You know, that safe little place where you don’t feel particularly challenged, but you do feel you’re welcome and at ease. Why leave it, right?
I remember that zone vaguely in the back of my mind. Somewhere, there is a sweet memory of a world where I knew all the boundaries—in fact I knew every nook and cranny—it was warm and toasty, and I always felt overwhelmingly safe.
Remind me again why I left that little, perfect world…?
To put it simply, it was because I wanted to follow my dreams. Slowly but surely, I started to ease one toe out of the comfort zone, and then another, and then the whole foot, maybe a leg, and finally my entire body. Before I knew it, I was out of the comfort zone, footloose and fancy free—on the other side.
Ah, the other side! As much as people had told me I was going to love it there—that exhilarating uncomfortable zone, that adrenalin enriched area, that deeply satisfying place—it was none of those things. In fact, if anything it was very scary. Very, very scary.
Judith Bardwick defines the comfort zone as "a behavioural state where a person operates in an anxiety-neutral position." Brene Brown, author and public speaker, describes it as a place, "Where our uncertainty, scarcity and vulnerability are minimized—where we believe we’ll have access to enough love, food, talent, time and admiration. When we feel we have some control."
Of course the notion of control is a construct to begin with. We can’t control whether or not we get sick, whether we suddenly lose our jobs in a period of downturn, whether our partner falls out of love with us, whether our kids are happy— being in-control of our lives is merely a perception, as opposed to a reality. But it is a perception nonetheless, and one that I have experienced on the odd occasion.
Interestingly enough, I never really considered myself to be languishing in the comfort zone. I never even considered the concept of the comfort zone. It is only now, that I’m lacking in that perceived geographical space, that I realize it existed.
The comfort zone for me was a steady job, where I was being paid a considerable income and was well-versed in the rules of engagement. I knew that if I turned up at 9am and finished around 6pm, and did the appropriate amount of work and engaged with colleagues, my superiors would be pleased as punch, and there were limited opportunities for my employment situation to fall over. This meant I could continue to live in my comfortable home, with my comfortable appliances, drive my comfortable car, eat my comfortable food, and have an equally comfortable relationship with my partner.
There was nothing overwhelmingly wrong with any of it. It was well… easy. And who could dislike easy?
The notion of stepping outside the comfort zone into the uncomfortable zone, means elevated stress and anxiety—a general feeling of discomfort.
There was no intentional stepping outside of the comfort zone for me, it’s more like I was jettisoned out there, like some unknown force had sent me spinning out there for no particular reason. It all really started to happen when I fell pregnant late last year. This unfamiliar event, heralded a series of other unfamiliar events—a chain reaction of things that I was unaccustomed with, unacquainted with, or unaware of…
Then came the purchase of a small business, a craft beer bar, alongside my husband and two other co-owners, the completion of a book which was picked up by a publisher, the birth of a baby, the writing of a series of blogs which went viral and then the change of lifestyle… all of a sudden, I was in very unfamiliar territory, standing quite exposed and slightly adrift.
It was like an uncomfortable zone juggernaut, where one unfamiliar event was followed by an even more curious one, until there was almost a perpetual movement forward into unchartered waters.
People talk about experiencing enhanced levels of concentration and focus when they’re outside of their comfort zone. The theorist Alisdair White discussed the concept of an "optimal performance zone," in which performance can be enhanced by some amount of stress.
I wasn't quite sure if I had found myself in the optimal performance zone or not, but what was clear was the overwhelming idea of suddenly being fully exposed. Vulnerable to public judgment and with that, public censure. The crippling notion that I might make the wrong decision and have to live with the consequences. The crushing belief that my own actions would have an impact on those around me–those that I loved the most.
And why? Why was I risking it all? Because I needed to follow my dreams. To be the person that I had always aspired to be. To write, to produce art, to live a passionate life, rather than exist within the humdrum.
After careful consideration, I decided that this was not a selfish thing. After all, watching others pursue their dreams can often be an incentive for people to follow their own path. To inspire is by no means selfish. In addition, I was reminded of the words of Wendy Whiteley, late wife, and muse to iconic Australian artist, Brett Whiteley, "To create something and to not put it out there is a disservice to everyone involved."
This year has been one of the loneliest of my life. And people from the exterior might look into my world and be impressed by the wholesale changes, my commitment to revolution, to bettering circumstances, to doing something different—they’ll miss the inner turmoil that went along with it.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is the year that I had realized I was living in the comfort zone. I only realized this by stepping outside it and by pursuing my dreams.
I have at moments felt the most remote and isolated I've ever been, but signing the inside cover of my very own book at its launch made it all very much worth it. If you’ve ever thought about leaving your comfort zone, but held yourself back because of that debilitating uncomfortable zone, remember this: Your dreams will remain exactly that (dreams), if you never make them happen.
Photo by Jon Chiang