As I settle a little further into adulthood, I am baffled more and more by the concept of comfort zones. They are a puzzle I have yet to solve.
We all have them, in the sense that they are invisible boundaries we create for ourselves and, at this point in our lives, it feels so good to exist within them. They give order to the chaos that is sometimes life. Operating within our comfort zone lets us feel secure, self-assured, relaxed, and content; happy. As if we have created this imaginary space for ourselves, and consequently the very reassuring sense that we belong in it.
Normally I wouldn’t quote Wikipedia, but the opening paragraph about comfort zones sums it up much better than I could. So it’s at least worth a skim.
“The comfort zone is a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk. A person’s personality can be described by his or her comfort zones. A comfort zone is a type of mental conditioning that causes a person to create and operate mental boundaries. Such boundaries create an unfounded sense of security. Like inertia, a person who has established a comfort zone in a particular axis of his or her life, will tend to stay within that zone without stepping outside of it. To step outside their comfort zone, a person must experiment with new and different behaviors, and then experience the new and different responses that occur within their environment.”
All this thinking about comfort zones has me questioning how they relate to, and have an effect on, you guessed it, happiness. We build these walls and make ourselves stay within them, in order to feel comfortable. It is, theoretically, where we enjoy life the most. But overtime, these imaginary lines, boundaries, walls, whatever you want to call them, end up being the exact things that make us feel bored, uninspired, frustrated, and unfulfilled; unhappy.
It’s confusing. And it’s further confounded by the fact that when the choice is voluntary, it feels startlingly exhilarating to step outside of the comfort zone. It feels good to exist within, and in many ways better to step out. How is that possible?
By voluntarily stepping out we get to make the conscious choice to take the every out of everyday. It slows time down a little, makes that moment, day, or week, different from all the rest. It makes a memory. When we put ourselves in situations where we don’t know for sure how we’re going to act, think, or feel; when we are unsure of the outcome, we’re challenged to learn something new about ourselves.
If we aren’t actively learning and challenging ourselves to do more, and be more, then what are we doing?
Over the last few months I’ve been trying to live outside of my comfort zone, or at least on the cusp of it, just to see what happens. Doing things that make me uncomfortable, nervous, and to varying degrees, scared. Many of them are silly and meaningless. Such as eating handfuls of wasabi peas at one time, doing long pours, and jumping into a cold lake. They were all done either as a dare or to make someone else laugh. Some things were done for a good cause or to achieve a purposeful benefit to myself or others. Like going outside my norm to do a good deed for a friend or stranger. Trespassing to see a waterfall. And choosing, like many others, to pour a bucket of ice water over my head and then post a video of my self-conscious-self online.
Most efficaciously though, after it dawned on me that my self-made boundaries had become too constricting, too comfortable, there are things that I have done to deliberately abolish my comfort zone. Like abandoning the exhausting effort to have so much premeditated control over my own life. Cutting ties with my preconceived notions of what being an adult should, and should not, look like. And trying to own the fact that I have something to say and finally making the effort to say it. All of the above made, or make, me very apprehensive (ap-ri-WHAT? Click on it, you know the episode #hunklejesse). But here I am, making it public again, because I’m confident that the people I share my life with have had, or are having, these same thoughts. I can already see that this is contagious, and I’m loving it.
Each of these things that took me out of my comfort zone resulted in happiness for myself, others, or both; and I’m left wondering why I was so hesitant to do them in the first place. The payoffs from each certainly outweighed the risks, from the most trivial to the most significant. So why do I waste my time being shy and cautious? It feels great to step out of the comfort zone, to take familiarity away from yourself, and sometimes to get rid of it completely. Will you eventually fail at something or embarrass yourself? Probably. But in the process of taking that risk you get a rush of adrenaline, your heart rate goes up, and you have to react. You make the choice to feel something.
So far I’ve concluded that making the conscious choice to leave my comfort zone is something that I will need to repeatedly remind myself to do. Like slowing down and appreciating happy moments. It is great to have a routine, a group, a space to belong. Having that sitcom bar, coffee shop, or diner where I can go at any time of the day and expect to see any number or combination of friends, sitting at the same booth, laughing at the same jokes, is honestly one of my life dreams. But we can’t learn very much about ourselves by reliving the same day over and over again. And it feels good to learn.
I’m not suggesting you should go rogue, run off to Vegas and get married, or give up on everything you’ve ever known. (Also, setting the frequency bar at every day is somewhat ridiculous.) But take this cliché, blanket-statement and apply it to little things in your own life. Not your life with your friends, significant other, or kid. Just you. Be brave and impulsive. Try a new food or recipe, take a different route home from work, sing karaoke, go to the doctor, apply to a new job, get a tattoo. Go somewhere, anywhere, without your phone. Admit, confess, or apologize. Take a sick day, decompress, and re-learn what it’s like be you for a hot second. Or take it very simply and literally, watch a scary movie. It is October after all.
Let’s not allow our minds to be stagnant and motionless. Erase your imaginary boundaries to purposely make yourself uncomfortable. Recalibrate. Challenge your limits. You might learn what you are really capable of, and you might find a solution to that puzzle you’ve been trying to solve.