I got thinking about this recently while reading The Happiness Trap. In it, Russ Harris pointed out that the comfort zone often isn’t actually comfortable. It may involve a heck of a lot more misery than comfort. So why are we so pulled to hang out there?
When the comfort zone is good
If things are working well, the comfort zone can be a happy place to be. That’s where I am with my guinea pig mama-dom; things are good as they are with my guinea pig family, and there’s no growth or goals needed there.
If your comfort zone is a place where you’re better at managing your mental illness or other chronic illness, that’s a good kind of comfort zone. If that zone is a place of self-acceptance and self-love, rock on!
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is big on aligning your actions with your values to create a meaningful life. If your comfort zone lives in a values-consistent area, that’s probably a pretty good place to be.
Potential outcomes of change vs. comfort zone
The problem with comfort zones is that they often don’t open up the possibility for things to get better. If the current comfort zone is in a miserable neighbourhood, staying holed up in that neighbourhood might keep things at the same level of misery. On the other hand, if you’re so ensconced in your comfort zone that you fail to notice the rodent infestation taking over the neighbourhood, things could get worse. Things could get better if the miserable neighbourhood gets a major makeover, but that’s probably not an especially likely outcome.
Venturing outside of the comfort zone opens up a lot more possibility for things to get better. But the potential negatives are probably a lot more noticeable than the potential rodent infestation, especially if you’ve got a loud inner critic that’s keeping a running commentary at full volume. That doesn’t mean that the likelihood of those potential negatives is as high as the inner critic is estimating, but the negatives are still apparent.
If your current comfort zone is in a miserable neighbourhood, change is probably the only realistic chance of things getting better. But maybe self-sabotaging patterns are humming along unnoticed in the background and putting up barriers on the roads leading out of the miserable neighbourhood.
Emotion mind vs. logical mind
I’ve been thinking lately about why I don’t tend to fall into anxiety-related thinking traps, and I think it may be because I tend to be very left-brain-oriented and logical. Anxious thought traps usually aren’t particularly logical, so those don’t tend to tug at me. What does pull me into emotion mind is feeling hurt by others; that’s when my logical brain goes flying out the window.
In a situation that doesn’t involve potential hurt, I tend to do a weighing of pros and cons in my head and decide if the aversive factor of the cons is more than I’m willing to pay for the benefits. That is, unless I’m near my fork limit; then the pull to avoid can be pretty strong, although that’s less about comfort zone and more about logical and emotion mind shouting in unison, “Fuck it, I can deal with any more bullshit.”
Weighing pros vs. cons
A while back, I had contemplated writing a memoir. This was around the time I had published my second book and was thinking about what to work on as my next book project. I ended up deciding against it for a few different reasons. Some of those reasons could have been comfort zone excuses, but in the end, I feel comfortable that it was a good decision that was made logically.
In that situation, a loud inner critic would probably say that no one would be interested in it and anyone who did read it wouldn’t like it, and that would be bad, so it would be better not to even try. Sure, I might feel proud of myself for writing it, BUT NO ONE WOULD LIKE IT!!! Bring on the comfort zone!
That wasn’t my thought process, though. I know that self-published books are hard to sell. Nonfiction of the non-memoir variety is somewhat easier, because there are probably some people looking for a book on a particular topic. I suspect that memoirs are probably the hardest kind of book to sell unless you’re well-known or have a massive online following. So if I wrote a memoir, it would sell very few copies, not because it’s written by me, but because memoirs by random people (such as myself) are inherently unlikely to get many readers. So that’s a negative.
What about positives? I actually don’t think I’d feel especially proud of myself for writing a memoir; it’s not a wish that I’ve been carrying around for a while, and I feel like my blog is a better way to talk about myself anyway, since it’s interactive rather than just throwing material out into the void. Overall, the aversive factor outweighs the potential positive, so I decided not to do it. Same general issues as the comfort zone scenario, but different way of considering them.
How comfortable do you get?
Familiar uncomfortable may feel more appealing than unfamiliar uncomfortable, but what if it’s possible to get to a comfort zone that’s actually comfortable?
Perhaps this is where fear of success can get in the way; if a positive/successful outcome looks uncomfortable, that probably makes it harder to budge out of the current comfort zone. But I think we all deserve to actually be comfortable; I don’t think it’s something we need to earn or deserve somehow.
So, where am I going with all of this? Nowhere in particular, but I do think it’s worth keeping in mind that “comfort zone” doesn’t necessarily involve much comfort.
Does your comfort zone live in a good neighbourhood or a miserable one? Do you ever avoid change because of the pull of an uncomfortable comfort zone?