Brene Brown describes the phrase “comfort zone” as “where our uncertainty, scarcity, and vulnerability are minimized-where we believe we will have access to enough love, food, talent, time, admiration.  Where we feel we have some control.” When described like that, it is no wonder that we don’t like to leave this special place called the “comfort zone”.  

Why would we intentionally challenge ourselves to move beyond where we feel we are safe and loved?  

Lately I’ve been feeling challenged by a few things and my anxiety is telling me to stay clear of anything new.  I have pages full of reasons (excuses) why I shouldn’t try these new things and if I thought I was a good procrastinator before, I have now graduated to an Olympic gold medal level.

If I’m honest with myself, the pages full of excuses aren’t really the reasons I am resisting the new challenges.  

I am afraid.

Afraid of what?  Well let’s just go down the list; failure, embarrassing myself, did I mention failure?

As I’ve been spending time with these fears this week, I have been impressed with myself and the incredible power of fear.  I feel paralyzed in my fear. It is difficult to imagine getting past it and so instead of trying to understand it, I have embraced it.  Old tried and true distractions have come back with a vengeance and I am looking for everything and anything to take my attention elsewhere.  (Personally if you ever see me cleaning you know I am avoiding something big.)

The one thing I do know for sure is that I am not the only one that feels this way.  There wouldn’t even be a phrase “comfort zone”, if we all didn’t know how it feels to be out of one!

When I re-read Brene Brown’s definition a few important words ring true to me.

Safety and vulnerability 

I’ve talked about change being hard before and what I like about this definition of a comfort zone is that it helps us understand why change can be so difficult.  On the surface we may have more practical fears about whatever change or challenge we are attempting and we can convince ourselves and others that these reasons (excuses-pages full in my case!) are justified and should be seriously considered before we make a move. 

But if we think about it a bit more, we can begin to realize that what we are actually reacting to is a common and understandable response to not feeling safe!  And if I’m not safe, then it won’t feel like a good time to increase my vulnerability.

As we step closer to our challenge and the fear increases, so does the sense of being vulnerable.  We could be opening ourselves up to increased criticism, insults, and have I mentioned how I feel about failure?  

Seeking safety is what we do and it is a good thing because it can help us to surround ourselves with people who are supportive of our dreams and goals.  It can make us aware of people and situations that aren’t good for us and provide us with important information as to what is a good decision for our future.  

However, seeking safety can also be a dream killer.  I don’t know anyone that didn’t have to tolerate a certain about of vulnerability when they began to embrace a new challenge.  Who feels safe when they don’t know if things are going to work out? But most importantly, how do I know when my fear is useful and when it is just holding me back?

It is simple actually.  

And that brings me to the second point in the Brene Brown quote.

Control

Oh you know that word right?  I know we can all relate to that uneasy feeling we get as we sense our ability to control our situation slipping away.  As natural as it is to feel uncomfortable when we don’t think we are in control, if this is our primary reason for holding back from the next challenge then we need to do some work.

Control is a powerful thing.  Think of a time when you felt perfectly in control of a situation, relationship, or event.  There is a great comfort in the sense that you “got this”, and no matter what happens, you can manage.  

Unfortunately this is usually a lie.   

Control is generally a lie we tell ourselves so that we can tolerate the unknown.  Think about it. What do we really control?  

Often times people will express being at the airport as a stressful and frustrating situation.  There is no control over flight delays, security lines and weather problems. We find ourselves frustrated, maybe even angry over missed connections, meetings or special events all due to our lack of control.  I knew someone who told me the only way they could tolerate waiting at an airport was to make lists. He made lists of goals and then sublists of how to accomplish these goals. (It doesn’t take a psychologist to see the urge to control here!).

So we seek control wherever we can get it and fool ourselves most of the time when we think we have it.  It makes us feel better, it makes us feel comfortable.

So back to our comfort zone and how we know when we need to challenge it.  The answer is we must ask ourselves if we are holding back out of fear. Is it the sense of our lack of control that stops us in our tracks?  Am I cleaning my bathroom because I am happy right now or is a spotless toilet giving me a sense of control and a way to avoid the fear of change? (Obviously insert your own special method of avoidance here!) 

Everyone must answer this for themselves.  And after an honest review we can allow ourselves to use our “comfort zone” as a place to rest, as a place to re-energize and fuel up for whatever life brings our way.  But then when we are inspired, we must recognize when it is time to expand our comfort zone to allow for change.

What challenges your comfort zone today?

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