About your Comfort Zone...
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
A few days ago, I cycled a distance over two-hundred kilometres for the first time. And while it sure could be interesting to talk about the route I chose, and how I managed my nutrition and so on, for this blog I would like to get at another point. Because a few days earlier I went kayaking with some friends, the weather being rainy and temperatures barely above freezing. And a few days before that I went on a hike that included a little, free-climbing section, uphill and downhill.
Now, no matter who you are it is very likely that neither cycling until you can barely even ascend a flight of stairs, nor having your hands frozen off by the ice-cold water of a flooded river, nor hanging onto some small brittle stones with a deadly drop right below you, is somewhat close to your idea of fun. And I am of a similar opinion. So, there is one question that should be at the forefront of everybody’s mind right now: Why do I keep doing these things?
The comfort zone is a nice place, but nothing ever grows there:
I am sure you frowned a little bit at this title. This one sentence so comically overused by all kinds of people. Whether it is that type of motivational speaker trying to lure you into his MLM. That one relative of yours that just can not stop sharing inspiring posts on Facebook. Or indeed that one classmate that somehow seems to dedicate all his life to sports and uses any and all opportunities to talk to you about his achievements. (Bonus points if you can figure out which of those categories I belong into.)
And despite this one sentence being overused, to the point it drags on like a chewing gum past the prime of its life, it still carries a nugget of truth. A tiny little spec of gold overlooked by almost everybody spurting this sentence at every possible opportunity.
So, let me ask you a question: What is growing if you leave your comfort zone? Is it you as a person? Your skills and abilities? Or is it something completely different? I, of course, have a theory. But I will not reveal it just now. Instead, I would like to return to my two-hundred-kilometre road ride and retell you the story in brief. And maybe, by some attentive reading, you will be able to guess what I am getting at prior to me finishing this tale.
I was very unsure if I could reach my goal:
And by very unsure I mean very unsure. I had planned my route for this ride to an unbelievably detailed level. I spent tow days obsessing over route options on Komoot, had developed a nutritional plan, down to what I would eat at each minute and was in the clear about all the public water fountains I could use to refill my bottles. I had even written down some small notes on pacing myself. This level of planning I usually do not even apply to my guided tours, that already have a way higher standard of preparation than my private adventures.
Point is that despite this level of planning, I did not know if I could endure the whole distance. And during the entire tour, my confidence in this goal continuously eroded. I had problems with my left knee, pretty much from the start. I knew I had to throw all my pacing plans out the window, once my accompanying friend abandoned the attempt (also due to knee problems) after fifty kilometres and I would be stuck without someone drafting me for three-thirds of the tour. I knew I had misjudged my timing when I was halfway through the tour and realized that I would never get home before darkness hit. My nutritional plan was out the window after two thirds when I had to stop at a supermarket to get something other than power bars and gels. Right up to the last ascend of the tour, I was unsure if I had enough energy left to even climb it. And right up to the end I was waiting to have a run-in with the police because I was cycling in the dusk without lights. (please do not be dumb like me, just take some lights with you if you go on an extended tour). The first time I believed I would be able to complete this tour, was less than ten kilometres away from completing it.
And to ride always with that nagging thought of “What if I do not make it” in the back of your head is not that nice of an experience. Especially if your body is hurting like hell, you suffer from constant hunger and you being freezing cold and overheated at the same time.
To sum it up, during this ride, I was probably as far away from my comfort zone, as you can get without actually endangering your life. So, what has grown throughout this tour? My endurance? – Probably a little bit. My skills on the bike? – They should be about the same. Did I experience growth as a person? – Maybe a tiny little bit, but probably not.
But now I would like to ask myself a question and immediately answer it: Would I need the same level of preparation, would I deal with the same amount of anxiety the next time I attempt such a distance? Well, the answer is a clear no, but why? Well, of course, because one thing has grown: My Comfort Zone.
By leaving our comfort zone, we expand it:
Now here is my piece of wisdom on the entire thing: What we are primarily growing by leaving our comfort zone is our comfort zone. And if that sounds really stupid, and counterproductive to what these motivational speakers and inspirational posters are trying to make you believe, that is probably because it somewhat is. After all, you are supposed to earn a fortune, met a girl, by a house and start a family, all by doing things that make you uncomfortable (Which is code for joining some company with questionable business practices)
Well let me phrase it like this: Never in my life, I have met a single person working as a guide which stated that his/her tours are the best while he/she him/herself is uncomfortable. And in fact, let me just expand that to everybody working in a guest service position. When you are uncomfortable, you tend to get nervous, which in turn can influence your judgement, leading to more rash decisions. Your feelings can transfer to other people around you, further reducing the level of comfort for everybody, which can all end up in a negative feedback loop. However, the good thing is that this feedback-loop is stopped easily. By returning to a place of more comfort. By going with your gut.
But as just demonstrated by my own, entirely anecdotal, and subjective evidence, we can expand our comfort zone by carefully probing its borders. And I mean carefully. You should be aware that leaving your comfort zone is, for your brain at least, still a negative experience. Only it gets counteracted by the level of dopamine released whenever you successfully complete your task. And because we are all deadly addicted to dopamine, our brain now remembers all those hardships and pains we experienced during our mission as just another way to get some. This effectively tricks the brain into wanting to repeat the experience, even if it was unpleasant. However, if the experience is to negative, or indeed the entire project a failure the dopamine will not be released, your brain will not be tricked into believing it had a positive experience and in turn try and avoid this behaviour in the future. Which, of course, is the worst-case scenario if you want to condition yourself to do some obviously unpleasant tasks.
So, as we are standing on gods green earth, we should not aim for the moon, but rather the second floor of a nearby building. As this is most likely to result in a positive experience, in turn, actually increasing our comfort zone. And as established prior, we perform the best while inside our comfort zone. And the larger that window of performance, the better for us?
The dangers of comfort:
Now it is crucial that we start to differentiate between comfort and complacency. Complacency happens, when you are in such a comfortable spot that you can half-ass everything, which in turn can lead to decreased performance. Also, complacency is much more challenging to deal with from a psychological standpoint. If something is too uncomfortable for you, stopping is easy. But the opposite is not the case, as anybody who ever had to leave a warm bed on a cold morning can tell you. Or anybody who tried to stop themselves in vain from binging shows on Netflix. Or anybody who has ever tried to get out a social engagement with some hasty excuses, simply to sit at home and do nothing. Or anybody who reopens his social media app of choice just seconds after closing it.
If these examples sound familiar, that is probably because they are. And the reason they are so familiar is apparent. Because, all these, and many other similar activities, offer easy short-term satisfaction without any kind of effort. But these activities pose a problem: Because while we are complacent, our comfort zone does not expand. In fact, the opposite occurs. Because just as the mice in the maze can unlearn its behaviours if they are no longer rewarded, so can we. And more and more of the outside world turns into a hostile and uncomfortable place, as our own tolerance to such experiences shrinks every time we opt to choose the complacent, accessible way.
And it gets worse. Upon experiencing great upsets, it is a human reflex to search out our complacent zone. That place we feel safest at. That place we keep getting our dopamine with the least amount of effort. And that behaviour turns bad to worse. Because every time we respond in that manner to an incident, we further condition our brain towards the success of that flight-response. The outer edges of what we call comfort zone start to erode, resulting in the same response occurring much quicker. And now we are caught in a negative feedback-loop all over again.
But because our brain gets its dopamine with every reinforcement of this feedback-loop, you can only stop it by great efforts. By actions which produce discomfort. By going against your gut feeling.
But what happens, when the world has changed so fundamentally that your complacent zone is no longer available as a safe retreat? When the hammer of history strikes with such a force that even your comfort zone is no longer open to access? Well, in short, there are two possibilities.
What this is all about:
The first option is surprisingly simple, albeit not easy in execution. It demands a concentrated effort on your part and is mostly without any direct reward except for the knowledge of a distant goal you might or might not even reach one day. You can start to slowly expand the outer edge of your comfort zone, by careful trials, maybe even in areas you have never attempted before. You can work to improve yourself until you reach a state of mind that lets you stay at ease with the new status quo. This will help you deal with the current state of affairs but also prepare you for the future. As we established earlier, your brain can be conditioned very easy to help you perform unpleasant tasks. And this, in turn, will strengthen your ability to cope the next time an event of this magnitude will occur. And there will be the next time.
There is a different option, of course. Although I personally cannot recommend it. You can revert to your complacency zone, choosing to further and further descent into your little burrow, like the animal in one of Kafka’s short stories. And if your complacency zone is completely and utterly unavailable due to the state of our world? Well, the brain is a gullible machine, and if you just tell yourself that all this is not the reality for long enough, you will eventually believe it as if were the truth. And by the magic of the chemicals in your brain, you will feel great while unlearning how to deal with an ever faster changing world. And the best thing about all this is that you are even able to get your fix of dopamine. Just go to the right Facebook-Group and share a post about how Bill Gates is coming to vaccinate us all with microchips and watch the likes coming in. As I said, it is the much more comfortable option, but I do not recommend it.
Who is this for?
This piece is not intended to convince anybody from the other side. It is simply not up to the task. Being stuck in your own, self-constructed, complacency zone is a dark place to be. In its most extreme version, it is a form of mental self-abuse. It is a self-enforcing cycle of negativity that paints the world in an ever darker light. Each time the construct is damaged by the cold reality, its underlying lies need strengthening in an ever-ongoing fight to keep ones perceived last safe place intact. Believe me when I tell you I know how it feels to fall down the rabbit hole.
To escape this cycle, once it has been ongoing for too long, on one’s own merit is close to impossible and requires a serious concentrated effort for months at a time. And even to those aware of their position, it might not be possible without help. To escape the rabbit hole means to fight against the essential protective functions of your brain. If you are stuck in the loop and are looking for a way out, I can only recommend you seek out a professional therapist.
This piece is intended for all those currently at the entrance to the burrow. While it might look inviting, safe and shielded from the craze of the outside world, its safety is an illusion, and its paths lead only downhill. Turn around now and face the world head-on, adapt yourself and in good time you will be able to rediscover the light of the surface. It might be that you need to search a long time for it and for sure things will get worse before they get better, but things will get better. Go out now and work on increasing your comfort zone. Because while many things and abilities do indeed grow inside of the comfort zone, one crucial ability does not: Your ability to adapt to change.
And if you think about it, the single most profound reason for our continued experience as a species is our incredible ability to adapt quickly to the ever-changing conditions of a cold and uncaring universe. And if nothing else this gives me hope for the future.