Most of us regularly let fear rule our lives in the name of comfort.
We refuse to speak in public. We decline an invitation to a party where we won’t know many people. We might even avoid driving on the highway or wearing a swimsuit to the pool.
These boundaries are not stupid.
They are designed to keep us safe, physically and emotionally. We stay in the comfort zone we have created, and we feel…well, comfortable.
Comfort doesn’t hurt us. That’s the wonderful thing about it. However, it doesn’t help us much, either. When we stay in our comfort zones, we don’t allow ourselves to grow. Many people live their entire lives within the boundaries their comfort has created. You’ve seen them – placid, stagnant, and a little bit boring. They refuse to challenge themselves, and they grow old before their time. Their lives remain small, and their accomplishments remain modest and predictable.
It’s not the worst way to live – but it’s certainly not the best one.
The difficulty for most people comes in leaving their comfort zone, or even just widening the boundaries. Here are five steps to help you take off in that direction:
1. Assess your comfort zone with honesty.
Did you opt out of a hike with friends because you were busy – or were you worried you wouldn’t be able to keep up? Did you refuse to apply to colleges because of the expense – or were you afraid you wouldn’t get in? Often, we fool ourselves into thinking our comfort zone is larger than it is. If the boundaries aren’t there, we don’t have the responsibility to ourselves to push them. Look at your comfort zone with clear, non-judgemental eyes. Meet yourself where you are.
2. Start small.
If you are afraid of public speaking, don’t jump right in and offer to speak in front of hundreds of people. This will cause you undue anxiety and stress. Instead, push your boundaries in ways that are small but significant. Offer to say Thanksgiving grace in front of your extended family. Sign up to read a book to your daughter’s first grade class. Then, gradually increase the stakes. Don’t go straight for a presentation to the board of your company. Offer to speak to the interns first. These small victories will build your skills in a way that is manageable and sustainable. Then, you’ll be ready for the big game.
3. Seek support.
There is a good chance you are not the first to struggle against this particular boundary. Find those who have done it successfully, and learn from their wisdom. Classic public speaking fears can be addressed at a Toastmasters meeting. If anxiety and depression are keeping you from living your life, check out one of these groups and speak with your doctor. If you are being kept in your comfort zone by an addiction, such as to food or alcohol, there are people who want to support you right in your area. Once you begin to look, you will be surprised at the resources available to you.
4. Pull from your strengths.
Identify an opportunity where your strengths are at play just as much as your fears. For example, consider that you are a pop culture and sci-fi connoisseur who is terrified of talking to strangers. An event like Comic-Con could give you the chance to interact with like-minded people in an atmosphere that fosters fun and camaraderie. Are you a good writer, but shy speaker? Read your best work to a group of friends. Choose a topic you know inside and out. Find or create a situation where your strengths are on display. Confidence will follow.
Don’t give yourself the option of backing out. Sign up in a tangible way. Pay for the event you will be attending. Tell three people close to you about your plans. Make it as difficult as possible to cancel at the last minute. Keep your expectations realistic. Remind yourself that your goal is to push your comfort zone, and that feeling discomfort is part of the process. It means you’re growing.
“Life always begins with one step outside of your comfort zone,” wrote Shannon L. Alder.
Take one step today, and then another tomorrow, and maybe three more over the course of this week. You’ll be surprised how far a little bit of courage can take you.