Why comfort zones hold us back in sports, love and life…
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved”. -Helen Keller
It sucks to suck at things. It sucks even more if people are watching you suck. Welcome to the world of swimming, running, and cycling in public. To avoid the suck, we create comfort zones. A comfort zone is simply a psychological fence that we erect to protect something we feel mentally vulnerable about.
Staying inside the fence gives us a sense of security, comfort and a predictableness that is calming. Beyond the fence lies the unknown – which we assume is discomfort, fear, failure, and judgment.
Comfort zones are a normal adaptive response to keep the inner peace. We all do it. It’s as human as office gossip. Most comfort zones are very helpful; they materialize as habits or routines that take the thinking (and therefore stress) out of daily tasks.
Usually we prefer to keep our underlying vulnerability very private, and for good reason. Admitting that we’re flawed and then showing the entire world what that flaw is, is as scary as hell.
But make no mistake about it, comfort zones are entirely imaginary. Like an emotional plaster cast for a fake broken leg.
They are made up by you; figments of your imagination — an imagination that has become hijacked by a primitive part of your brain (the limbic system) that is motivated solely by keeping you alive, minimizing discomfort, increasing pleasure, and…drum roll….protecting your ego.
And your brain has a Nobel Prize in protecting your ego and self-image — the perceptions you have about who you think you should be. Your limbic system will lie, cheat, and steal to keep up appearances. At least on the outside.
Many comfort zones are relatively trivial and easy to live with, such as continuing to swim on your own because the thought of joining a master’s swim group fills you with fear about being too slow, not being able to do flip turns, only being able to do breaststroke, or simply being exposed as someone who has no clue as to what’s actually going on.
Some comfort zones are trivial and just plain funny – like the inability to take a dump in front of your spouse.
Some comfort zones are tolerable but frustrating – like always having to wait to shower until you get home from the gym because the thought of being naked in a YMCA locker room gives you the cold sweats.
Some are mildly irritating – often to others too – like your tendency to avoid anything with the word “race” in it because the thought of head-to-head competition creates a cascade of anxiety about aggression, embarrassment, and failure.
Perhaps your comfort zone stops you from pushing really hard in a race because of a fear of the pain, or of ‘blowing up’ and worst of all, not finishing. After all, if you lay it all out there and it’s STILL not enough, what does that say about you?
Other comfort zones are more sinister and a recipe for long term misery, like avoiding long term relationships for fear of being rejected, or staying in a job you hate because you don’t know what else you could do and you’ve got bills to pay.
Living in mental cruise control and making nothing but safe choices leads to boredom and complacency.
A break-through in happiness, self-awareness, and mental toughness requires new experience. And the best experiences for your brain lie out yonder where the gremlins live. But fear not, here’s a quick cheat sheet to getting your Braveheart on and confronting your gremlins!
Choose the comfort zone you’re tired of. If you have no desire to leave a comfort zone because it’s trivial or it doesn’t prevent you from reaching a goal that’s important to you, then my advice is to just leave it the hell alone. A mild case of illogicitis, or harmless hypocrisy won’t kill you. It’s the comfort zones that stop us from enjoying life to the fullest that need to be confronted. Think about all the situations you currently avoid and why.
If your denial runs so deep that you’ve justified everything, ask yourself this question instead: in 10 years’ time, what things in my athletic life will I wish I had done differently? Perhaps it’s joining a master’s swim group? Trying to qualify for KONA? Running the Boston marathon? Seeing how hard your body can push in a race?
Embrace the fear. When you start thinking about leaving the comfort zone and having to face your gremlins, instead of trying to control these thoughts and feelings, give yourself a few minutes to really wallow in them. That’s right, jump right in to the imaginary scenario. Let it surround you. Think through all the aspects of the situation that are terrifying. Recreate them. Perhaps it’s walking on the pool deck to your first master’s swim session with no idea what the hell is going on, clueless about which lane you should swim in. Hear the splashing and smell the chlorine. Secretly you wish for your own lane.
What about feeling hesitant to push yourself to exhaustion on the run for fear of having to walk or, worse still, collapsing? What about just running easy so your face doesn’t contort and get covered in dried snot?
Next, picture yourself as an outsider, as though you’re watching someone else do exactly the same thing. How do your feelings change as you witness someone else making the same ‘mistakes’? Finally, go back to seeing yourself in the terrifying situation but this time focus on controlling your body’s response — slow your breath, inhale deeply from your diaphragm and smile at the craziness of it all. See yourself surviving the ordeal and feel the new sense of accomplishment and happiness.
Recognize that actions can fail, but people cannot. One of the biggest misjudgments that people make is mistaking a failed plan for a failed person. Plans fail. Actions fail. People are not failures. The critical point is what we do with our failed actions and plans (or the thought of failure). Do we learn from them? Do we ignore them? The Ebola of failure is giving up when the consequences are not physically threatening. If the consequences are not life threatening (or injury threatening), in virtually all situations the best option for your brain is to KEEP GOING.
Mental toughness is built by enduring in the face of failure, it doesn’t come from squealing with delight on a downhill with a tailwind. One scientific reason why this is good advice is due to ‘neuroplasticity.’ We now know that your brain physically changes in response to these experiences. Embracing the suck causes neural pathways and synapses in your brain to change to make you better prepared, more confident, more adaptable, and more resistant. It’s brain fitness.
Reframe the Goal. In a comfort zone-busting new experience, force your goal to be something you are always in control of. When the goal is under your control, you always get to define success and failure. If your goal requires other people to comply, you’re already in trouble. The best goal is based on the effort you plan to give, not the time it takes you, where you finish, or how others see you. Start every new event with this simple pledge: “No matter what happens today, I agree to give it everything I’ve got given the circumstances.” You might be unfit or under prepared, you might get your goggles knocked off, get a flat, or be the slowest person in the lane or race – these are all your ‘circumstances’ – but they have no bearing on the effort.
Make snap decisions. Yup, you heard me. If we let our fears and concerns linger long enough, we can become paralyzed by them, unable to make a decision. Sometimes, it’s good to be impulsive. Go on I dare you, make a quick decision about something scary in the future. The “in the future” part is important because it gives us time to figure out the plan of how we’re going to execute it. Don’t confuse this with snap decisions about actions that also occur at the same time (like getting a tattoo while drunk, or buying something you can’t afford). By quickly committing to a goal in advance, we overcome decision anxiety AND have time to think about careful execution. It’s a win-win for your brain. So think about something you’re nervous about –whether it’s entering a certain race or signing up for master’s swim – take the plunge and just register and then revisit steps #2-#4 to deal with the ensuing emotions.
So go ahead and do something out of the ordinary. Just jump! Your body and brain (and even your love life!) will thank you for it later.