done and you know aren’t hard for you and would do again.”
Your comfort zone does NOT include things that scare you or make you uncomfortable, unless you can do those things with relative ease despite your discomfort. For instance, if public speaking makes you nervous but you can do it when needed without a level of stress that disturbs your daily existence, then I’d say it’s within your comfort zone — you could do it if someone called you up and asked you to.
What I wanted to explain to Neko is a lesson they taught me on my Outward Bound mountaineering trip that really stuck with me: When you do things that scare you or make you uncomfortable, you stretch your comfort zone to include those things, and now your comfort zone is larger. By regularly doing things that scare you or make you uncomfortable, you can make your comfort zone very large, which theoretically means that your life is generally more fulfilling, a little easier and less stressful (because you’re doing the hard things on your own terms and rendering them less difficult for the future), and hopefully a little happier.
In contrast, if you never do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, then your comfort zone, and in effect your world, stays very small. You don’t have many options from day to day — you’ll talk to the same people, do the same things, eat the same food, read the same types of books and watch the same types of movies. You likely won’t travel or if you do, it will be to safe destinations that don’t offer much in the way of authentic experience.
When I searched online for illustrations of the “comfort zone,” I found a lot of memes that suggest that no exciting changes, no magic, nothing truly amazing ever happens within your comfort zone. That is not what I’m saying and I categorically disagree. Your comfort zone includes your home, family, hobbies and the things you love including music, culture, art and so on. These things do make us happy and fulfill us. However, it can be limiting to never stretch your comfort zone. If an opportunity or interest comes up that intrigues us or could lead to an exciting new direction, but we are so used to staying in our comfort zone that we aren’t willing to step out on that ledge and try the new thing, then we are being limited from something that could potentially bring us great joy. Appreciate your comfort zone (it’s a good place to retreat to when mental health issues rear their heads), but push its boundaries when possible.
So what I explained to Neko is that by doing the hard things, the scary things, we make our comfort zone larger. Maybe you used to hate doing things alone, and now you can happily go to dinner or a movie all by yourself and really enjoy your own company. Maybe the thought of taking a flight to another continent used to really scare you, but after backpacking alone for a while, you’ve found that you would feel equally at home in a tent in the outback or a hostel in Paris, and the thought of taking a train across China isn’t daunting at all.
Do something today to expand your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be as big as travelling the world, or even giving a speech or going to dinner alone. It could be trying a type of cheese that you’ve never even heard of before, or talking to a stranger on the bus, or reading an article that features a viewpoint that makes you feel uncomfortable and actually letting your mind give that perspective a chance.
When your comfort zone expands, your world expands. By being uncomfortable for a short time, you can be more comfortable in general for the rest of your life, and watch your options for having fun and feeling good increase greatly. I dare you to test it this week! (And then after you test it you should comment below and let me know how it went.)