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Comfort Zones: An Alternative Perspective

We're often told we need to 'break out' of our comfort zone, but how comfortable is this? And is it really something we should be doing?

Comfort zones. They usually get a lot of bad press. We’re regularly told that they’re something we need to ‘break out of’ or ‘smash’ in order to progress and grow as a human being. I’ve lost count of the number of meme diagrams I’ve come across depicting this. You know the ones, with the ‘where the magic happens’ mentality.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found there’s something a little conflicting about the language used here. ‘Comfort’ versus ‘break out’.

Why would I want to ‘break’ something I find a comfort to me?

The Psychology Behind ‘Comfort Zones’

It’s worth exploring the origin of the terminology and why it came about. The term ‘comfort zone’ was originally coined by Alasdair White, a Business Management Theorist, in 2009. Popular definitions of what a comfort zone is go something like this:

‘A comfort zone is a psychological state in which things feel familiar to a person, and they are at ease, and in control of their environment, experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress. In this zone, a steady level of performance is possible.’

The definition, of course, doesn’t end there. White went on to work closely with John Fairhurst to formulate their White-Fairhurst Performance Hypothesis which states:

"All performance will initially trend towards a steady state, particularly after a period of performance uplift, and that steady state will then develop a downward curve leading to a significant performance decline."

From their initial observations, White and Fairhurst went on to write the ‘From Comfort Zone to Performance Management’ paper, which still stands relatively unchallenged to this day. What they’re basically saying is that the ‘steady state’ bit of the performance is our comfort zone. It’s where we achieve a steady stream of output. Their work came about as a leadership and business performance piece, not a personal growth piece. They were seeking to see how they could ensure that management performed at a consistent and steady rate of output.

The defining words in the definition for me are ‘they are at ease’ and ‘low levels of anxiety’. A comfort zone, contrary to all the memes and what we’re told by the plethora of well-meaning social media life coaches, actually sounds like a pretty good place. Often inferred as a place of stagnation, the origin of the term seems to hold it in much higher esteem: it is a place of consistency.

So why do we continually hold breaking out of our comfort zone in high regard, and beat ourselves up for not succeeding in doing so?

Moving Beyond Your Comfort Zone

Rather than pursuing to break out of it, what we do need to be more conscious of is becoming too complacent within our comfort zone.

A little over a century ago Robert Yerkes, a celebrated psychologist, began speaking of a behavioural theory whereby, in order to optimise performance, humans must reach a level of stress slightly higher than normal. He referred to this as ‘Optimal Anxiety’ and it seems that this space exists just outside of our comfort zone.

What this means is that, yes, your comfort zone is a brilliant place to exist, but it likely won’t prepare you to handle some of those curveballs life is going to drop on you like an unwelcome family guest at the dinner table you haven’t set a place for. However, Yerkes did also add that:

“Anxiety improves performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached. Beyond that point, performance deteriorates as higher levels of anxiety are attained.”

So now we have a balancing act to manage. We need to push outside of our comfort just enough to achieve ‘Optimal Anxiety’, but not too much or we’ll end up pushing ourselves too far and it’ll actually be detrimental to achieving any performance at all as our anxiety takes over.

Sound complicated? You’re not wrong. Here’s some more psychology theory to compound this.

Many of us are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. What you might not be too familiar with is that for human beings, feelings of safety are second only to the physiological requirements of the hierarchy (food, water, shelter). That’s a pretty powerful need and a strong reason for wanting to stay in our comfort zone.

We feel safe = we stay alive.

Thus, in a nutshell, our comfort zone is the sweet spot, but if we want to achieve optimal performance, we have to step outside it just a tiny bit, but not too much, and preventing us from wanting to do that at all, is the deep-seated need to stay safe.

Explore your Growth Zone

We are not plateaus and life is not a straight line. At times we’ll feel resilient and confident enough to play jump rope with what the definition of our comfort zone might be. For me, moving across the world to take a chance on love was one such period of life. But if the same scenario had been presented two or even the year before, during a time when I was heavily committed to keeping safe and maintaining my comfort zone, it’s unlikely I would have taken the chance.

In recent years psychologists have expanded on the concept of the comfort zone and developed it to include two new zones: your growth zone and your panic zone. Along the lines of Yerkes ‘Optimal Anxiety’ theory, these zones provide you with the options to see what growth looks like for you. Your growth zone exists outside of your comfort zone but is not a place of stress, on the flipside, it’s a space of opportunity.

This a space well worth exploring. When it feels right for you to do so.

The panic zone nods towards what happens when we reach beyond our growth zone. It’s the space outside of comfort and growth where, well, panic ensues. It’s what happens when we take on too much, too soon, with too little knowledge. It’s not necessarily a space we can’t work towards, but it’s where we’ll find ourselves out of our depths if we don’t put in the required work.

The worthy thing to note here is that these zones are ever expanding, depending on our learning curves and the work we put in to becoming the person we want to be.

What the ‘break out of your comfort zone’ crusaders neglect, is the allowance of individual difference. The comfort, growth or panic zone for one individual will look rapidly different to the next. For me, my comfort zone is not a place of stagnation. It is stillness and restoration. It’s a place I come back to when my confidence is depleted and my resilience is waning. It is filled with the things that fuel me, and I take no shame in retreating to it when I’ve emerged too deeply into the panic zone.

Yes, a lot of magic can happen when we take a chance and step over into an area of growth. But what is deeply comforting, is knowing that your comfort zone is there, waiting to welcome you, when you need it. That there is a space you have purposely created in life that nurtures you, while also allowing you to be productive, calm and consistent.

So the next time someone tells you, you need to ‘break out’ of anything that makes you feel good, feel free to tell them you’re quite alright where you are.

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