Humans have an affinity for tradition—in travel, in lineage, in the workplace, in life. We’re creatures of habit; we spend our dollars at the coffee shops where baristas have our brew awaiting us, and we take regular refuge in the local sanctuaries that are our gyms just after we leave the same desk at the same office to catch the same train at the same hour every day.
It’s an innate human tendency to fall accustomed to routines and, oftentimes, it’s how we survive—but, too often otherwise, we’re not surviving, but merely existing in our comfort zones and seldom beyond them.
Simply, our comfort zones are comfortable spaces where our behaviors fit routine patterns that minimize discomfort, stress and risk—they place us in states of mental security. The notion of the comfort zone dates back to early 1900s psychology, when Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort creates a steady level of performance. But, in order to maximize performance, we need a state of relative anxiety—a space in which our stress levels are just slightly above average, at “optimal anxiety,” which is just outside the comfort zone.
Pushing ourselves too far, however, can have adverse effects and, therefore, reinforces the idea that challenging oneself is too risky an endeavor. It’s hence our natural tendency to return to anxiety neutral states of mind, and it’s a rarity that breaking the boundaries is henceforth without apprehension.
The risks of staying firmly inside our comfort zones, however, are that much greater; it creates psychological barriers that can lead to palpable limitations that move from perception into reality. And time is of the essence.
Here’s the thing: Going outside of your comfort zone is supposed to be scary. For me, nothing revives childlike wonder like being in a place where I’m ignorant of almost everything, can’t speak the language and am equipped with only the most rudimentary sense of how things work. Being alone, foreign to a place and its people, amplifies my adrenaline, but it also exacerbates exhaustion. Here’s how I do it, nonetheless, and break out of my own very personal comfort zone.
In order to put yourself out there, whether in travel, work or in your personal life, you have to be confident and believe in yourself. You have to succumb to the biggest cliché out there: You’ve got to believe it to achieve it. Only when self-assurance exceeds any angst can you put yourself in a situation in which you could very well fail. It’s the confidence not only in your ability to perform, but also in your ability to bounce back that will light a fire under you.
While breaking out of your comfort zone means dabbling in new things, you have to be true to yourself. In all fairness, you won’t be motivated to invest your energy in an activity if you’ve absolutely no interest in said activity. You need to be able to acknowledge how it is that you’re personally fulfilled. Only once you’ve an acute awareness of how the experiences you cultivate are or are not satisfying you, can you make conscious choices that ensure they will when you do indeed put yourself out there.
Simply, you have to be cognitive of your surroundings and your own self with regards to your own abilities and disabilities—but nonetheless stay willing to take risks. Safety takes precedence in putting yourself out there, second only to pleasure in its many forms. This means deciphering legitimized apprehension from irrational fear. It means being mindful of what is going on around you and trusting your gut to say no or, on the contrary, seize an experience despite cold feet.
Surround yourself with familiar faces and you’ll seldom break out of your comfort zone. You’ll become a bystander of your environment. Do something new in solitude, and you’ll be forced to engage with new people who will offer you new experiences.
If you want to put yourself out there, you have to be willing to accept with what and by whom you’ll be greeted. That said, acknowledging your thoughts is just as important because every fluttering muse serves a purpose simply because they’ve occurred to you in some way. Recognize them, but do not dwell on them; it’ll help you grapple with the experience at hand.
While it’s important to keep an open mind, it’s just as critical to have a grip on your intentions. Why are you looking to move outside of your comfort zone? Do you feel stuck — or like you’re not merely comfortable, but you’re growing complacent? What are you looking to gain? Be sure to surround yourself with new people who empower you in those respects. Keep attentive of your company and do things with intention, but always welcome spontaneity.
When you’re glued to technology—checking your emails, texts, social media notifications, direct messages, whatever it is—you’re not in the moment. While you may physically be in a situation that’s outside of your comfort zone, you’re still mentally removing yourself and keeping yourself in that anxiety neutral space. Put your phone away and feel yourself soak it in. Embrace the present and the space in which you occupy; doing so will also help you find personal meaning from an experience that might just motivate you to try something new again the next time.
Say yes, sometimes impulsively. If a different food intrigues you, try it. If you’ve been unable to take your mind off some place you’d like to visit, book a flight. If you’d always wanted to learn to dance but you’ve got to left feet, register for a class. If you’ve been losing sleep over perhaps leaving your job for a more fulfilling career, do it. If you think too much before making a decision, you can easily talk yourself out of a good time.
We rarely thank ourselves—we’re often our own toughest critics. But breaking outside of your comfort zone and embracing discomfort teaches you a lot about yourself that you wouldn’t otherwise know, and it’s no easy feat to do it. Take the time to reflect on what you’ve done, pat yourself on your own back for doing it, and use what you’ve gained from your experience to empower you on newer endeavors.
To get out of your comfort zone on a social level, follow the aforementioned tips of being confident, keeping an open mind, unplugging and saying yes more.
Before you know it, you'll be meeting more people, building better relationships and creating lasting memories.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.