Living in your comfort zone may feel good, but it’s also a trap. When you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or fearful about something, that’s not a signal to avoid it – instead, it’s a message from your unconscious mind that this is an area where you have a great opportunity for growth and improvement.
When you’re in the process of genuine growth – whether that means expanding your mental skills, or working on your body through exercise – the simple truth is that you’re going to be in a state of uncertainty and discomfort.
Why is this? The human body and mind work as an adaptive system, meaning that they can respond to stress placed on them by changing themselves to handle the stress. For someone who’s afraid of public speaking, this source of stress could be a speech in front of others. For someone who’s never run more than 10 miles continuously, the stress could be an 11 mile run. The important thing is that you’re doing something that pushes you outside your previous understanding of your capabilities.
When you go outside your comfort zone and start working in this unknown space, the mind can be a great ally, but it can also turn into an enemy. When you first step outside your comfort zone and things are going smoothly and easily, your mind acts like a cheerleader and congratulates you on how fast you’re growing, and how easy it’s all going to be.
When things get more challenging, your mind can quickly transform into an enemy and start coming up with excuses, reasons to quit, and critical comments. This is the so-called “inner critic” at work. The great thing is, operating in this uncomfortable zone can actually be a great opportunity to learn how deal with the nonsense that this part of your mind sometimes comes up with.
Suppose your life were a complete fantasy world, where you got everything you wanted through one easy victory after another. Nothing ever happened to challenge you or knock you off guard. In a situation like this, you would have no chance to develop resilience or to learn to recover from setbacks. Domesticated pets live an easy life, but they are no match for rough animals from the street.
Fortunately, when you do something worthwhile that also makes you feel uncomfortable – for example, making speeches when you’re afraid of public speaking – you don’t get only the specific benefits you get from doing the uncomfortable thing itself. By deliberately putting yourself into a state of growth, uncertainty, and discomfort, you train yourself to face your inner critic and to develop the mental resilience that will help you out in many different areas. In other words, you start to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
But don’t be unreasonable
When you’re pushing your boundaries, don’t go too far. Even the most growth-hungry person needs some downtime during which they can step back and integrate their new learnings and insights. People doing athletic training know this (or else learn it very quickly). Going to your edge and then slightly beyond it is the place where discomfort begins and real growth and transformation starts. Going too far beyond your edge, or for too long, is the source of mental or physical injury and breakdown.
Stress can be cumulative, and personal growth isn’t usually a series of higher and higher peaks. Just as with athletic training, personal growth activities need to be mixed in with periods of rest and recovery. This is true whether you are expanding your comfort zone, learning things that you previously found too difficult, or challenging your limiting beliefs and unproductive habits.
While growth means discomfort, it’s not a direct relationship – more discomfort doesn’t automatically mean more growth. The pain of challenge and the pain of injury are different, and it’s important to recognize when you may be from crossing over from “good” pain to “bad” pain.
Flirting with the edge of “too far” has its risks and rewards. On the one hand, you can completely rewrite your previous understanding of what’s “possible” or “reasonable” for you. Doing this is a great source of motivation and personal power. On the other, you can push yourself beyond what you can reasonably handle at a given time, creating the need for a much longer recovery period.
Ultimately, you’re the only one who really knows how far you can push yourself. Be smart about it, and test your limits regularly.
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