We humans tend to be creatures of comfort. Familiarity and order gives us a sense of security and we feel most at ease when there is minimal stress or uncertainty in our environment. This is the psychological definition of our comfort zone and we all quite like to hang out there.
The problem is that if we never step outside of that zone and open ourselves to risks and uncertainty, we miss important opportunities to learn and grow.
Stretching yourself to achieve new goals requires you to be willing to get a little bit uncomfortable. A healthy level of stress that pushes you forward in a positive way is called ‘optimal stress’. Too much novelty or challenge can be overwhelming and have a negative effect so it’s important to not compare yourself to others when deciding what is going to push you slightly out of your comfort zone. One of the benefits of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone is that gradually that zone will expand so that you’re more comfortable with new experiences.
As children, we are constantly learning new things and tend to be more open to taking risks. As we get older, we prefer to stick with what we know and our comfort zone will shrink as we get older if we don’t keep pushing those boundaries. Fear of failure or of being embarrassed or feeling incompetent can be paralysing but the only way to achieve what you’re really capable of is to learn to tolerate some of that discomfort and not let it get in the way of what’s most important to you.
If you’re a person who tends to stay inside your comfort zone, here are some ways you might challenge yourself to get a little bold and push those boundaries outward:
Do something different.
Look at your own life and the things you do routinely and out of habit and resolve to shake things up a bit. It could be anything from trying a new food, going to a different restaurant or driving a different way to work. If you want to push yourself further, learning a language, applying for a new job, joining a club or volunteering for an organisation are great ways to challenge yourself to try something new. Not only do novel experiences make you happy but they might even improve your learning and memory.
Set more challenging goals\
We’re motivated to work harder towards goals when they push us a little beyond what we think we’re capable of. Of course, there’s something to be said for making goals realistic (that’s the R in S.M.A.R.T. goals!) but all too often we tend to sell ourselves short or put limits on what we think we’re capable of. Whatever you think you’d like to work towards, just ask yourself whether you might be able to increase it a little. Trust your gut on this one. It should feel a little bit exciting and slightly anxiety provoking but not ridiculous or impossible.
Take small steps
Remember that going too far outside of your comfort zone can create an unhealthy level of stress and actually hinder your opportunity for growth or performance, so start small. If you want to develop more assertiveness, start by speaking up with your partner or your kids before you tackle that difficult conversation with your boss (for example). If you want to be more social, start by smiling and making eye contact before you venture into striking up a conversation with a stranger. Take it slowly but keep pushing yourself to get a little uncomfortable.
The most important thing to remember is that what is challenging for you will be very different to anyone else so let go of the tendency to compare to anyone else when setting yourself the challenge to get out of your comfort zone.
And after you’ve challenged yourself, give yourself a high five and come back to your comfort zone where you can process your experience before you pluck up the courage to venture out again.