I like my comfort zone. A lot.
I don’t want to break out of it or stretch it or push myself out of it. Mostly I’d like to build a blanket fort in my comfort zone and never leave. But I know that isn’t reasonable. As an adult with responsibilities, there are times when I have to step outside my comfort zone.
My approach to these times used to involve a lot of metaphorical pushing and breaking and stretching. I would power through, often with an angry determination to just get it over with. This made hard things harder, but I didn’t realize that I had a choice.
Recently–and entirely accidentally–The Scientist showed me that there’s a better way to go about getting out my comfort zone. After doing some post-game analysis of why what we did worked, here’s what I’ve come up as a framework for helping someone step out of their comfort zone in a gentle, supportive way:
1. An invitation, not a push: As an adult, there aren’t many situations where I can truly be pushed out of my comfort zone but just the thought of someone trying to do this makes me panicky and resistant. I react much better to being invited to step out of my comfort zone. An invitation is something I can refuse while a push is something I’ll instinctively fight against.
What does an invitation look like? First, it has to be clear that the choice is mine to make. No ultimatums or guilt or manipulation. Second, I need facts. How will getting outside my comfort zone benefit me and/or others? I may already know, but my resistance to change will override logic. Being reminded in a factual way is helpful.
When I say being invited to step outside my comfort zone, I don’t always mean invited by someone else. I can invite myself. I can give myself a choice. I can gather the facts and make a convincing case to persuade myself. As so often happens, this sounds so simple when I write it here, but I’d never explicitly thought about it in this way before.
2. Avoid the Danger Zone: I used to think I had two zones: the comfort zone, where I’m chilling in my blanket fort, and the danger zone, where I’m completely out of my element. Surprisingly (probably only to me), it turns out there is an area between the comfort zone and the danger zone. Let’s call it the expansion zone.
Things in the expansion zone are hard but doable. I wouldn’t want to live there, but I can visit occasionally. It’s where growth occurs and I’m willing to take some controlled risks to expand myself.
The thing is, sometimes the expansion zone and the danger zone look alike to me. It helps to have someone I trust reassure me that I’m capable of handling a situation or activity. And it’s important that they can make a truthful assessment. Simply saying I can do something isn’t helpful. In fact, it could be harmful because I might overestimate what I’m capable of and fail badly.
Failure in the expansion zone is scary. It opens a door to the danger zone, which is a lot like opening the door on an airplane at 30,000 feet.
3. Support is critical: A successful trip into the expansion zone can result in growth, but the growth isn’t instant. The act of stepping out of the comfort zone doesn’t automatically mean that I can survive out there. I need some help. This was a huge revelation to me. In the past, I thought I had to be strong and tough everything out on my own because I’m an adult. Not true!
Support makes growth possible. It can be practical support, like someone to help with choosing the right outfit, organizing a schedule, finding/buying supplies, providing transportation, or being available to answer questions. Of course, moral support helps too. It’s rewarding to be told you’re doing great when you make an effort to change or expand yourself. Sometimes what I need most in a difficult situation is an occasional gentle reminder of why I decided to step outside my comfort zone.
It’s important to think and talk about supports in advance. What does the person taking the risk need? What can the support person provide? Supports should be meaningful to be effective.
They should also be ongoing. I need a lot of support in the lead-up to stepping out of my comfort zone. Once I’m in the expansion zone, my need for support lessens because I’m so focused on doing, that my brain doesn’t have time to get panicky. When I return to my comfort zone, I need support to recover. That usually means giving me some extra time alone to recharge and, later, talking about how things went.
In fact, it was part of The Scientist’s post-expansion zone support that helped me identify this framework. These days we do a lot of post-game analysis, talking about what worked for me in a difficult situation and what didn’t. This particular time, we accidentally stumbled on a process that worked really well. It worked so well, in fact, that I’m planning to use as a model for future trips into the expansion zone.