Discomfort Is the New Comfort Zone

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“Getting out of your comfort zone” is so in these days. All the cool successful kids are doing it…or at least telling anyone who wants to know how to find “success” to do it, too. I haven’t heard a single interview in the last two years with someone the culture has deemed successful that doesn’t contain the phrase “get out of your comfort zone” in some form. Most have gone so far as to claim that success is actually impossible if you don’t leave your comfort zone.

The first problem with this argument is that “success” is never clearly defined in any of these interviews— nor in blog posts about success, nor in self-help books or workshops or anything purporting to help people become successful. Much of the media around success states outright that “only you, the reader/listener/workshop participant/person who desires success and is thus defining yourself as unsuccessful in some way can define success for yourself.” This is a copout: by default, “successful” in this culture means wealthy. Absurdly wealthy, such that you can give away half, 75%, or even 90% of your income and still afford a vacation home, a yacht, and a staff of personal assistants to ensure you don’t have to actually do anything for yourself. We all know this; we all feel it. We can look up synonyms of success all we want—achievement, attainment, realization, triumph, victory, accomplishment—but do any of those ring true to what the culture actually portrays as successful?

We can say success means whatever you want it to mean, but no one in mainstream culture would buy it if you defined success as living friendless in destitution under a bridge. They would criminalize your behavior and label you mentally ill and then maybe some charitable organization or guilt-ridden soul would offer to help you change your situation. Success in mainstream American culture means rich—and, if you don’t want to be totally vilified by a large portion of the population, generously philanthropic.  Of course, you get to choose what you will save humanity from, and the best part is that you don’t have to ask those whose savior you decree yourself to be how they might define help. We’re not about concrete definitions here, anyway.

 

The second problem is that “comfort zone” is also not defined. This might be because a comfort zone is going to differ by individual, and so offering any more concrete definition is both alienating and unnecessary. Paradoxically, another reason why no one offers a more specific definition of comfort zone is because it seems, on its face to be obvious: The comfort zone is where you feel comfortable. Some other words Microsoft Word’s thesaurus suggests for “comfortable” are “contented,” “relaxed,” “calm,” “snug,” “happy,” “easy” and “restful.” So, basically anytime you are in the parasympathetic state—the one necessary for healthy digestion, healing sleep, mental and emotional well-being, hormonal balancing, and all kinds of other imperative functions of the body—you are in your comfort zone and therefore, success is impossible.

Hopefully, you’re beginning to see the problems here. They go beyond fuzzy definitions: the fact that comfort zone and success are so vaguely defined makes the relationship between them seem like an inverse one: the more often you’re in your comfort zone, the less you can hope for success. But what if you define success as happiness?

Remember that one of the synonyms for comfortable is happy. According to the people who are successful enough to have household name recognition, the people we are trained from a very young age to want to be like, you can’t be in your comfort zone happy and successful at the same time. Might this be why only 15% of Americans like their jobs? Given all the synonym talk above, it might be interesting to see what other combinations we could come up with: You can’t be restful and rich; you can’t be calm and accomplished; and so on. Admittedly, those ring true, at least according to the stereotypes out there. They seem a little Protestant-work-ethic-y, emphasizing the connection between hard work and wealth you’d find in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs. (Proverbs, incidentally, also strongly instructs people not to clamor after riches, a sentiment that is echoed many other places in Scripture, even as Proverbs exhorts people to make sure they provide for themselves so that they will be “rewarded” with riches.) Whatever the case, the requirement that one must step outside their comfort zone if one wants to achieve success is troubling, and it’s time to stop letting it go unquestioned.

The idea that constant discomfort is somehow good for us is just a repackaged form of the adage “no pain, no gain.” It’s not too different from the harmful stereotype that, to be creative in any meaningful way, you have to be “depressed” or “mad,” or the idea that you can’t know light unless/until you’ve known darkness. Such “choices” are false dichotomies that rely on undefined terms, sometimes of things that don’t actually exist. (What is “depression,” anyway? What is “insanity?” Who gets to decide?) They also perpetuate the link between pain and greatness. It’s not surprising that a society that gives kudos to people for going without the sleep, human connection, and time off that they need to be well would continue to rephrase the equation conflation of suffering with success.

Why is the culture so committed to suffering as the gatekeeper of success? I don’t see anything inherently logical about the idea that you can’t be truly creative if you’ve never suffered or that you can’t know joy unless you’ve known sorrow. These ideas and others like them are stated without explanation, as if they are self-evident, just like the idea that you have to get out of your comfort zone if you want to succeed—when what’s really happened is simply that we’ve heard them repeated so many times that we mistake familiarity for truth.

But isn’t it just as logical to say that people don’t perform as well if they’re constantly under unhealthy levels of stress? I’m not claiming that remaining in your comfort zone is actually the way to success, but the standard American way of life has actually taught us to seek comfort and convenience and to pathologize pain through its constant advertising of other people’s access to comfort and convenience…. and of how you’re doing something wrong if things in your life are hard/inconvenient/a struggle (and all you need is this product or service! Just click here!). The ease with which many, more privileged people obtain their needs and wants probably does get in the way of their own personal growth. But that’s not an across-the-board fact, so stating things like “There is no growth without challenge/difficulty” or “You cannot become who you’re meant to be without adversity” need more nuance and qualification.

If I’m too uncomfortable physically, emotionally, or relationally, I withdraw, shut down, or dissociate from my body. I do not grow or become stronger. I need a certain amount of physical comfort before I can concentrate on writing, for example. But also, after I get started on a new piece (this is always the hardest part for me), I am in that oh-so-elusive state of flow where I’m not being challenged or out of my comfort zone at all (or if I am, I’m not aware of it). I have forgotten all else besides giving myself over to the writing process, to the trek through the verbal peaks and valleys as I work through a first draft and take in the view from whatever mountain that particular piece asked me to climb. But there is no pain in climbing the mountain. There often is no pain in not climbing the mountain, either. I don’t need pain to be a good writer. I don’t need inspiration from the muse, either. Writing such as I do requires that I sit down at the foot of each mountain and meet whatever goal I had set for myself that day or week. There is no discomfort; there is even joy. And I would say that my writing has been improving overall despite my lack of discomfort.

Of course, this is one simple and personal example. But the claim is that success doesn’t happen without leaving your comfort zone. I haven’t had all the success that I want to have as a writer (and I’m certainly not wealthy), but I don’t think it’s because I haven’t left my comfort zone enough. I think meeting my goals will be a matter of timing, persistence, and continually working on my craft. None of these require me to leave my comfort zone for prolonged periods of time and, by many definitions— including my own— I am already successful as a writer.

I worry that hammering on the idea that success demands constant discomfort has the same effect that repeating over and over again that “relationships are hard/take work” does on relationships. That is, people might not be staying in abusive relationships so long if they had a more nuanced understanding of what “work” and “hard” mean. If “success” requires one to leave their “comfort zone,” is it in order to go out and get it? How often and for how long? How bad does the discomfort have to be? Who gets to decide?

I know psychiatrists are happy to capitalize on manufactured misery however it happens, and I think championing discomfort as a prerequisite for success is one way to manufacture more misery, albeit paradoxically. “To be happy, you have to be miserable” might as well be what advocates of getting out of your comfort zone to achieve success say instead. All they’re doing is creating more faithful customers for the psychiatry and psychology industries, which depend on renewable sources of misery to sustain their business models.

Not only does the advice that success requires getting out of your comfort zone imply that one cannot be happy while doing hard work, thereby making work onerous and indirectly serving psychiatry’s agenda of providing just enough “relief” to be seen as helpful while prolonging their consumers’ pain as long as possible. But it also allows nearly every successful person to gaslight those who ask about their success and how they got it. One reason people desire success is because they believe it will make them happy; now, they’re told to force themselves into potentially giving up happiness, even as they work toward happiness?

I know this one. I’ve done something like it my whole life. I’ve forced and driven and striven my way through most of my tasks every day, pushing myself to do all of these things I do not want to do in the name of having the life I want. How does that make sense? “Paying one’s dues” comes to mind as a possible rejoinder, but this would be paying your dues and then heading straight to the back of the line every time. Just as something cannot arise from nothing, how can comfort arise from constant discomfort?

All of this is a bit exaggerated, perhaps. But the absurdity just highlights the insidious nature of the advice. On the surface, “If you want to be successful, you need to get out of your comfort zone” sounds like logical, sound advice. We’ve all probably heard this so often that we don’t give it much thought. It’s only when we zoom in that we can really see some of its problems and why we need to be careful about taking this ubiquitous form of life coaching seriously.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

16 COMMENTS

  1. This is an article that has some very interesting points. I do not necessarily agree with your definition of success, as it is a more culturally approved definition rather than the more important individual definition of success. But, ever since, I heard the, phrase, “get out of your comfort zone” I questioned why. What is wrong with being in one’s comfort zone? It is so… comfortable. But, now there is another one of these phrases making the rounds, “stay in your own lane.” Well, if I “stay in my own lane” does that mean I am avoiding “getting out of my comfort zone.” What should I do? Although, the idea of staying in one’s own lane is appealing usually it is slung at you like a command, as if you are getting in their lane and the person is upset about it. Howhever, back to the “comfort zone” thing, I would say, when I am in my “comfort zone” I am successful, even if it is not upheld by society’s alleged standards. I am successful because I am alive, happy, relaxed, contented, calm, and peaceful. Which also reminds me of a quote from the Bible (since you did mention Proverbs); “peace beyond understanding.” When I read this phrase, I feel at peace. But, personally, I have also used this phrase I learned in church as a little girl to define my personal success; “meet, right and salutary.” I think each person has their own unique definition of success and when they stray, that’s when they become vulnerable to such evils as psychiatry, etc. Thus, that unique definition of success that each one of us makes both the phrases; “get out of your comfort zone” and “stay in your own lane” null and void. Therefore, then the best thing to do is listen to ourselves and not the “them” who utter these idiotic statements here and there like allergens. Thank you.

  2. Every aphorism has its place.

    “A penny saved is a penny earned.” They have been around a long time, and we occasionally come up with new ones.

    These sayings can always be misused and probably always will be. But there is usually some truth in them or they wouldn’t stick.

    To tell someone who is constantly suffering, “you need to get out of your comfort zone” would be ridiculous. You tell that to people who are more or less obviously so attracted to complacency that they are becoming useless to society, or at least to themselves.

    We could carefully define “success” (attainment of a desired outcome) or “comfort zone” (a level of functioning that is easy and familiar) but would that assist in resolving the problem of the misapplication of this and many other bits of popular advice?

    Most people who experience a “normal” amount of striving in life – someone who is competitive or seeking to constantly improve a skill or a product – knows and lives with this aphorism every day. If they are a good person, they wouldn’t rub it in to someone who is less ambitious, but might do that to a constant complainer. But that would leave out all the other “truths” that such people live by, such as the fact that we determine our own emotions and many of our own outcomes.

    I think the intention of the advisor is more important than the exact advice. And if someone feels harassed by a certain bit of advice, it might be wise to take a look at WHO keeps pushing this at you even though it is obviously not working for you.

    Of course, the truly emotionally unwell are also capable of complaining about advice. So the tables can be turned. In the end, there is no substitute for a good set of life skills and the self-confidence that goes with using them effectively.

    • I agree, why force the suffering “to get out of their comfort zone.” In fact, why must we force those who are comfortable in their comfort zone to leave it? So many people search for years and years to find their comfort zone and never find it? Psychiatry, etc. takes advantage of this with their evil dangerous drugs and their associated therapies. But, not only psychiatry, etc. also mass media, advertising, the illegal drug market, etc. The list is endless. Perhaps, we should stop telling people to “get out of their comfort zone” but don’t be afraid to look for your comfort zone and when you find it, stay there; because “there really is no place like home.” We have a right to our comfortableness. We should not let someone take it away, because, it truly is taking away our God-given right to freedom and the right to pursue happiness. Thank you.

      • The people who live by this aphorism force themselves out of their own comfort zones in order to learn a new song, gain a new skill or hone some ability. They might have help from a coach, but they don’t want to be forced to do it any more than anyone else.

        Normally such people have a place where they can be very comfortable, then another place where they work to challenge themselves. They are actually maintaining a balance, but they talk up the side that seems harder to do.

        For a person who is never comfortable, this makes no sense.

        But I know a lot of people who live by this aphorism, so there is a workability to it, when properly balanced.

        • I think I understand what you are saying, however, I see it a little differently. First, I believe that “being in one’s comfort zone” is being “where you ought to be.” For some people, that really does cause what seems to be someone acting out of their comfort zone. I think of the common “stage fright” experienced by many actors; but, if you ask them they would rather be on stage than anywhere else. But, then there are those who have that “stage fright” and it is a message to them that they do not belong on stage; as it makes them extremely uncomfortable. Perhaps, this “comfort zone” thing gets confusing because of the “overlay” of ideas about it from others, maybe some who are truly unhappy but are afraid to admit it. Of course, in the real world, few of us stay actually in our “comfort zones” 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Sometimes, we have to interact with people we would rather not. Sometimes, we must do things we would rather not. When I have to do my laundry, I can get very grumpy, because I am out of “my comfort zone.” But, when I put on my clean clothes after a good hot shower, I am back in my “comfort zone.” I think part of it boils down to how much time we spend in and out of comfort zone and how we deal with this. I would say when you find your “comfort zone” if possible, try your best to stay in it at least 60% a day. Of course, this can vary depending on sickness, family needs, weather, and a whole host of things. This is just how I feel about this “comfort zone” thing. I do confess I really get tired of those who tell me to “get out of my comfort zone” and don’t even know me. Well, anyway, I hope this clarifies things. Thank you.

        • I agree. I had to leave my comfort zone to run a marathon, or go to grad school. I still enjoyed the challenge, venturing into the unknown. There was no suffering. I never subscribed to the no pain-no gain nonsense I heard in the 70’s. With running, if you run whilst in pain, you get an overuse injury! I bore some discomfort without hurting myself. I ventured out of my comfort zone, but with common sense. The challenge helped me to feel more alive, built my confidence. It was an adventure, whatever the outcome.

          I have to leave my comfort zone to seek a relationship. It’s a risk, of being rejected, meeting more strangers, enduring more anxiety. My current comfort zone is isolating, feeling stagnant.

          My best example: I have to leave my comfort zone to get off these toxic psych meds I’ve been on for two decades. Seeing a holistic practitioner instead of the mainstream drug dispenser/doctor. Venturing into the unknown, it feels scary. I’m chasing a better quality of life, not riches.

          My comfort zone is not one of happiness or serenity. It just feels safe and familiar, minimal unknowns or surprises.
          As mentioned in the comments, it depends on one’s definition of comfort zone.

  3. Steve McCrea, I am sorry, but you have really misconstrued the message in my post. Honestly, I doubt if anyone feels comfortable harming another person in any way. They just don’t want to admit, even these psychiatrists, etc. and the therapists, etc. who prescribe harmful drugs and such. They just hide it from themselves through lying to themselves, rationalizations, pretending they don’t know anything, etc. They are really uncomfortable and about as far away from their comfort zone as we are from Pluto or farther. I am talking about people who really deserve to be in their comfort zone and do not need to be threatened or tormented from there. Unfortunately, so many do caught up in the psych world web and suffer needlessly. That’s who I am talking about. As far as those of whom you speak, God is quite excellent in meting out His judgement. In the meantime, I stand ready to fight against the evils of psychiatry, etc. a definite tool of the devil. Thank you.

    • Of course, I agree with you that most such people are indeed quite uncomfortable. But there appears to me to be a small but solid cadre of folks who actually are quite comfortable believing they are “helping” even when all the evidence points the other way. They are very blithe about explaining away anything that doesn’t support their viewpoint, and seem quite comfortable as long as there are enough people around them to support their viewpoint. Admittedly, there is a lot of anxiety underlying their apparent ease, and that comes up when they are challenged, but their “comfort zone” appears to be quite compatible with people being harmed “for their own good.”

      • That small cadre you speak of are just pure evil, an arm of satan and his doings. It is tragic that we have degenerated to a discussion of evil, although it is present and something we must renounce and fight against daily; but that was not the intent of my first post. I, personally, would appreciate if the good people who post on this site would stay on topic. Please remember that my main point is that people have every right to stay in their comfort zone and it cause stress and suffering to expect people “to get out of their comfort zone.” Just as much suffering as le cox noted about expecting people who are unhappy to “leave their comfort zone.” All that you speak of, I think, probably belongs in another discussion. It does not reflect the intent of my post which was rely to a post by l e cox or the intent of the author. I am not writing this to cause you hurt and if I do, I am sorry. I, only want this initial discussion to get back on track as I am sure there is much others could contribute about this assertions. Thank you.

        • “Just as much suffering as le cox noted about expecting people who are unhappy to “leave their comfort zone.” ”

          This made me think that a major reason people are unhappy is because they are already constantly out of their comfort zone. I can see how this scenario can play out.
          Person is miserable because their shit job is unconformable.
          “You need to get out of your comfort zone more!”
          The Person then does more uncomfortable shit instead of addressing the actual issues. When the person who gave the advice see the person out of the comfort zone they declare themselves to have “helped”.

          • Sadly, there are those who seem extremely happy to see people out of their comfort zone. But, there are still people out there who are not happy when people are out of their comfort zone and are happiest when they see others in their comfort zone. I know it’s seems hard and difficult sometimes, but I pray that more and more people come into contact with those who happiest to see people in their comfort zones and unhappy when they see people out of their comfort zones. Thank you.

    • I think you are sort of right; but, for most of us especially after surviving psych world, it is better to remain in one’s comfort zone as much as possible.
      As far as “venturing out of the box” for anyone, staying in the box can be comfortable for many, unless someone closes the “top of the box.” I guess that is when someone is taking advantage of you in your comfort zone and that which was your comfort zone is no longer your comfort zone. Now that I think of it this is what happens to me of us in psych world. When that happens and the worst danger has passed, then our comfort zones must be redefined for our own safety, health, etc. Actually, I think we redefine our comfort zones daily whether we acknowledge it or not. So, for most people, for someone to tell another person “to get out of their comfort zone” is just another bullying tactic or an abuse of power type thing. Thank you.

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