Raise your hand if you’re sick of hearing that life begins at the edge of your comfort zone. I know I am.
It is impossible to escape the gurus and influencers on social media who preach that choosing safety is self-sabotage. That without getting uncomfortable on a daily basis, I’ll never get anywhere in life, my lack of courage realized. “It’s never as scary as it looks,” Stanford grad student Yubing Zhang chants in a widely viewed TEDx talk, “Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone”—one of several talks on this theme that the influential conference has given a platform to. When you stay in your comfort zone, “you maintain flawed beliefs about yourself or you hold onto guilt and self-doubt,” the bestselling leadership writer and motivational speaker Jack Canfield says. “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there,” is a popular graphic post on Instagram. And Eleanor Roosevelt’s most-touted quote, “Do one thing every day that scares you,” adorns everything from office coffee mugs to wallpaper.
I believed these quotes once. My experience, however, taught me something different. When I pushed my comfort zone relentlessly, as the leadership experts advise, it led me straight into burnout. I learned the hard way to define—and, more importantly, to honor—the boundaries of my comfort zone. Since then, it has been a huge asset that has helped me make big strides.
Rewind just a few years and you’d find me crammed on a bus heading out of New York City, at the height of rush hour, with a two-hour commute ahead. On most mornings, stress-induced cortisol was the only thing keeping me from collapsing in exhaustion. Up to this point in my life, I had been driven by a mentality of pushing harder: straight A’s in school, top of my class in college, and now a demanding job in Manhattan. On the outside, everything looked peachy—as if I were a picture of success. On the inside, I was feeling defeated and helpless. In accordance with the self-improvement mindset, I rationalized these feelings as stemming from my own inadequacy. If I felt I was juggling more than I possibly could, I clearly had to hustle more. “I just need to work harder,” I told myself. “I’m out of my comfort zone. It’ll get better. I’ll adjust.”
But as the months went on, my sense of dread grew. Every day was a cocktail of fear. What crisis would crop up? What new project would be dropped into my lap this morning? My health was crumbling. Facing my fear should have allowed me to grow, as I understood the motivational slogans. Instead, in my mid-twenties, I found myself laid up in bed, so tired I could barely move, and suffering from heart palpitations and nightmares. By pushing myself in the name of getting uncomfortable, I had self-sacrificed to the point of exhaustion. In the end, I left the job and accepted that my boundaries were there to keep me safe.
Literally, the comfort zone refers to an optimal temperature. But psychologically speaking, it is a state where a person feels at ease and in control of their environment. How overcoming this state became the obsession of the self-optimisation movement is curious. An early reference was made in a 1907 research paper by the American psychologist Robert Mearns Yerkes, who found that in mice, “anxiety improves performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached.” (Yerkes was also a proponent of eugenics and his work is considered to be tainted by a racialist bias.)
The idea of using anxiety to enhance performance gained traction in the face of the economic deregulation of the 1990s and the resulting competitive pressures. In 2009, the well-known British management theorist Alasdair White repeated established wisdom when he wrote that “in understanding and managing performance, the key is the management of the stress,” and described anxiety as a tool to assist in performance management. Yet a 2017 paper at the University of Leicester found that there was no empirical evidence to support this idea. “Nevertheless,” the author wrote, “despite all the evidence to the contrary, the notion that stress is ‘good’ for performance is still being peddled by management textbooks.”
Contrast all this with what the early 20th-century developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development.” This conceptual space, which is near the comfort zone, allows for healthy and gradual growth, the way children naturally learn new skills. To me, it means taking on challenges deliberately, but only after having thought long and hard about my qualifications and carefully laying out each step. It means playing to my strengths.
Having pushed myself to the point of illness, I now know what I’m no longer willing to tolerate. By recognizing and respecting my comfort zone, I can identify when a situation threatens my well-being. And by asserting my boundaries, I can get back from anxiety to a place where I feel psychologically safe and secure.
In a world of increasing demands on our time and attention, our comfort zones act as predictable spaces of mastery where we can seek refuge when the stress becomes too much. They act as containers to shore up confidence, gain momentum, and think clearly. When we spend less time grappling with discomfort, we can focus more on what matters most. If the people who routinely push themselves past their comfort zones are metaphorically skydiving out of airplanes, those of us who choose to operate from within our comfort zones are serenely laying bricks, creating a home we can thrive in. ∆