While thinking outside the box and transcending fear has long been praised, I recently read a book excerpt arguing against getting out of your “comfort zone.” Instead of pushing your limits, author Meghan Daum suggests embracing our limitations.
“I am convinced that excellence comes not from overcoming limitations but from embracing them,” she writes in her book The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion.
It seems interesting, but it brings up another important question: Is your comfort zone even what you think it is? Are we embracing a lifestyle where we are both satisfied and competent? Or underneath do we feel we are missing out on something?
“…The key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of your comfort zone,” Daum writes. “Stay in safe waters but plunge as deeply into them as possible. If you’re good at something, do it a lot. If you’re bad at something, just don’t do it. If you can’t cook and refuse to learn, don’t beat yourself up about it. Celebrate it. Be the best noncook you can be.”
If we dig in deeply to the lifestyle we lead right now, it’s important that we derive pleasure and contentment from that lifestyle. Sure, you can’t cook, but do you want to learn?
Leaving one’s comfort zone doesn’t have to mean doing things that you hate. It should mean doing things that are unfamiliar and maybe a little stressful. It means exposing yourself to something new with an open mind and realistic expectations (i.e. you’re not going to make the best soufflé in the world on your first try).
Embracing limitations should mean trying to make your first chocolate soufflé and not being too hard on yourself if it’s not perfect the first time.
Personally, I embrace my limitations when it comes to math. I was never any good at it and yet I am a space blogger. I write about astrophysics and studies I could never have conducted myself every day. That’s because I am adept at bringing dry science news to a nonscientific audience using lay words and metaphors that are accessible and exciting. That’s how I work around that limitation, but one limitation I don’t want to work around is my anxiety.
An anxious person might consider their comfort zone to mean avoidance of that which makes them anxious. If this is true, get out of there. Get out of there every day because it’s a trap.
Avoiding the things that make us anxious only makes us more anxious. For instance, I had a great deal of difficulty with social anxiety, and over the years I noticed that it was much worse when I avoided a place or activity for an extended period. Sometimes that could mean not going to the grocery for just a week. When I did finally go, I found it much more difficult than usual. I felt self-conscious and awkward. I’d feel flustered and shy. A setback like that would make me feel even less like going to the grocery again.
Sometimes avoidance of public places would lead to outright panic that I never saw coming. I had panic attacks in the New York City subway three times before I ever made the connection between the attack and the fact that I was in a crowded place.
It would seem that being at home is my comfort zone, but it’s really just a trap. I want to be able to go to the grocery or the subway just like any one else, without any thought about other people or what they’re thinking about me. Staying home isn’t really comforting me, it’s just helping my anxiety cheat me out of something I want to do.
This distinction has to be made. Don’t embrace a limitation that is based in fear. If you don’t want to go skydiving, don’t do it. But if you want to and are just being held back by fear, maybe it’s time to get out of your comfort zone. The same can be said for big life changes like starting a new career, going back to school or moving to a new town.
I’m moving from New York to California (as I described in this post) and driving nearly 3,000 miles across the country amid a frosty winter. Of course, it’s outside my comfort zone, but that’s a risk I want to take. I chose not to embrace limitations surrounding the move (i.e. changes in work, friends, money; being uprooted for months before finding a permanent place). Why? Because those aren’t real limitations; they’re simply things that have been stable for so long that it’s going to be scary to destabilize them.
Perhaps the saying “No risk, no reward” is accurate. I’m not sure because I’m not much of a risk-taker. What I do know is that we take risks every day without realizing it and we make it through. We roll with changes and fluctuations constantly, and all we have to do is keep it up.
Personally, I think comfort zones are pretty overrated. We get thrown out of our comfort zones all the time. When Hurricane Katrina sacked my hometown of New Orleans, I still managed to finish college and landed on my feet in New York City. When my brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and my relationship with my best friend in the world changed forever, we still managed to cope and persevere.