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If I’m comfortable, then I’m probably not growing.
Inside the comfort zone I feel safe and in control – everything is on an even keel and it’s smooth sailing. The best sailors, however, aren’t born in smooth waters.
Without leaning into my edge, I can’t fully experience all that life has to offer.
This doesn’t mean I can simply hop out of our comfort zone one fine day. Instead, I need to regularly venture beyond, see what that feels like, then retreat back to safety. Peaks, troughs, and plateaus might complicate the process, but over time, as my capability grows, my comfort zone expands in parallel.
It’s wise to leverage existing skills and innate strengths – most of us have probably transcended our comfort zones in certain areas of life already. If we can tap those experiences for insight, we’ll be more resilient for our next adventure.
There are as many different ways to experiment with comfort zones as there are human beings on the planet. One person’s Everest is another person’s walk in the park.
That said, here are 5 unusual ways I’ve pushed against my comfort zone thus far. Whether they surprise, inspire, or confuse you, take what’s useful and discard the rest.
1. Reconnect with silence
“Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.”
Having lived in London my whole life, silence often feels like an abstract, alien concept.
I recently wrote about my experience of a silent Buddhist retreat. In a peculiar way, sometimes the quiet felt loud. Especially at the start, when my inner critic was amplified.
Our egoic selves are obsessed over what we ‘like’ and ‘dislike’. Taking words out of the equation robs the ego of its conceptual tool with which to label everything. Silence teaches me to take in the present moment for what it is, which might anything but ‘comfortable’.
I now create regular opportunities for silence. Sometimes I sit quietly for 20-30 seconds before a meal. Other times, my wife and I go for an intentional, silent walk, where we take in our surroundings in each other’s company.
Silence can feel harsh, but it enriches me in ways that are hard to describe. After all, words are crude tools. Is it time to loosen your attachment to them?
2. Carve out time to do nothing
As much as I enjoy tinkering with spreadsheets and productivity apps, this can easily become procrastinatory.
I’m not going to suggest focusing instead on the ‘80/20 principle’, or on ‘working smarter’. Beneath those well-worn productivity clichés, there’s another layer, and it’s called being rather than doing.
I used to believe that fulfilment is the fruit of busyness, target-setting and goal achievement. After all, success and happiness depend on consistent action, right? This is a half-truth which misses the bigger picture.
My emotional attachment to tasks, schedules and plans often gives the illusion of safety and control, but the long-term costs to my health and wellbeing can be enormous.
To counterbalance this, I create regular periods where no output is expected of me whatsoever. For my monkey mind, this often feels like a dangerous proposition – a leap outside my comfort zone.
Meditation is one tool, but there are other ways… I might go for an aimless, agenda-less walk. A walk where I don’t distract myself by calling a friend, stopping for groceries or tracking my calories. Or I might sit down for a hot drink, and just be with that drink, without checking my phone or email.
Challenge yourself to be rather than always to do.
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3. Be truly vulnerable
Revealing myself to be a vulnerable, flawed human being has been a formidable catalyst in my personal growth. It also deepens my connection to those around me.
I find vulnerability hard to embody, even with those I’m close to. Honesty tends to fall by the wayside as I create a veneer that says ‘everything is just fine’.
One way I started small was by first being honest and vulnerable with myself. If I can’t even have an open with myself, perhaps in a private journal, then how can I expect to replicate this in relationship to others?
Leaning beyond my ‘vulnerability comfort zone’ also involves creative expression, which means posting authentic content on this blog.
Where could you experiment with humility and vulnerability in your life?
4. Try flavour fasting
For many, there’s an association between food and comfort. Or more accurately, between junk food and comfort. Our ability to enjoy real, nourishing food seems to be growing weaker and weaker.
As a salt fiend, I can relate. I easily get hooked on salty foods to the point of waking up groggy with salt hangovers. Rich snacks are my happy place, my Achilles heel, and my comfort zone.
The challenge is also a cultural one – I find there’s a tension between two conflicting messages:
- You need to have more self-control and stop eating junk food
- Also, please do eat all the junk food – all these cakes, crisps and biscuits aren’t going to eat themselves
In order to weaken my link between comfort and snacking, I recently tried something I call a flavour fast. The rules were: no condiments, no added salt or sugar, and no cooking with oils or sauces for 1 week.
It was really hard. But after 3 days, I started to detect more flavour in those spoonfuls of plain brown rice, lentils and broccoli. At the end of the week, when I added flavour back, my tastebuds were more than happy with moderate seasoning.
The main point is to think outside the box when it comes to stretching your comfort zone. Where are you being complacent in life and how could you shake things up?
5. Expanding our worldview
I saved the most important to last.
I find it easy to get stuck in intellectual and ideological ruts. Exploring contradictory worldviews can feel uncomfortable, especially when my views are deeply entrenched.
But mental flexibility can lead to insight and growth. And given how polarised the world is becoming, I believe we need more people willing to question internalised norms and dominant cultural beliefs with a healthy sense of scepticism.
This might take several forms:
- Exploring a variety of book genres
- Diversifying the people you spend time with
- Exposing yourself to unusual places and cultures
Approach these activities with an open mind, and you’ll quickly be humbled by how little you know. That can be unsettling, but it can also liberate you to become an agent of truth and understanding, not just another peddler of dogma.
Having been trained as a medical doctor, my worldview was for a time dominated by hard science and the strictly physical nature of reality. At that time, clinging to an atheistic worldview gave me a sense of comfort, causing me to look down on spiritual folk.
But lately, something has been shifting. I’ve allowed myself to wonder: what if there really is more than this life? More than we can see and observe? More to human beings than their physical bodies?
I still feel a flicker of shame for even writing that. There’s baggage in there about being seen as kooky, naïve, or even delusional. But then again, perhaps this fear is a sign that I really have ventured outside my cultural comfort zone.
Try on new worldviews, if only to see how they fit. You can always put them down if you wish. Who knows, maybe you’ll grow in unexpected ways.
Leaving our comfort zone isn’t necessarily about becoming a ‘hustler’, or pushing ourselves relentlessly. At least not for everyone.
Sometimes it takes the complete opposite form, such as being more gentle with ourselves, or remembering to schedule rest and play. These things can be the most uncomfortable of all.
There’s also no need to ‘face our edge’ in every aspect of life simultaneously. We can be intentional, focusing on high-priority areas in which we’re currently being complacent.
Fundamentally, this is about having a deeply personal conversation with ourselves about growth. It’s also about taking responsibility for the direction of our lives. I hope these examples inspire you to take a broader view of how that might happen.