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6 Feb
2012
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Does Your Comfort Zone Stop You From Doing What You Want to Do?

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

What exactly is a comfort zone? To be honest, I’m not at all sure. It’s one of those terms that are bandied about in a way that makes me think that even if I don’t know what it means – I probably should, so I’d better pretend that I do.

I’m not a great one for pretence so I have to own up to having an idea of what it means, but would hesitate to provide a definition. The idea of a comfort zone is largely based on exactly what it sounds like it means – the zone in which I am comfortable. But that’s when we get into the first area of confusion. I’m usually comfortable in my armchair, next to the radiator reading a fascinating book; or watching something really entertaining on tv. I’m also usually comfortable in my armchair when I’m watching something really not that interesting on tv and I fall asleep.

So does comfort zone mean my armchair? It is after all, very soft and comfortable with a back that’s high enough to support my head and shaped to facilitate that thing that blokes do which is to slide slowly down so that the back is horizontal with neck bent at right angles to watch tv.

The whole of my house is a comfortable place for me to be, and my garden too. Yet I remember a time when going outside was distinctly outside my area of comfort. This was several decades ago when I was suffering from severe anxiety and agoraphobia/social phobia. But, back then, if I imagined myself in other places, I found that open countryside on my own was tolerable, but supermarkets, queues, and cinemas were intolerable. Mind you, in those days I never felt that comfortable indoors either.

So I think that an aspect of this idea about an area of comfort is to some extent geographical. By that I mean there are specific locations where you feel safe, and locations where you don’t. The safety aspect might be a real physical danger, like going for a walk along the seafront in a hurricane, or it might be imagined, like a supermarket or cinema. Yet what I also realised, back in those dark days, was that sitting in my comfortable spot reading or watching tv was not actually comfortable when thinking about supermarkets or cinemas. Thinking about those places generated feelings inside of me that were very like actually being physically in those places. So the geographical location of armchair ceased, in the moment of experiencing those thoughts, to be within my comfort zone.

And that’s when we move into a territory that I’m much more familiar with – the territory of the mind.

I would suggest that a comfort zone is a feeling state – how we feel when we are actually in a place, or how we feel when we think about a place. Add to that how we feel when there are people around us too. I’ve felt quite comfortable in empty places and quite uncomfortable in those same places as soon as another person walked in and I came under scrutiny. I’ve also felt comfortable in places in which there were a few people and then uncomfortable as the numbers of other people increased past my – dare I say it – comfort zone.

I think I’m getting the hang of this. I think I’m in my comfort zone, no matter where I am, when I’m at peace within myself. I’m out of my comfort zone when anxiety starts to make itself felt. What I’ve noticed is that anxiety can make itself felt anywhere so no location is always in my comfort zone. But anxiety is always generated as a result of thoughts that I am thinking. So if there was a way to control anxiety more effectively my comfort zone would grow quite quickly.

That’s exactly what happened to me, only it wasn’t that quick. But back then I didn’t understand as much as I do now.

Something else I noticed about comfort zones. And for this we need some visual aids.

Here we see what we might consider to be an agoraphobic’s comfort zone. It’s small and very restrictive in that almost any movement brings you right into contact with it. It’s also very sharply defined, and as you might expect, the sharper the definition, the more intense the anxiety.

Here is the same person after spending some time working on enlarging their comfort zone. Not only has the comfort zone enlarged considerably, creating a much greater range of comfortable movement; it has also begun to blur and soften. It is no longer so hard-edged or clearly defined.

This is what you notice as your area of comfort becomes bigger. The boundary is not nearly so clearly defined. This quite naturally happens and as you push your boundaries further and further away the boundary itself becomes more difficult to see. The end result is that you feel comfortable most of the time with only one or two areas of specific discomfort – doctors’ or dentists’ offices perhaps.

The difficulty is changing the small sharp one into the big blurry one. The smaller the diameter of the zone you start with the more difficult it is to create any movement at all. I say that not to discourage you, but to re-assure you, so that set-backs do not cause you to give up. If you know something is going to be difficult, but you choose to do it anyway, then you are not surprised or discouraged if change does not come easily.

My comfort zone once was tiny. It is now big enough that no one would know there was ever a problem.

The trick, the shortcut, if you like, is to understand the nature of anxiety itself. But I’ll leave that for now, while you consider whether or not you want to expand your comfort zone, or leave it just where it comfortably is.

If you’ve enjoyed this post then please leave a comment below, and don’t forget to share it with that friend who you know this might benefit. It might be the first step on the road away from their pain.

Michael

So, what do you think?