“It’s only after you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone that you begin to change, grow, and transform”. ~ Roy T. Bennett
The principal at the school where I teach dropped this quote at the bottom of the agenda for our most recent staff meeting, causing my eyes to glaze over as my head began to feel slightly numb. This is customarily what happens when I read or hear someone talk about ‘comfort zones’ and how essential and important it is to find our way out of them. After about a half hour listening to the staff rehash the very same topics they have been discussing ad nauseum for the last twenty-two years, I glanced at the quote again and began to seriously ponder for the first time why quotes about comfort zones, such as this one, have always made me feel so…well…uncomfortable. The internet (and Pinterest in particular) abounds with inspirational little nuggets about leaving our comfort zones in the dust:
“GREAT THINGS NEVER COME FROM COMFORT ZONES”.
“LIFE BEGINS AT THE END OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE”.
“A COMFORT ZONE IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE, BUT NOTHING GROWS THERE”.
Though there are literally hundreds of these mantras to be found, all using slightly different words to say the exact same thing or convey the identical sentiment, no particular iteration has ever sat well with me or my particular proclivities, and I have often wondered just why this is so. I certainly comprehend the notion quite clearly and it doesn’t escape my notice why they are largely powerful, life-affirming statements. But, nevertheless, I have always felt that, despite all of this, none of these statements were intended to resonate with me. It was only during the staff meeting that I truly took pause to think about it more deeply.
Here is what I concluded: The principle rationale is that I believe (and perhaps it is because I am an athlete and therefore much of what I consume in life revolves around endurance sports) that what most people have in mind when opining about shedding their comfort zones, are pleasures tied to the physical world and not necessarily the domain of the emotional, philosophical, or metaphysical. For the most part, people tend to associate getting out of their comfort zone with ceasing to avoid the onset of physical pain. We hear things like, “you gotta kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight”, or “nothing worth having comes with a lot of good, hard work”, and the obvious, quintessential, “NO PAIN, NO GAIN”. We are bombarded with the image of putting down the remote control, getting off of the couch and getting to the gym or sprinting up stadium stairs all while sweating profusely, panting like a dog on a hot summer day and wincing in pain. In other words, life outside of where we push ourselves to the point of feeling intense physical pain is where we are traditionally most comfortable, which, of course, implies that ‘regular’ life, for most of us, is actually quite comfortable…even too comfortable. It all sounds exceedingly simple, really.
Except that for me, and many like me, it’s not that simple at all. What most folks call ‘regular’ or ‘everyday’ life is by no means ‘comfortable’ at all to me. In fact, it is an emotional, existential struggle every single day trying desperately to fit into a society where I never quite feel at home, and it has always been that way. Growing up, I was nearly paralyzed by shyness to the point of feeling physically ill when I was forced to be around strangers. Prosaic, mundane aspects of everyday life that the majority of the population find so insignificant as to not notice, consistently had me hyperventilating, sweating, shaking and made me feel a sense of doom and danger at every turn. By and large, trivial things including, but by all means not limited to, school, shopping, public transportation, talking to anyone I did not have an intimate relationship with, asking directions, answering the phone, engaging a salesperson, getting a haircut, saying ‘hello’ to the French speaking neighbour across the street, going to a birthday party, interacting with any girl who wasn’t my mother, grandmother, or sister, watching something risky on television, seeing friends doing things against the rules, hearing a dirty joke, listening to people argue, going out on Halloween or visiting with Santa at the mall, walking anywhere in public without my hand firmly in the grasp of that of my mother – in other words, pretty much everything that makes up the stuff of normal, regular, comfortable life – made me feel awkward, miserable, and scared. Most of my time was spent in a semi-depressed, frightened greyness that left me with absolutely zero self-confidence, nearly invisible self-esteem, and ultimately bereft of any kind of general peace of mind. Even now as an adult I hide behind a false bravado and exaggerated sense of humour to mask how uncomfortable I feel most of the time. I am probably the only person content to wear the face coverings we have all been forced to don since the beginning of the Pandemic any time we are in public, because they offer me a shield and a place where I can conceal the angst I am certain everyone would otherwise notice.
All of these banal, simple features of day-to-day life are where most people derive comfort and are simple happenstance occurrences that they know how to navigate without even thinking about. Leaving all of this to do physically painful things, such as extreme exercise, is where they find discomfort. When told to ‘workout’, ‘train’, ‘go to the gym’, or ‘run a 10k’, they begin to feel a modicum of the anxiety people like me live with almost every moment of every day. For me, however, it is at these ‘difficult’ times when I finally find comfort.
For as long as I can remember, only when plunging myself in the world of sports, and in particular endurance sports, did all of the aforementioned fears and anxiety momentarily disappear; only when I could push my body to the point of feeling intense physical pain did I feel ‘good’. The place where I felt most at home, confident, and like I belonged, was just outside of where most people felt these things. I always knew there were two different and separate worlds, or realms of existence, and that they would never blend with one another. There was no Venn Diagram common ground. The orbit where I felt the most existential peace was where everyone else avoids spending any kind of significant time (at least on purpose). It is only when I am out running harder and farther than I should on a daily basis (or biking) do I feel comfortable, and it is only in these moments that I feel I can actualize my ‘self’ and become the best, most genuine me. My body may be screaming out in pain, but my mind and spirit are at ease and I feel inner peace. During periods of extreme exercise there are no unanswerable questions, no sticky situations, and there is no wishing I could hide or escape. I am simply out there and the pain I feel is my escape. When I run or ride, there is a singularity of purpose that is altogether uncomplicated and which makes me feel self-sufficient and enough. Because there is only me, I am accepted by everyone and I need not rely on anyone else. I will not be let down. I will not feel bullied. I will not have to avoid conflict at all cost. I will not be forced to do uncomfortable things that I do not want to do. On a long, hard run or ride, the world is reduced to these moments that I can see unfold before me and, therefore, I understand them completely. Yes, it hurts, but the pain, acute though it may be, makes sense because it is supposed to hurt and is, thus, logical. The pain I feel in the rest of my life is, by contrast, illogical because I have been made to feel that it is not normal. As a result of this, I exercise all the time so I can feel the kind of discomfort that lets me know I am alive. I do not do it because it builds character (though it certainly does); I seek it out because the pain accepts me unconditionally, like a dog. It loves who I am, or at least treats me the same as it does everyone else while, at the same time, permitting me to feel special or worthy. In the middle of a run, I am rewarded with the Zen-moment whereby I lack nothing, want nothing, need nothing that the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other does not provide. There is no anticipation, no expectation, just pure, physical and spiritual sensation. It is nothing less than the feeling of unfettered comfort, and I am grateful for it. This is my comfort zone. Step out of it? Not on your life.
(If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment and share with all of your social media contacts. Also, pick up a copy of my book, ‘My Coworkers Think I’m A Pro’ which you can find through the link on this site or by going to Amazon directly. To receive automatic updates, subscribe to this blog by leaving your email address.)