Yesterday I was talking to one of my friends about her college age son. He was in the enviable position of being offered two job opportunities: he had been offered a promotion at his current job and also offered a position at his church’s community outreach program. While he definitely does not plan on a career in food service (his current job) and being active in his church is a major role in his life, he is not sure about taking the community outreach position because it is out of his comfort zone.
While most of us have never been in his position, we are all extremely familiar with our comfort zone and our reluctance to leave it. My friend knew right away that her son was nervous about trying something new. While he is not a shy and retiring sort of person, this position at his church was just enough out of his comfort zone to make him give it serious thought. Many of us feel similar trepidation when faced with heading into unknown or unfamiliar territory, and that’s a good thing. We should take such situations seriously, but there are a lot of us who automatically balk at leaving our comfort zone.
I admit: I am reluctant to the point of balking in some situations, especially those that have me driving somewhere I am utterly unfamiliar with, and the only thing that can make that situation worse is to put a deadline on it, as in “I must be at a certain location by X time and I have no idea where I am going.” [Insert pic of me screaming in terror here.] I know I can use Google Maps and MapQuest to get there, and both of them are on my phone, but the anxiety about trying to get to an unfamiliar address remains. In fact, I faced it earlier this week having to drop off my car at a location I didn’t know in a town I am unfamiliar with by a certain time. While the anxiety and accompanying stress weren’t overwhelming, it was enough to put a dent in my week.
A funny thing happens when we do things that make us uncomfortable: these activities become more familiar and more comfortable. They stretch our comfort zone and by definition, our comfort zone grows and so do we. When I first started going to a gym, all I used was the treadmill. We all know how much equipment is at any gym, but it could have been nothing but treadmills for all I cared. When I moved to my current gym, it was because I needed to work out in the pool. I was familiar with using one for physical therapy exercises because of my physiotherapist. Doing them on my own was a little out of my comfort zone, but not enough to hold me back.
Water aerobics however was another animal entirely! The gym had classes posted on their website: all I had to do was show up but I didn’t know anything about what the classes were like, what the trainers were like, what the other students were like, so I didn’t go. It was scary and unfamiliar and just enough out of my comfort zone that I didn’t want to try it… until the day I showed up at the gym to use the pool and it was full of people using water weights and pool noodles and there was a trainer putting them through their exercises. Obviously, it was a class and I sat on the bench waiting for them to be done. The students didn’t look that different from me: most of them were in their forties or older and some were overweight, some weren’t and some had obvious mobility issues. After about twenty minutes of waiting around, the trainer asked me if I wanted to join them, so I did! And it was a great workout, a lot of fun and I’ve been going every week for the last three years! But if I hadn’t shown up in the middle of a class, I might still be too entrenched in my comfort zone to try the classes on my own.
We’ve all heard the expression “try it- you’ll like it!” but most of us take that only as far as we feel comfortable. We’ve got our boundaries marked and beyond them we will not stray. We know our limits, when it’s okay to stretch a boundary and when it’s not. For me, that’s usually exercises and workouts and there’s a very obvious reason for that: I’ve never been particularly athletic. Athletics, exercise, working out: they are all in unfamiliar territory for me, so I don’t like going there. Food, on the other hand, is way too familiar for me, so if you want me to try a new yogurt flavor or a new vegetable or spice, then no problem! I am in the habit of trying new foods and flavors, even though some have been pretty awful! But trying a new exercise? Balk!
It goes back to comfort and familiarity. If you are used to doing something, it’s no longer strange or difficult! It’s just the ‘getting used to it’ that makes us balk. It’s pretty much a no-brainer: we’re not comfortable, we’re not sure we’re doing it right (whatever ‘it’ is) so we don’t like doing it and we end up doing those things as little as possible or not at all. I know: duhhhhh. But what gets missed in that thinking is that the only reason we aren’t doing those things is because we aren’t used to doing them! The more we push out of our comfort zone, the more comfortable that strange territory becomes until it becomes normal for us.
When I started cutting carbs out of my regular diet, it was nearly unbelievably difficult. They were a major staple of how I had been eating. Breakfast was a bagel or breakfast sandwich, lunch was another sandwich or rice bowl and dinner was usually rice, pasta or more sandwiches, and don’t forget dessert: cookies, cake, pie. More than half of what I ate was bread, pasta, potatoes or rice. What else is there to eat? Coming up with low carb/ no carb replacements took more work than I was used to putting into shopping or cooking. Getting groceries took over an hour: is this low carb? does this have carbs or sugar? what about peas? are they Paleo-friendly? OMG! It took forever!
But again, the more I did it, the more normal it became. Instead of automatically thinking of dinner as meat and pasta or meat and rice, it’s meat and veg or meat and salad, or even just salad! Grocery shopping takes me a half an hour if there is a line for checkout and less if there isn’t. Going out to eat with friends isn’t a huge ordeal anymore: it’s another no-brainer instead of another anxiety-filled appointment like the one I had earlier this week. It’s not strange or difficult anymore because I am used to doing it. It’s just getting over the ‘getting used to it.’
That’s where we need to push ourselves and that’s why we have to do it. We don’t need to take risks to be healthier, but we should push our comfort zone a little so that it keeps growing and we can keep growing with it. Whether it’s trying a new food or a new way of eating or working out, we shouldn’t be afraid to grow. Who knows? You might like it and you might even make some friends along the way. The friend I mentioned above? I met her in my water aerobics class.