We all have a sense of our own comfort zones: areas of our life and experience where we feel comfortable and at ease. Whilst we undoubtedly need a level of stability and consistency, we also have a basic need to be stretched and challenged, not least to give us the opportunity to learn and experience new things, to promote a sense of competence and achievement, and overall to give a sense of meaning in our lives.
In order to encourage us to stretch our comfort zones, nature has programmed us by dulling the sense of satisfaction in familiar experiences. This is not only designed to propel us forward and try something new but also allows us to adapt to changing circumstances. This is nature’s way of keeping our behaviour innovative and flexible rather than repetitive and robotic. Without this design feature, human beings would never have survived as a species.
Whilst we are programmed to try new things, there is a part of our emotional brain which runs in tandem to protect us from danger so that (in evolutionary terms) we only take an appropriate level of risk initially, before we become more confident, and can then take further levels of risk in order to master new skills. This part of the emotional brain is of course the “anxiety centre”. It is vigilant to potential threats to our safety and, unable to tell the difference between real threats and imagined threats, it can keep us from experiencing new things and developing new skills if our imagination forecasts the new experience as going badly.
So, we can thank that part of our emotional brain for trying its best to look after us. Having done so, we can engage our thinking brain to weigh the pros and cons of going ahead with whatever it is that we have in mind which will be likely to stretch our comfort zones. If we have sufficient meaning in other aspects of our lives, we may conclude that we don’t need to stretch ourselves in that particular way at that particular time. Alternatively, this might be a new challenge which could open the door to, perhaps, new professional opportunities or the chance to learn and enhance our enjoyment of work or other aspects of our lives. We need to beware, however, of the potential of the emotional brain to frighten us (if we leave its emotional conclusions unchallenged) and be willing to challenge those emotional conclusions to ensure that we are making a truly informed and rational decision.
If your conclusion is a reasoned (rather than emotional) decision to go ahead to stretch a particular comfort zone, there will be elements of uncertainty about what is involved or how you will get on, or the perceptions of others and so on. These can be expected to generate a certain degree of anxiety; this is hardly surprising because it is something that you haven’t done before. How best to manage that anxiety? The tried and tested methods are these:
- Name the fears and concerns that you have. What precisely are they? What would you say to a friend in the same situation to give him or her some good advice? What is the worst that could happen? What is the best that could happen? What is the most likely to happen?
- Are there skills which you already have which will support you? What other help can you enlist to support you? List the other times when you have stretched your comfort zones and succeeded. Write down the good feelings you experienced as a result.
- What are your goals? How does this plan fit into your goals?
- Mentally rehearse the outcome you want in as much detail as possible. You can do this with intervening steps on the way. This will help build confidence and a positive mindset about what you have decided to do.
All the best!