We all have one, we all like to live in it, and we all experience fear when we step outside it...The Comfort Zone.
To understand why change or stepping outside of our comfort zone is often challenging, it can be helpful to get curious about where we came from and understand why we function the way we do.
Let’s talk briefly about nervous systems and our self-protective “wiring”.
Living in the comfort zone = safety. Our nervous systems are wired for survival. Fearing the unknown has kept our ancestors safe for thousands of years. Being fearful of anything that isn’t familiar means that we’re less likely to end up as an animal’s lunch. You can see it in the wild today - a deer in the meadow is constantly alert and assessing for threat, fleeing when the nervous system senses something different/novel in the environment. If the deer doesn’t do this then it’s a very easy meal for a hungry predator.
With humans in the developed world, our need to constantly assess if a situation is a life or death one is dramatically reduced compared to our ancestor’s environment. However, the challenge we face today is that our evolutionary wiring that has kept us safe for hundreds of thousands of years, is not always as helpful in modern day society. Our society has changed so drastically in a relatively short period of time that the adaptive wiring that helps us survive has not yet caught up with the ways of life now.
So if you’re someone who doesn’t like change or has troubles stepping outside your comfort zone - there isn’t anything wrong with you! It is in your DNA to be fearful of the unknown.
Why is this a challenge?
Because change is inevitable. The only constant in life is change. And we live in a society where embracing change contributes to living more freely and moving forward.
However, we don’t always choose to make changes or to step outside our comfort zone. Quite often change happens to us. These can be really devastating changes like losing a loved one, losing a job, or a pet. Or, change can come in the form of graduating from something and moving onto a new phase of life. Change can also be a transition from one identity to another (girlfriend to a wife, a couple to a family, non-parent to a parent, husband to a widower, etc.). The definition of what constitutes a big change will vary from person to person.
New opportunities can arise out of change.
Going outside of one’s comfort zone allows us to build resiliency and strength. If we stay inside our comfort zone we aren’t being challenged. It is dealing with challenges and new experiences that allows us the opportunities to build confidence and learn new skills. Research actually shows that families who are more resistant to change often have greater health concerns. Movement from resisting and fighting change to welcoming and even creating change is healthy!
How can I learn to be ‘ok’ with change?
Dealing with life transitions requires a type of openness and fluidity that can appear contradictory to our evolutionary survival instinct of fearing the unknown. This is a large part of why change can be a challenge for many people.
Everyone’s ability to embrace change will look different and require different types of supports.
The most important thing to help get you started down this path is to first become curious about your relationship with change:
How do you react when something new or unexpected shows up?
How do you react when you initiate a change or step slightly outside of your comfort zone?
What do you notice happening in your body as you encounter this change? Do you feel any particular sensations, tightness, constriction, dizziness, warmth, lightness? These sensations are your nervous system communicating with you and sending you messages about how you ACTUALLY feel about these changes. Learn to listen to your body.
Take smaller steps.
We need to have some successes in order to continue moving forward. When it comes to stepping outside of your comfort zone, you don’t need to dive right into the deep end - start at the edge and dip a toe in.
Let’s say that you want to step outside of your comfort zone and initiate making new friendships. (This challenge comes up a lot in my practice so I think it’s safe to assume that we’ve all experienced this at some point in our lives). In this example, you describe yourself as a very shy person who experiences some mild social anxiety. You can’t expect yourself to have the confidence to just ask someone out on a friend date right away. For some people just the thought of this incites sheer terror. Start off small. Make eye contact, then smile, maybe say hi. Let this settle and congratulate yourself on a job well done. Next time you can repeat this until you feel a bit bolder to start up a small conversation. Work your way up until you’ve had a series of smaller successes. You’ll surprise yourself at how far you can go when you lower your expectations of yourself, start small, and celebrate even the smallest of victories.
Other ideas to embrace/accept change:
Maintain or develop new interests/activities: This helps prevents stagnation and allows you to expand the boundaries of your comfort zone.
Learn to relax your body and mind: This helps deepen your connection with your body and nervous system, and can better support you during times of change.
Gather information: Many changes are out of our control but sometimes there are opportunities to learn more about this new change. Having more information can help reduce the fear of the unknown.
Maintain social support: Talk to people! We are social creatures and growth/healing happens in relationship to another being. Talk to a friend, family member, spiritual leader, mental health practitioner, or anyone who is a good listener.