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Constant Comfort: Going Outside Your Comfort Zone

One theme my mind is circling on is the idea of constant comfort, and going outside our comfort zone. I just left coffee and an intellectually stimulating conversation with a friend who challenges me to think – to really think. My mind is reeling, and I want to share it with you.

In our modern lives, we spend our time moving from one comfortably curated experience to the next. Central heat and air allow us to maintain an optimal temperature regardless of the season. Readily available food allows us to eat whatever we want whenever we want. Instant streaming, 2-day delivery, and Google mean that we are never without, at least not for long.

Trigger warnings, denial, masking, and filters mean that we can operate in carefully crafted social and emotional circumstances, too. Factor in an underlying cultural myth that we can – and should – be happy all the time, and it’s no wonder that so many of us have a warped relationship with discomfort. That is, we tend to see being uncomfortable as a bad thing to be avoided, something that shouldn’t be happening, that shouldn’t be a part of life.

And that attitude is incredibly limiting, if not downright harmful. If you never leave your comfort zone then you will never grow. It is great to feel safe and reduce stress and anxiety, but at what cost? If you live with a fixed mindset and never step out of your comfort zone – even take small steps – then you will never build your confidence to live the big life you dream of. 

Sure, being comfortable – physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially – is preferable…or is it?

The Downside of Comfort

While being comfortable may signal that our needs are being met (for example, feeling well-rested is more comfortable to me than being exhausted, and we all know that adequate sleep is good for human beings), and being comfortable may reduce some stress (perhaps there is less need to worry about finances when you are financially comfortable), I believe that comfort is over-rated. Here’s why.

The more we get used to and expect to always be comfortable, the smaller our comfort zones become. In turn, we are more easily thrown for a loop when there is deviation in our experiences. Moreover, unwillingness to experience discomfort can come with dramatic ill effects.

Look at the lengths you go to in order to maintain comfort in any area of your life. Do you grab unhealthy food to avoid the discomfort of hunger as well as the discomfort that comes with having to prepare a nutritious meal or ride out a craving? Do you avoid the discomfort of physical exertion that comes with exercise? It’s during those times that we venture outside of our comfort zone that we get stronger, physically and mentally.

What do you do to avoid psychological, emotional, and social discomfort? Do you numb out in unhealthy or unhelpful ways? Do you avoid asking the hard questions or having those tough conversations? How does that avoidance impact your relationships? Do you avoid doing things that make you feel awkward, insecure, or uncertain? To what end?

Like trying to shove a beach ball underwater, trying to avoid or get rid of uncomfortable feelings simply doesn’t work long-term. In fact, many of the measures we take to bottle up, shove down, suppress, or get rid of those uncomfortable feelings can actually intensify them or cause even bigger problems down the road. For example, eating your feelings can lead to more shame, disgust, and anxiety (and more eating of said feelings) while also creating health issues for your future self. Other consumption habits like shopping and mindless scrolling may help you avoid the discomfort of boredom or being alone with your thoughts, but they come with literal and figurative costs. Not taking chances may help you avoid the pain of failure or the discomfort of uncertainty…while also causing the pain of missed opportunities and regret.

Get this, there’s even some fascinating emerging research that suggests that states of physiological discomfort like being hungry or cold can actually trigger a beneficial response on a genetic level, slowing the aging process. Our bodies were designed for periods of discomfort. It may actually be good for us!

The Solution

All of this to say, the pursuit of constant comfort can cause some unintended problems. The solution, I believe, is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Stepping outside your comfort zone in whatever capacity – socially, psychologically, emotionally, physically – can lead to growth and expansion. The bigger your comfort zone, the fewer things knock you off kilter. Your ability to sit with the ick without doing anything to make it worse in the long run (what psychologists call distress tolerance) can have a big impact on your life experience. Pushing into the discomfort strengthens us.

Moreover, reframing discomfort as a good thing to be sought out periodically can fundamentally change your relationship with it. It’s comparable to the fitness enthusiast who has learned to view sore, painful muscles after a hard workout as a good thing, a sign of increasing strength, as opposed to seeing the pain as bad. Understanding how discomfort can lead to positive changes – and having the psychological strength to weather discomfort skillfully – can be powerful.

The things we do – or don’t do – all in the name of staying constantly comfortable can cost us big time. So go, be uncomfortable!

“Be not afraid of discomfort. If you can’t put yourself in a situation where you are uncomfortable, then you will never grow. You will never change. You’ll never learn.”
―Jason Reynolds