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How to expand your comfort zone

Comfort zones have that name for a reason: they’re comfortable, safe and non-threatening. However, as we grow into our existence, the comfortable places can become increasingly restrictive. Imagine the trunk of a tree: if the protective bark was not able to adjust and adapt to the tree’s growth, the growth would become stifled until the tree exploded under the pressure!

Personal growth can sometimes be painful. Feelings of anxiety, frustration, exhaustion, sadness and loss can often accompany change. At the same time, growth can also be a joyful, liberating experience, stirring a new sense of empowerment and influence over your own life. 

Your personal growth lies at the edge of your comfort zone. Don’t let fear hold you back. Go to the edge and push it further out.

Come back to the centre to recharge. Breathe, ground yourself and find your calm. Next time you step out that far you’ll see your comfort zone has expanded – and so has your zone of calm.

Dr Aaron Balick, Little Book of Calm

In this blog post I’m going to explore some of the things that can get in the way of personal growth and how you can use self-awareness to begin to expand your comfort zone.

Consider how you see yourself

During my training to become a counsellor, I came to realise that I had a relatively fixed idea of who I was. I saw myself as having certain traits that weren’t really likely to change over time. We were tasked with imagining the title for a book about our lives as a way of exploring the beliefs we held about ourselves. I realised that my thoughts quickly turned into a narrative about a quiet and unassuming person, perhaps not fulfilling her full potential, and always staying under the radar. I felt sad about this prospect.

I had already noticed feeling of envy towards others and yet I would quickly talk myself out of pursuing similar goals to those people I admired. I justified this by saying things like, ‘ I could never do that’, or ‘I’m just not that kind of person’. I realised that by saying this to myself I was in fact reinforcing these fixed beliefs which demanded I stay in the background. Ultimately, I was getting in my own way – avoiding change and limiting growth.  What we need in order to grow and expand our comfort zone is to see ourselves as flexible, adaptable and able to learn.

Our self-image can also be affected when we become preoccupied with how other people view or judge us. Our friends and family may ascribe labels such as the ‘quiet one’, ‘the funny one’, ‘the clever one’. The dynamics of many of our relationships may function well based on these mutual expectations, and if we begin to change then these relationships may be disrupted.

You may find it hard to even imagine a life in which you behave differently, the idea can feel alien and out of reach. The path to being authentic in yourself can often be paved with some degree of confrontation and disruption, and we can learn how to manage this rather than avoid it. 

It’s important to remember that the beliefs we hold about ourselves are there for a reason and to some extent they do keep us safe. There are reasons why some of us feel happier under the radar and others feel at home in the limelight. These reasons often have to do with the way we have adapted to our environments whilst growing up, how we have learned to ‘get on’, to survive and to be accepted.

Expanding your comfort zone involves letting go of fixed beliefs and behaviours that are holding you back in the here and now, and reimagining a different future for yourself.

Allow yourself to fail

By sticking to the limited view I had of myself when I started my training, and my belief that my personality was fixed, I could conveniently avoid the risks involved in growing into a better version of myself. That way I would, at least, be safe: I wouldn’t let anyone down and I wouldn’t have to experience the shame and vulnerability that can come with potential failure.

Taking risks requires a willingness to accept responsibility for ourselves, to tolerate some level of anxiety, to own our failures, and to be curious and even excited to learn the valuable lessons that come from new experiences. Comfort zones have that name for a reason: they’re comfortable, safe and non-threatening. They may have served us well for a long time. However, as we grow into our existence, the comfortable places can become increasingly restrictive. 

Ideas to get you started

The first step in expanding your comfort zone is working out what obstacles you’re putting in your own way. This will require some self-reflection, either on your own or with someone you trust and can be yourself with. 

Self-reflection

Spend some time with a pen and paper writing things down, drawing a mind map or simply talking and reflecting using some of these questions to prompt you:

  • How do you describe yourself?
  • What parts of your personality seem fixed/unchangeable? 
  • What do you envy in other people? These feelings can point to areas of growth for you.
  • How much do you truly care about other people and their opinions and judgements of you? After all, other people’s opinions are really none of your business, your opinion is the one that will have the biggest impact on your life.
  • What are the practical obstacles to change and growth? Who or what may get in your way and how can you manage this? For example, your finances, family responsibilities and dynamics or time constraints. You may need to start small and seek support, or re-prioritise.

Take some time to really get to know your own views about yourself and what might be holding you back.

Visualise ‘future you’

Seat yourself comfortably and once you’re settled, close your eyes and imagine a version of yourself that you really like, are happy in, and are proud of. Where are you? What are you doing? How do you feel in yourself?

Try role-playing this person in your own mind and writing down the sorts of things this version of you would do or say differently. Pay attention to small shifts in body language or behaviours and consider how you might start to bring these into the present.

Journaling

Draw two circles, one inside the other. In the centre one, write down things that are currently in your comfort zone. In the outer circle write down the things that currently feel out of reach , that you avoid or that cause you to have anxious feelings. Next, consider a life where these things remain outside of your comfort zone, forever. What are you going to miss out on in life as a result? It might be new experiences, new wisdom, new relationships? How does that make you feel?

You may find that channelling some of that emotional energy into your motivation can help provide a kick start. You can also use the diagram to select a starting point, what will be the first thing you learn to be comfortable with?

Just do it!

The most important stage in the process is taking an action. Start small and build from it, for example by making a commitment to take an action with ‘future you’ in mind. There comes a point where we just have to do it, take a risk and trust that we will be okay; even if things go wrong we still have an opportunity to learn and improve for next time.

For me, the tipping point arrived when I became so frustrated with ‘not doing’ the things I was admiring or envying in others that I finally channelled my energy into taking some of these small steps outside of my comfort zone. I can happily report that I survived! Small wins and achievementsquickly create a positive feedback loop and mastering new skills has been hugely rewarding.

If you’re struggling with motivation it can also help to involve someone you trust to help support and encourage you. Introduce some external accountability to begin with, until you feel ready to be accountable to yourself.

It also helps to have someone to vent to when things don’t go to plan. Resource yourself and enjoy the new life experiences awaiting you as you expand your comfort zone.