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How to Break Into Your Comfort Zone

“We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

“The further you get away from yourself, the more challenging it is. Not to be in your comfort zone is great fun.” ~ Benedict Cumberbatch

“I’m tired of being tired.”~ Bitch’in Suburbia via Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles), singing I’m Tired

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The other day as my spin instructor yelled, “Nothing good ever came of hanging out in your comfort zone!” I had a total epiphany, even as I pushed my already rubbery, sweat-soaked legs up another notch to breakaway mode.

The cosmic insight that pounded through my veins to the beat of my heart was this: BULL*F’IN*SHIT.

Something does happen in your comfort zone: you are comforted.

And yet, there is something in the air, or perhaps more accurately, blended into the Kool-Aid that we as a society gulp until our souls bleed Gatorade that says we must try new things, push through the fear, and challenge ourselves every single minute of every single day without stopping… in order to grow as a human and fully realize all important goals before we’re pushing up daisies. (See quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt and her modern equivalent, Benedict Cumberbatch, above.)

So Part Deux of the epiphany was this: What is my comfort zone, anyways?

I couldn’t even remember a slacker moment where I lazed around without feeling like I was letting down my work, my kids, my spouse, my dog, and most of all, myself. Middle age is the ultimate inspiration to do the damn thing you’ve always wanted to do. Of course by then, you have a life full of obligations (that good ol’ churning gerbil wheel that I babble about so much), so making space for new challenges can be, well, challenging.

But I see my compadres doing it all the time — former coach potatoes running marathons; moms who’ve been out of the rat-race diving headlong back in; ambitious peeps launching new businesses; scores of friends I see online (and in real life, too) upending their lives to move into a million scary new directions.

I don’t know one lollygagger, and so it occurred to me I wasn’t even sure what a comfort zone even is anymore.

Lifehacker, in an article titled, “The Science of Your ‘Comfort Zone’ and Why It’s So Hard to Leave It,” defines it like this: “… a behavioral space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security. You benefit in obvious ways: regular happiness, low anxiety, and reduced stress.”

The piece goes on talk about the seminal psychological experiment conducted in 1908 by Robert M Yerkes and John D. Dodson that revealed the key ingredient to kick basic performance’s ass is good old fashioned anxiety. The so-called Yerkes-Dodson Law explains the empirical relationship between arousal and performance, which peaks at a place called “Optimal Anxiety” and plummets regardless of whether the level goes higher to majorly stressed, or lowers to not stressed at all.

As someone with a history of panic disorder, it seems to me that “Optimal Anxiety” is one of those oxymorons (emphasis on the moronic part) that make no sense like “second best” or “jumbo shrimp.”

Or “productive discomfort.”

Or even “healthy stress.”

Since we’ve got this culturally ingrained idea that breaking out of our comfort zone is key to personal growth and success, I’d like to challenge it by saying that breaking into it is just as necessary for different reasons: cuz we’re freakin’ tired, and sometimes taking a break could actually give a chance to refuel and get ready to take on the damn world. So I looked at this excellent HuffPo article, “6 Reasons to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone,” and now bring you the corollary, just for shits, giggles, and hopefully a bit o’ R&R:

Not challenging yourself can help you regroup before you reach for your peak: There’s really nothing wrong with laying around on your coach, eating butter-soaked popcorn and binge watching whatever show you always knew you’d love but never made time to watch (i.e., Grey’s Anatomy, seasons 1-12). If anyone scoffs at you, just mumble something about “carbo-loading” for the “marathon,” and throw him or her off your slacker track. (Note: Be sure not to mention the “marathon” refers to numbers of hours watching TV, not hitting the trail.)

 Not taking risks can feel really good: Children take risks all the time — jumping off things, volunteering willy-nilly for things they have no idea if they’re prepared for or not, etc. But as we age, the fear of failure creeps in, and that youthful exuberance dulls. That’s one way to look at it anyways — the other way is that it takes a certain amount of maturity to make your assessment… and then decide to sit this one out.

Trying new things may make you more creative, but not trying new things might give you some peace: Sure there’s plenty of data suggesting that being open to new experiences enhances creativity, but how often do you look a new opportunity in the face and say, hmmmm, maybe I’ll just take a little nap today instead? There are also scads of empirical evidence supporting the idea that naps improve performance and alertness, too.

Dodging some new challenges can help you age better: Of course we hear all about how learning new life skills and pushing ourselves to new limits can be a great age-leveler. But some of those aforementioned challenges (marathons, for example) can tear up your joints and muscles, making it much harder to keep going on a physical plane. Also, I’ve found that avoiding becoming too fit and maintaining a healthy amount of fat keeps my face fuller and more wrinkle free. Look mom, no Botox!

Alone time is a good thing: The idea of socially pushing out of your comfort zone and building networks by attending events and befriending strangers is one of those things that supposedly leads to a happier, more fulfilled life, especially as the clock ticks on. But isn’t happiness finishing your kids’ Halloween candy by yourself, behind a locked bathroom door?  I’m just sayin’…..

Don’t overdo it: This is one thing comfort zone h8trs and enthusiasts alike can agree upon. Just as you don’t want to push past that unicorn called “optimal anxiety,” you also don’t want to end up a slovenly wreck, swaddled in 1500-thread-count Egyptian sheets and a down comforter, wearing your favorite pair of sweats, poppin’ bon bons, and watching some juicy, soapy TV show.

Or do you?

So if you see me a swaddlin’ and a poppin’, just know that I just broke into my comfort zone, and I’m sure as hell not leaving! Meet you at the bon bon station — we’ve got 227 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy left to watch, and a whole lotta slackin’ to do!

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