One of my clients, Anna, is terrified of dogs. When she walks along the street and sees a dog coming from a distance she changes her direction and turns into a street if possible. Even if the dog is still 200 yards away.
Mr. M. works in sales and has to do cold calls. That means he has to call strangers and try to make appointments for a visit. He really wants to work off the list but whenever he could do it he finds all kinds of excuses. Bad timing, needs to check emails first etc.
Mrs. S. is the “mother” of the department. She’s always receptive to listen to her colleagues’ problems. She never denies anyone favor. Once she got back from her rehab after her second burnout she remembers her therapist’s words: ”You have to say “no” more often. Otherwise you will be exploited.” And sure enough the next colleague is standing at her desk and she already knows he’s going to ask her to take over his shift tonight.
All three are unhappy about their own behavior. They also know exactly what they need to do in order to change that undesired behavior.
So why don’t they just do it?
Why We love our comfort zones.
The comfort zone is the hammock of our habits of action, thinking or feeling. That goes for our positive experiences as well as the negative ones and our constructive and disadvantageous behavior. For example:
- Your morning and evening routine
- Your inner drivers (be perfect, be strong, make an effort, hurry up, satisfy everyone’s needs)
- Your justifications why you want to change something but just don’t get around to doing it (cleaning up your room, studying for the exam, practicing the piano, doing your taxes on time etc.)
We are familiar with our comfort zone and we feel at ease in it because the consequences of our actions are far away. When we’re in that place we avoid the pain of effort and the fear of insecurity.
The comfort zone is, as the word implies, “comfortable” when you keep searching for it. The problem with the comfort zone emerges, when we are afraid of unpleasant things heading our way and we fail to take action although we know it’s necessary:
- You have high blood pressure. Since you don’t feel it you obviously don’t measure it on a regular basis and you don’t do anything to lower it either.
- You’ve been dissatisfied with your employment for years, you read the job ads but you haven’t sent out one single job application so far.
- Your partner has become more stylish in his choice of clothes and is noticeably good-humored. Of course you have a suspicion but you’re too chicken to ask.
Remaining in the comfort zone is an enrooted habit for many people. They avoid anything that could be painful. Naturally they don’t really feel good about it either.
There’s a discomforting feeling of dissatisfaction, boredom, inner emptiness when you’re not busy doing something. Your reward center is longing to be fed.
You feed the hunger by surfing on the internet for hours, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, watching porn, going online shopping or to the mall, gambling, working excessively etc. Addictive activities are painless at first and have a positive effect on our reward center in the brain.
New opportunities are always accompanied by pain.
That is pain.
Life has unlimited opportunities in store for us but they are always accompanied by pain. Opportunities always lure us with the excitement of something new but simultaneously we see the obstacles that come along, too.
When you want to learn something new or change something you have to leave the path of what you already know and take the road to the unknown. You don’t know what you will expect there and whether you will cope with the new challenges.
That’s why we all prefer to stay in our well-known area of our comfort zone, which we believe we have under control. It’s cuddly and cozy there – even if we are aware of the fact that we’re only fooling ourselves. Learning something new means taking risks.
This principle applies for the individual as well as for groups. Teams, companies and even countries have their own comfort zone:
- After a rock concert the 16-year old want s to learn to play the guitar. After all the practicing is too strenuous he decides to only listen to the CDs.
- After the meeting everyone sighs and complains about how boring the meeting was and that the main issues have never been addressed while standing together drinking coffee.
- A country lives beyond its means but then refuses to accept economizing orders from supporting countries by holding demonstrations.
- The global community has been busy exploiting our life’s basis and the earth’s resources for ages. In every climate conference mini-decisions are made because a number countries is not ready to change their comfortable lifestyle even though one hand the direct effects can be seen and are measurable but on the other hand they’re still bearable.
It’s always good to have a culprit. Ok, fine. So in your case your brain is the culprit. At least part of it is. The part where the auto-pilot is located. It makes sure we remain in the familiar tracks because that feels safe.
Nowadays we find ourselves living in a society that makes it easy for us to get comfy in our comfort zone.
Thousands of years ago when we were hungry we would have to go search for berries or hunt bears. Those who weren’t in the mood to do so or were constantly distracted became even hungrier or died.
Back in those days survival meant acting with a plan and concentration. Today we drive to the supermarket in our comfortable XXL-size cars, walk to the XXL-size fridge in the evening or order an XXL-size bucket of popcorn and soda at the movies.
Especially the following two attitudes in our society make us believe the many advantages of our comfort zone:
- We want something without having to work for it.
“Nothing’s impossible.” “Lose weight while you sleep.”
“Go ahead and live, we’ll take care of the details”
- And we certainly don’t want to wait, we want our rewards instantly.
“Buy today – pay tomorrow.” “Zero down-payment and 36 comfortable monthly rates”, “Download now”
How difficult it is to leave that comfort zone of immediate reward can be observed in the famous marshmallow experiment that was carried out with little children. You can watch it by clicking on the link below:
Your comfort zone narrows your life.
Only if you accept the pain that comes with change you will be able to create new expansion space for yourself:
- As a good soccer player you can’t shy away from duels or header duels even though you know that they might hurt and can even mean injuries that may cost you months of recovery.
- If you’re promoted to become a leader you have to be ready to make yourself unpopular. Because you may have to carry out unpopular measures, you cannot allow a raise or you need to implement some new, complicated software.
- As a sales rep you have to learn to handle rejection. As a freelancer you have to learn to deal with financial insecurities and dissatisfied customers.
- As freshly baked parents you abstain from quiet nights and intimate togetherness.
- If you want to get fit you have to take on the strain of jogging or going to the gym regularly.
Many people look for a trick, a loophole to bypass “mother nature’s laws”.
Go ahead and believe the narcissistic illusion that life has to be fair. Or it could at least make an exception in your case. Because you are someone special. A secret prince or princess. Because you have already had enough bad luck in your life and you finally deserve better.
And many things have actually become easier. Washing clothes, heating your home, travelling to foreign cities…technologies have made life easier for us.
But the washing machine or the heating bill, the car – you also need to able to afford it all – and there it is again the pain of effort crawling back into our lives.
Within the comfort zone the pain seems huge and unbearable. Leaving the comfort zone becomes a whole lot easier when you recognize the paradox of pain.
The paradox of pain:
If you approach pain, the pain becomes less.
If you shy away from it, it will increase.
If you suffer from severe fear of flying you will never see certain countries or you will travel by train or car. If you go on a seminar and experience that you are indeed capable of enduring the emotions and after that dare to take a plane more often, the fear will decrease.
If you keep putting off a task that you hate, it’ll only get worse and become a bigger nuisance. The moment you start tackling it you realize that it’s not all that bad after all.
If you always want to be the nice guy but secretly hate your favorite butcher because he always weighs the goods including the packaging you eventually create horror scenarios in your mind of what might happen should you be courageous enough to address the subject. Until you finally find that courage.
Here’s a video from Barry Michels and Phil Stutz:
How you can overcome your fear of the pain.
In the book “The Tools” the authors Phil Stutz and Barry Michels recommend a technique that is called “Reversal of desire”. I really like the tool not the name which is why I’ve decided to call it:
Accepting the pain.
1. Concentrate on the pain you usually avoid.
Imagine the pain is a cloud that appears in front of you.
Inside scream: “Pain come here!”
2. Silently scream: “I love pain!” while you approach the pain. Try to encounter the pain on the deepest level possible until you and the pain become one.
3. Feel how the cloud disgorges you and closes behind you. Tell yourself: “The pain releases me.”
Feel how you are transformed into pure light while you leave the cloud and determinedly move forward.
Well, I must admit, it does sound very whacky at first.
Just like the first tool I presented some time ago. But the tools in this book are not just merely mental techniques but they link you to higher powers.
In this case it’s the power of inexorable striving forward that can be observed everywhere in nature.
Every infant pulls itself up on the furniture, wants to stand erect and wants to walk. It falls down a hundred times, hurts itself, cries – and continues. Even though nobody motivates it.
The tool enables you to connect with that power. But therefore you must surrender to the pain and be able to transcend it.
When is the right time to try out the tool or apply it?
1. The moment you have to do something unpleasant and you are scared to do it or feel resistance.
2. The moment you think about having to do something difficult or painful. Our brain learns through habits. If every time you realize such a thought coming up and you use the tool, you will develop the necessary energy to be able to act in that moment as well.
My personal conclusion:
What’s the use of always being able to leave the comfort zone?
The results of the marshmallow experiment speak a clear language because the children who took part in the study were visited 40 years later:
Children, who were able to wait in the experiment, have become self-confident, emphatic adults. They were able to deal with backlashes and were also capable of putting off rewards, if they brought them closer to their goals. Those, who immediately ate the marshmallows, were emotionally less stable, less determined and even had worse grades in school – and that not even depending on their level of intelligence.
I, too, have battles with my comfort zones. And I am also aware of how challenging it can be wanting to leave them.
When I was 26 I was an insurance rep and earned enough money by only working for three hours a day – and I was unhappy because I didn’t feel challenged enough intellectually. I wanted to study psychology but didn’t have a university-entrance diploma.
Pain come here! Before that I had a chilled life. Then I translated the Cesar’s 2. Gallic War again, I learned infinitesimal maths, waited for the bell to ring, was registered in the class-register… it was really hard. Then I had to wait for one year to get a university place. After that six boring years of studies followed until I was finally where I had always wanted to be at the age of 33: I had my own therapist’s office.
But you too have experienced things like that.
Look at your life. You’ve achieved what you’ve really wanted – despite the pain that was connected to achieving it. Even without this tool.
But the tool makes it easier. You just need to try it out with something you’ve been avoiding so far.
What could that be?
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