“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.
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.
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