The 5 Gatekeepers Holding You Prisoner To Your Comfort Zone

“Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Probably one of the most cliche pieces of advice from business leaders and entrepreneurs. In fact, it’s so cliche that many of us merely write it off as relatively useless. However, within this statement lies a fundamental truth: If you want to grow as a person and if you want to create awesome life experiences, you will have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations from time to time.

Not the kind of situations where you fear for your safety. (Although, depending on what experiences you’re attempting to have this could very well be the case.) Rather, the anxiety-provoking uncomfortable that comes from experiencing a certain level of fear and uncertainty. This experience is completely normal, and it’s necessary.

The Process of Mental & Physical Growth

Growth occurs as a result of a process known as progressive overload.

Progressive Overload: The process of exposing yourself to controlled amounts of overreaching stress to elicit growth.

This concept applies to both mental and physical growth. In the gym, it is a fundamental principle of strength training. By exposing the body to stress that it isn’t equipped to handle (overreaching), you are forcing the production of new muscle tissue to help overcome this stress. Building muscle is a biological mechanism for survival. 

If you want to grow as a person, just as you stimulate growth in muscles, you have to expose yourself to overreaching stress. Projects that require skills you don’t possess (and therefore have to learn) and pushing through feelings of anxiety to perform a task that scares you (public speaking) are just a few examples.

Why Following Through is So Hard

Even if we know we need to get out of our comfort zone, that doesn’t answer why it’s so hard to follow through. Remember, growth occurs as a mechanism for survival. Our body adapts to stress in preparation to overcome that stress in future situations. In these moments the body can take two paths: adapt or retreat to our comfort zone.

For example, Tom wants to eat better and get fit. However, these tasks require lifestyle changes that are hard. He may be unhappy with his eating behaviors or his body, but Tom is used to this unhappiness. It’s a series of feelings he can predict, he knows them very well, and however negative they make him feel—he knows what to expect.

It really comes down to choosing the devil you know over the one you don’t.

Stepping away from that comfort into the unknown is scary. The honest truth is that most people will remain a prisoner of their comfort zone for their entire lives. If you want to break free from the fear of uncertainty, and if you want to push yourself to grow as a person, here are the five gatekeepers keeping you shackled to your comfort zone:

1) Authenticity/Identity

When we step out of our comfort zones we often don’t feel like ourselves, and choosing to do something different can challenge our concept of who we are. In his book, Influence, Robert Cialdini discusses that humans have an innate desire to be consistent in their behavior. Every decision we make, and action we take, carves itself into our identity. When we face similar situations in the future, we tend to default to the same behaviors because we assume we did them for a reason–because it must be who we are. Some might even feel like they are a fraud for doing something different. (Changing careers, for example.)

Here’s the good news: your identity is what you choose it to be. Growth requires doing things differently, and to become the person you want to become you have to leave the old version of you behind. Yes, you are behaving in a manner inconsistent with your previous behavior. That’s okay because you’re better now.

You have every right to change your mind and do things differently.

2) Likeability

Being afraid that this “new” version of yourself won’t be liked by others in your life. This most frequently seen by individuals who are changing their lifestyle: making better food choices, eating out less frequently, and dedicating more time to exercise. Their family and friends might hassle or question their decision to order a healthier entree at a restaurant, often saying things like:

“Come on, you can cheat a little.”

“One meal won’t kill you.”

“Relax and live a little, sheesh.”

In adulthood, our peers are the biggest influence on our behavior, and our closest friends have the biggest impact. As a result of this influence, and the tendency to be consistent in our behavior, we begin to create a set of rules, or behavioral norms, within our social networks. These norms are unspoken guidelines for how to act in the group and encompass decisions like what you do for fun, what types of jokes you tell, what food you order at restaurants, to name a few.

When we decide to behave differently, such as ordering an alternative entree at a restaurant, we experience resistance from our group members. This is the result of breaking our group’s behavioral norms.

In an interesting phenomenon called the black sheep effect, our group members will view an outsider of the group who breaks the group norms as more favorable than someone within our group who breaks the group norms. This means a stranger at the table next to us could order the same healthier entree, and my friends might actually be impressed with their self-control. If I ordered the exact same dish, however, they would hassle me for not enjoying myself with them. My group would make it very clear (whether they’re actually aware or not) that that’s not what we do here.

This clearly presents a real challenge. It’s hard enough to willingly step out of our comfort zone, let alone deal with seemingly unsupportive friends and family. The key to overcoming this obstacle is to make your new behaviors the new normal.

When I first began making healthier choices I had to experience the same resistance from friends and family. My choices were often questioned. (Not maliciously.) However, now that I’ve been making these healthier choices for over a decade, no one questions when I order the healthy entree or if I decide to come out and order nothing at all. That’s, “just what Alex does.”

Make it very clear, through your words and your actions, that these behaviors are here to stay. Trying something different, pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, being adventurous; your friends and family will have to adjust to this new version of you—and they will.

3) Competence

The belief that you won’t do well and others may see this. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, has identified two distinct mindsets: fixed and growth

Holding a fixed mindset, the belief that one’s skill and abilities are fixed and unchangeable, will most often lead to questions of competency in regard to new activities. If our skills aren’t changeable, then any attempt at a new activity (and subsequent performance in said activity) is a direct reflection of our inherent abilities. Naturally, with this mindset, you wouldn’t want others to see you perform poorly for fear they might think less of your overall abilities.

On the other hand, adopting a growth mindset lends itself much better to experimentation and trying new things. Individuals with a growth mindset believe that their skills and abilities can be improved through practice in the specific task. Individuals with this mindset are less likely to care about failing their first time because they know they can get better, and this failure isn’t a reflection of their capabilities—only their abilities right now.

While the process of shifting mindsets it outside the scope of this article, working to adopt a growth mindset will allow you to more freely and confidently try new things outside of your comfort zone.

4) Resentment

Resentment is an emotion closely related to anger and arises from a sense of injustice or unfairness. On a subconscious level, we might feel resentful that we have to step out of our comfort zone to accomplish things in the first place.

For example, introverts might feel resentful that they have to network to advance in their career. Is it not enough to have the skills to excel at the profession in question? Instead, introverts might feel that their ability to perform well in the job is overshadowed by the meaningless necessity to socialize with others.

Changing your perception surrounding the uncomfortable activity can help eliminate feelings of resentment. The anxiety you feel from discomfort or from embarking on an exciting journey can feel the same. Take, for example, the anxiety you feel just before taking the stage of a public speaking event versus the anxiety you feel just before getting on a roller coaster. Both cause the same set of symptoms: increased heart rate, sweating, butterflies in the stomach. However, the public speaking event is seen as significantly more negative than the roller coaster.

By changing your perception of the event, from unnecessary evil to interesting new experience, you can alleviate any possible resentment toward the activity. You might even begin to look forward to these new, uncomfortable situations.

5) Morality

Closely related to the subjective feelings of violating our identity, and as a defense mechanism against the anxiety we might feel, we will often question whether what we’re doing is even right?

A good example might be needing to have a tough conversation with a loved one in your life, a conversation about a topic or situation that might not even directly involve you. You have a close friend who you believe is partying and drinking too much, and you fear it is negatively impacting their health. Is it even your place to question their lifestyle choices? We may question whether we are right to bring up our concerns in the first place.

There may also be a question of the ethics associated with the activity. Imagine you’re a health coach that markets specifically to individuals suffering from serious medical conditions. You might question whether it’s ok to market your services to such a population. You might even begin to question if you’re taking advantage of their desperation for improved health.

When questions of ethics or morality arise, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Am I hurting anyone as a direct or indirect consequence of my actions?
  2. Am I being forthright and honest in my promises and my behaviors?
  3. Are my actions in line with my core values?
  4. Are there legitimate concerns regarding the methods I employ?

If your answers to these questions are all something you feel good about, then carry on. People will always disagree with you. However, if you are remaining true to your character and values, and not hurting anyone, then anyone would be hard-pressed to say it isn’t moral.

Along your journey to personal growth, you will come upon these gatekeepers. It’s only when you’ve come to acknowledge and understand your position, at each level, that you will be allowed to pass. Are you currently being held prisoner by any of these gatekeepers? If so,  take notice that all of these barriers are self-imposed. You are the only one holding yourself back. Liberating yourself from this prison will allow you to push forward into the unknown, grow as a human being, and live an extraordinary and authentic life.

The best, most memorable adventures happen outside of your comfort zone.

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