There's a lot of talk these days urging us to move beyond our comfort zones. To "push" past what's comfortable, in the name of striving and thriving.
To all of this, I say YES...
Yes: we as Homo sapiens must strive in order to thrive. And by striving I don't mean always-looking-elsewhere, never-at-home, currying discontent in the name of growth.
I mean, rather, engaging life with what the poet Mary Oliver calls "an attitude of noticing," such that we cultivate our innate curiosity on purpose, looking beneath and behind and beyond and around, and also straight ahead, at what's right there, with eyes refreshed by a willingness to see not only what's obvious, but what's not. (Read to the end and you'll find five awesome strategies to jump-start striving and thriving!).
When we keep our curiosity primed, we fuel our own life-source, that pulse we call creativity. And when our creativity is ignited, we are naturally, organically, effortlessly drawn to inquiry, learning, discovery, invention and innovation—key components to thriving as humans.
To strive is, then, to seek this state of being, what some refer to as being "in flow," or "in the zone." It's the state we easily inhabit as little kids, when magic and the mundane are inextricable.
Striving is both the condition and reward of play.
Striving is the interrogative embodied, then enacted.
As such, striving is essential to human flourishing, to engaging one's full potential. Aristotle observed as much when he located striving as key to living a virtuous life. The Romans coined a term for striving that emphasizes the relationship between the struggle inherent in any creative act and the experience of joy once that struggle is overcome: Gaudium Certaminis (Gaudium means "joy." Certaminis is “of the struggle"). Nietzsche believed the practice of striving was inherent to the human need for intentional growth.
In short: humans like to strive. It's what we do when we're healthy and aligned. It's our thing.
And when we're not striving? We feel, sooner or later, agitated, restless, overwhelmed, underwhelmed, dulled, tired, disconnected, mechanical, unsatisfied, and distracted.
Without striving, we stagnate. And as is the case for all creatures, for all ecologies, stagnation => death.
Which brings me to my NO.
NO: it's not our comfort zones that keep us small. It's what Gay Hendricks, in The Big Leap, refers to as the "zone of competence" that keeps us stuck. That place that feels routine and easy and predictable; a place that generates perfectly acceptable product of one sort or another, stuff other people are even fed by but that leaves us hungry, starving even, for something more—for the rewards of striving. For creative spark and genesis. For ah-ha!
That is, we're most comfortable when we're striving.
Our comfort zone is in fact our zone of genius, not our zone of stagnation.
So, when we talk about needing to bust through our comfort zones, what I think people really mean is that we need to step out of and stave off stagnation. That we need to reach for, not beyond, our real zones of comfort—the places in which we feel most alive, energized by our own lives, engaged by the miraculousness of existence itself, awake to ourselves and others, alert and curious.
In contrast, the stagnation zone is what grips us by the ankles like a heavy swath of water-clogged weeds.
But why, you might wonder, should we bother so much with these distinctions? Isn’t it just a matter of semantics?
We should bother because language matters. Our words form the content of our thoughts. Our thoughts create our feelings. Our feelings drive our (in)actions. Our actions create our results.
When we keep telling ourselves that we need to stretch beyond our comfort zones in order to reach our potential, we unwittingly sell ourselves short.
When we make a mantra out of overcoming our comfort zones in search of our best selves, we predicate transformation on a lie: that we don't like to strive, that thriving is hard, and that it doesn't feel good. (All of which feels surprisingly and interestingly Puritan, don't you think?)
In contrast, I'd like to suggest that we drop the rhetoric of the "comfort zone" and cut to the chase, call it what it really is: the zone of fear.
When we're stuck, spinning our wheels, not sure how we got here but quite sure we don't want to stay, we're not comfortable—we're afraid.
We're afraid of failure.
Of disappointing someone.
Of going broke.
Of losing out.
Of missing out.
Of being alone.
Of making a mistake.
And I don't think for one second that any of us are comfortable in this place. What we so often refer to as our comfort zone can, I'd wager, more accurately be called our zone of misery.
This distinction is crucial, I think, because as long as we chalk stagnation up to being too comfortable, we occlude the real issue: fear.
Moreover, when we unintentionally equate fear with comfort, we make fear a lot harder to recognize—and thus overcome—when we're in its grip. We set ourselves up to fall for fear's trap: to capitulate to it. To read it as reason. To believe the stories it conjures so that we hold back and play safe.
When we equate fear with comfort we also denigrate the compassionate wisdom of our own discomfort. If, according to the zone-of-comfort theory, we stay stuck because we feel dangerously cozy when stagnant, we risk making personal growth an exercise in accommodation, of assimilating things that truly aren't good for us in the name of our best becoming.
Let's then, trade out “comfort zone” for "fear zone" and encourage our inherent, collective urge to strive. Let's dispense with the notion that we feel comfortable when stuck, and acknowledge instead how trapped and unhappy we feel when we're living our lives in fear. And let's be truthful about stagnation: it's not comfy! It stinks. It hurts. And calling it comfortable when it's not just aggravates our self-doubt, provokes us to question the discomfort that, in fact, we ought to be heeding, open-eyed.
So, how do you know if you're in a fear zone, a zone of stagnation?
Here are 5 Sure Signs of Stagnation:
1. You feel trapped by your own life, your own choices. You don't like key aspects of your life but you don't see a way out, or the way our that you do see feels impossible.
2. You experience sustained and chronic resentment. You feel persistent anger towards someone you feel has wronged you. You believe others are to blame for your unhappiness.
3. You feel inexplicably tired, exhausted, or lackluster. You may also have a chromic autoimmune disease or suffer regular headaches or stomach aches.
4. You feel like you're living on autopilot: things look good on the outside, but feel empty on the inside.
5. You spend a lot of time focused on the past, ruminating, or a lot of time in fantasy.
If you identified with even one of the above, it's likely that you're living in a zone of fear.
Here are five strategies you can start practicing right away to move from a zone of fear (stagnation) to your genuine zone of comfort (striving).
Five Strategies to Jump-Start Striving:
1. Learn something totally new: take up ballroom dancing or tap lessons. Sign up for a water color class. Join a writing group. Learn a martial art. Commit to learning a new language, and do it. Think back to when you were a kid or a teenager, and see if there is a lost passion or interest you can resurrect. (If you are telling yourself that you don’t have time for such a thing as you read this, that’s another sign that you’re living in fear).
2. Keep a Curiosity Notebook. Buy a small, pocket-sized notebook and take it with you everywhere. Challenge yourself for 30 days to notice and jot down five new observations about familiar places every day. When was the last time you looked up for a good stretch of time while walking down the street? What is growing in the cracks in the sidewalk? What is the person wearing at the cafe where you buy your morning coffee? What color are the eyes of each person you buy something from today? What does the bark feel like on the tree that you walk by every day into work, or to get the mail, or to walk the dog?
3. Make a Joy List. Write down ten things or activities that bring you joy. Tally up how much time you spend doing each of these per week. Commit to cultivating joy in your life by scheduling in at least ten minutes each day for a joy activity. (You'll be amazed at what this strategy alone will do for you!).
4. Make a decision. Indecision is a huge energy-drainer and perpetuates confusion, fear, and stagnation. Start by making an inventory of all of the decisions you currently need to make, from small to big. Do so without judgment; just get them down on paper. Then choose one decision to focus on, and make it by day's end. Better yet, make it right now. Do not second guess your decision once it's made. Instead, focus on making the decision, then making it right. If you have a hard time deciding, always favor the decision that your future self would make.
5. Meditate. This is perhaps the best strategy of all for generating a long-term habit of striving, as mindfulness is the bedrock of full presence, and presence is the condition of self-love and therefore compassion. If you don't meditate now, you can start with just 10 minutes a day. I like Vipassana, or "insight" meditation. If you would like me to send you a free 13-minute guided meditation I made, email me and I'll happily send it to you. You can also access hundreds of guided and instructional meditations via various meditation apps. My favorite is Insight Timer.
I hope you find these tools helpful!
If you like what you've read here, please share with a friend: we wake up together, always. And if you have feedback or comments, I would, as ever, love to hear from you.
Much gratitude to you, and have a beautiful week!
P.S. If you feel like you're living in a zone of fear, stagnating rather than striving or thriving, I invite you to schedule a free, no-strings attached Breakthrough Session with me. We'll get to the heart of your challenges and you'll start to feel relief immediately. I'm passionate about helping people just like you :). Just click below!