The Importance of Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone in the Individual Pursuit of Happiness

One of the things we human beings strive for is comfort, both in our psychological lives, as well as in our physical existence. Just as we want to feel safe and comfortable in our living environments, we want to feel safe socially, as well. This includes not only relationships, but activities and situations, too.

If you feel "safe" in your relationships, social network, career, and/or extracurricular activities, chances are you feel little reason to change. After all, isn't maintaining a steady, quiet life almost everyone's goal at some phase of life? And once you've achieved such a state, why rock the boat? If it "ain't broke," why fix it, right?

Perhaps you've heard the old workplace saying, "Don't become indispensable. If you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted." This is also true of your personal life; if you refuse to leave your comfort zone, you will not be able to grow and learn. Being stable in life is good; being stagnant is not.

One of the biggest emotional blockages to breaking out of your comfort zone is fear. Fear can be useful, such as the "fight or flight" reaction, which keeps us out of danger. This type of fear is instinctual, hard-wired in the brain of all animals. Unfortunately, humans, being the contemplating animals we are, experience another type of fear, which arises from our own thought processes. Basically, it is fear of the unknown; we take a situation or possible scenario and think of all the worst outcomes. When talking about this type of fear, psychologists, motivational speakers, and others use "fear" as an acronym for "False Evidence Appearing Real" (or "False Expectations Appearing Real").

Pushing Through Feelings of Fear

In her groundbreaking book Feel the Fear . . . and Do It Anyway, psychologist and author Susan Jeffers, Ph.D. (1938-2012) identifies three levels of fear.

Level 1 Fears ("surface" or situation-oriented fears) are divided into two categories: things that "happen," such as aging, accidents, being alone, change, natural disaster, or loss of loved ones; and those requiring action, such as making decisions, asserting oneself, going to the doctor, driving, public speaking, or making friends. It is safe to say everyone has at least one (probably more!) Level 1 Fear.

Level 2 Fears involve "losing face" or perceived assaults on one's ego. This list includes rejection, failure, success, appearing foolish by being conned or tricked, vulnerability, helplessness, or loss of image. Again, it is safe to say Level 2 Fears are universal.

Level 3 Fears are our biggest fears – and according to Dr. Jeffers, there is only one: "I can't handle it!" Behind every Level 1 or 2 Fear is a belief that somehow, in some way, we will be unable to deal with issues of illness, embarrassment, trauma, or new experiences.

The truth of the matter is, you can handle it, whatever "it" is. Consider, for a moment, all you've "handled" in life to get where you are now. You've likely had your share of disappointment, embarrassment, and doubt, all of which you've lived through. Whatever your situation, remember the old saying, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." With each triumph over irrational fear, we become stronger and more able to conquer the next fear.

Giving in to fear and allowing it to prevent you from expanding your horizons can lead to learned helplessness, a condition originally observed in 1965 by psychologist Martin Seligman while doing classical conditioning experiments with dogs. Seligman's experiment began with ringing a bell prior to administering a brief shock. After a short time, he found the dogs would react when the bell rang, before the shock was administered.

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Seligman then took the dogs and placed them in individual crates with one "shock" side and one "safe" side, separated by a low fence. Instead of jumping to safety when a shock was administered, as Seligman expected, the dogs lay down and whined. Basically, they'd learned the shocks were unavoidable, so they gave up.

People do this too, but not because a researcher traps and shocks us. Remember, we humans are capable of manufacturing reality in our minds, which is just as effective as actually experiencing an event, so if we believe we've failed miserably and/or made a fool of ourselves in the past (and humans are good at exaggerating our failures!), we'll fear taking any other chances. We learn to be helpless, and refuse to seek out challenges or have new experiences. We stagnate.

The reality is, anyone who tries to break out of their comfort zone experiences fear. Everyone, whether they admit to it or not. It is part of the human condition. To not "push the envelope," even a little, is to merely exist, not live. Remaining stagnant and fearful accomplishes nothing, and in the end, creates an empty existence.

One of the realities of moving out of your comfort zone is the potential for failure. Most of us fear failure on some level, but as we'll discover in the next section, failure can be a valuable learning experience and sometimes actually turn into triumph.

Learning from Failure

It has been said by scientists and researchers that often, more can be learned from a failed experiment than a successful one. Knowing what doesn't work can give experimenters valuable information.

Failed experiments can also be unforeseen successes. Many people are aware Post-it Notes  are a direct result of a failed attempt to make a permanent adhesive for airplane repair. Instead, 3M scientist Spencer Silver created a completely temporary adhesive called Acrylate Copolymer Microspheres. Although it was cool stuff, it wasn't what Silver was trying for.

At first, no one, not even its inventor, could think of a good use for the temporary adhesive. When a new products laboratory manager named Gregory Nicholson took over, Silver approached him about doing something with the adhesive, and Nicholson had the idea of covering a bulletin board with the substance, but the idea was eventually scrapped. It wasn't until 3M product development engineer Art Fry, who knew of Silver's invention and also happened to sing in a church choir, became frustrated with his hymnal markers fluttering out and becoming lost. He immediately thought of the "failed" adhesive and suggested applying the glue to paper. After many technical difficulties, including the need to build special manufacturing equipment, 3M finally released Post-it Notes in 1980. The invention once deemed "neat but useless" is now a multi-billion dollar product line.

Not all examples are this monumental, of course, but our own personal challenges can certainly feel that way. Getting a new job, dating, or changing residences are all scary endeavors for nearly everyone, but if we don't take risks, we'll never improve our financial situation, have a chance at a meaningful partnership, or move into our dream home. If you make a mistake, fix it. As Jim Rohn said, "If you don't like how things are, change it! You're not a tree."

Earlier in this article, we mentioned success as being a potential "fear focus." Isn't success something we all hope for? Success coach and author Tony Robbins said, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us." Ponder that for a moment; have you ever "held back" in an area you excel in because you didn't wish to "outshine" those around you? Matthew 5:15 (KJV) reads, "Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house." In other words, our gifts and talents are meant to shine for the benefit of all.

Taking chances, be they large or small, are part of life. Whether you succeed or fail, there is something to be gained from all life experiences – even if what you learn is to avoid that particular situation in the future!

Try, Try Again - or Cut Your Losses

We've all heard the old saying, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." While this is admirable and usually excellent advice, there are times when "keeping at it" might become unproductive or unnecessary.

Some activities may have a time, a place, or a lifespan. For example, if, in your youth, you enjoy running as an exercise pastime, but injure your knee severely in your 30s and are medically advised to stop running, it would be detrimental to continue to run. Running as a hobby has had its time; following your injury, it is time to pursue a lower-impact workout, such as swimming. Your physical body has changed, so it benefits you to change to accommodate your new situation. (Notice we didn't say give up exercise entirely!) Other examples of time, place, or lifespan activities include being a good student, excelling in high school or college groups and/or sports, and parenting young children. For most of us, such things have a natural limit. You may choose to continue the activity throughout your life in some way, but its focus and importance will change with time.

There are times when a conscious decision to "cut and run" is your best option. Unfortunately, such situations are sometimes difficult to recognize, and there is no easy way to make the final decision to quit. How can one tell for sure, for example, if it's time to end an unhappy marriage or continue working on it?

Sally had this very problem. For most of their 10-year marriage, her husband Brent had professed his love, yet behaved in a very selfish manner. He constantly wanted the most and the best of everything, and would pout like a spoiled child if he didn't get his way. Despite several weak attempts by Brent at behaving less selfishly (after tearful requests from Sally), and Sally's best efforts to make him happy, the marriage was suffering. The final straw for Sally was when Brent used his typical passive-aggressive behavior to try and sabotage Sally's new, high-paying job in another town – she had to admit Brent would never be a true partner because of his selfishness, so she chose to end the marriage. Although she dreaded telling Brent, once she had, Sally felt an enormous sense of relief. (A true sense of relief upon deciding to end an obligation or relationship signifies you've made the right choice.)

It also behooves you to avoid any experience or situation where you or another may come to serious physical or psychological harm. We are not speaking of "daredevil" challenges people purposely undertake, such as skydiving or extreme snowboarding, but dangerous situations where the actions of others around you might have negative consequences. Although teenagers are the first group that comes to mind when one thinks of a desire to "fit in" to a group, we all have some need to belong. Taking foolish chances, or compromising your standards merely to "fit in" is not productive and often detrimental. For example, if your circle of friends engage in activities you don't participate in because they're illegal, it's quite likely one day you'll be subject to the consequences of their actions.

This happened to Brian. He knew the friends he drank and hung out with would often steal, but Brian was never with them when they committed a crime. He thought that as long as he "just partied" with them, he would be okay. They liked to drink a lot more than he did, but they were the only "cool" guys around his age, so he usually wound up drinking a lot, too.

One night, Brian was riding in a car with his friends when they were pulled over by police. Unbeknownst to Brian, the car they were riding in had been stolen earlier that evening by his friends, and he was arrested and charged along with the other occupants of the car. Despite the fact he was not present during the original theft, Brian's charges and conviction were identical to those of the thieves (his "friends"), and he spent time in prison.   

Bottom line: Trust your instincts. If a situation, obligation, or relationship is very one-sided, or if you feel wary or apprehensive, pay attention to your "gut" messages -- even if they disagree with your "head." Seek advice from others if needed, either from those close to you, or a professional.