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.

Can you take a compliment?

If you have low self-esteem you may spend a lot of time thinking ‘I’m not okay’ – not skinny enough, not clever enough, not cool enough, not interesting enough, not happy enough, not sexy enough, not fun enough. This sort of thinking, if left unchecked, can lead to feelings of anxiety, insecurity, shame and depression. It’s time to start taking positive feedback on board.

Taking a compliment sounds like a simple thing to do. Someone says something positive about you, you say ‘thank you very much’ and walk away with a fuzzy feeling inside. In reality though, many of us play down our abilities, we say to ourselves:

‘They’re just being polite.
‘They have to say that, they’re my friend.
I wasn’t that good, other people are much better than me.’

Many of us feel uncomfortable accepting compliments through fear of seeming boastful or arrogant and we respond by saying things like:

‘Oh, this old thing, it’s nothing special!’
‘Thanks but it wasn’t really all down to me.’

You may have been on the other side too, as the compliment giver, you can be left feeling frustrated or wondering why you bothered.

The key to all this can often be found in low self-esteem. You may find it hard to recognise anything truly worthwhile about yourself. Or, if you can, these qualities are immediately cancelled out by all the bad stuff which you give much more attention to!

You may focus on feeling inadequate in some way. Or you may feel you’re coasting along just well enough that no one has quite noticed how afraid and lacking in confidence you really are. You often think that if they knew the ‘real you’ they wouldn’t pay you those compliments. You may also compare yourself to others or to the person you feel you ‘should’ be. This internal struggle can be absolutely exhausting and leave you feeling miserable and uncomfortable in yourself. 

How to take a compliment

The following steps can help you to move forward and accept that there may be some truth in the way other people see you and the positive things they say about you.

Step 1: Stop comparing!

These seemingly sorted people you see all around you, on instagram, at work, they aren’t you. They haven’t lived in your body, haven’t had the same life experiences that you have had, and so it’s not an ‘apples with apples’ fair comparison. So stop it. Enough now.

Instead, slow down the process. When you notice yourself comparing in a negative way, rather than speeding ahead to miserable town, allow yourself a choice – you can proceed down that negative spiral, or, you can do something different.

The trick here is in the doing – stand up, take a deep breath, shake your body, go outside, call a friend, make a cup of tea, put some music on, change your energy somehow. When you’re stuck, the only way out is to move and sometimes this means quite literally moving your body. 

Step 2: Say thank you!

Every time you receive a compliment, no matter your mood, notice your initial reaction but challenge yourself to say a genuine thank you. Then, when you have a moment, write it down for later, read it, see it.

Absorb it. Let it in.

The compliment-giver did it for a reason; look for the evidence that backs it up rather than the evidence against it. You may feel really uncomfortable doing this at first and that’s normal, just keep at it. 

Say Thank You

Step 3: Be open and willing to change the way you think.

Perhaps this one should come first! Imagine yourself with improved self-esteem. How do you feel and what are you doing differently? Until you can visualise your desired change it’s unlikely that the other steps will have the desired effect. Making any change requires a decision to do so and a commitment to see it through. Lapsing back into old thinking habits is also part of the process but the important thing is to notice what you’re doing.

Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, gives us a simple way of looking at all of this. He believed that we’re all born ‘okay’: good and worthy. Through our life experiences, our sense of ‘okayness’ can become diminished (or elevated, but that’s a whole other blog post!). If you have low self-esteem you may spend a lot of time thinking ‘I’m not okay’ – not skinny enough, not clever enough, not cool enough, not interesting enough, not happy enough, not sexy enough, not fun enough. This sort of thinking, if left unchecked, can lead to feelings of anxiety, insecurity, shame and depression.

Counselling can help you to understand where these beliefs have come from and support you to make a shift in the view you have of yourself. Remember, you’re in charge of you, you’re enough as you are, nobody has it all figured out and you have untapped potential waiting to be unleashed. Take the compliment 😉

 

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