Each of us has our own “comfort zone” which, more than an actual place, is a psychological/emotional/ behavioral construct that defines the routine of our daily life. Being in one’s comfort zone implies familiarity, safety, and security. It describes the patterned world of our existence, keeps us relatively comfortable and calm, and helps us stay emotionally even, free from anxiety and worry to a great degree. Creating a comfort zone is a healthy adaptation for much of our lives. But so is stepping out of our comfort zone when it’s time to transition, grow, and transform.
But experiencing a little stress and anxiety now and then is a good thing, too. If all you ever do is strive to stay wrapped up in your little cocoon, keeping warm and cozy, you may be missing out on quite a lot---maybe no new experiences, no challenges, and no risks. And looking at the bigger picture of life, if you can’t step out of your comfort zone you may experience difficulty making change or transitioning, growing, and ultimately, transforming; in other words, all those things that define who you are and give your life personal meaning.
Very simply, what we fear most about challenging ourselves is that we may fail and/or get hurt in the process. But truth be known, most of us have the ability to rise to the occasion, overcome hurdles and obstacles, and actually succeed in accomplishing something new and challenging.
In my first book Transitions, I describe a major life change and how I was affected and changed by it. Many years ago my husband had a wonderful job opportunity that promised to be very fulfilling but it meant that we had to move all the way across the country. The physical move would be hard for both of us but my husband would be going to the safety of a job and the familiarity of a work environment.
It would prove much harder for me. I closed my New York-based practice, left my hospital affiliation of many years, sold my weekend house in Connecticut, and left behind family and many dear friends. Essentially, except for my husband, none of the “externals” with which I identified was making the journey west with me. Looked at one way, I was free; looked at another, I had lost my home. Was I out of my comfort zone? You bet I was!
For the first time in longer than I could remember, I had a lot of time on my hands. In my new home I knew few people. Immersing my self immediately in work was out of the question, since California has its own licensing requirements for physicians. Without the comfort of all my old roles—doctor, mother, daughter, friend—I was suddenly “just” a person.
Wandering anonymously around San Francisco I often asked myself, “Who are you now?” There was an exhilarating freedom in not having to meet anyone’s expectations for who I should be or what I should do, but it was also disquieting and disorienting to be thrown so totally back on myself. I was often lonely. Psychological and emotional issues I was sure I was done with found their way back into my consciousness once again. Clearly, something was happening to me; it was a process I myself had initiated, but I no longer felt in conscious control of it.
Thanks to the disruption of my old life and the soul-searching that resulted from it, I was about to learn to see the world in some very new ways. Everyone I met had a story to tell, and I began to see that my own uncertain search had opened me up to listening in a new way.
As a psychiatrist, of course, much of this was familiar territory to me. In one way or another, I'd long been exposed to or directly focused on the problem of how people got themselves through big life transitions. But for the first time, I found myself thinking about that territory in a new way. What was it that enabled some people to cope with the big changes in their lives while others seemed undone by them? Of course, many factors contribute to the mix, but it seemed to me that when individuals could find a conscious, meaningful structure to encompass the events of their lives, they could take more responsibility and feel less lost in the dark.
I recently revisited that time in my life. My conclusion: before I made this major move I had allowed myself, on many occasions, to step out of my comfort zone--- sometimes, because I had to (it was necessary), sometimes to try new things, and sometimes to take bigger risks because not doing so would keep me in the life in which I was already firmly established. Back to me later.
So, here are 5 huge benefits of stepping out of your comfort zone.
Your “real life” is out there waiting for you. Your real life exists beyond the bubble of your own personal thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Your real life is the sum total of ALL of your experiences, not just the one’s you’re comfortable with.
Challenging yourself pushes you to dip into and utilize your personal store of untapped knowledge and resources. You have no idea what you’re made of unless and until you venture outside of your own familiar world.
Taking risks, regardless of their outcome, are growth experiences. Even if you make mistakes or don’t get it right the first time there’s always these experiences you’ve had to tap into for the future. There really is no such thing as “fail” if you got something out of the experience. And just so you know, “FAIL” re-framed means “first attempt in learning”.
Don’t settle for the mediocre just to avoid stepping out of your comfort zone; it’s too big a price to pay. Your challenges and risk experiences are cumulative. Every time you try something new, allow yourself to be open to whatever experience arises, you are learning, and expanding your repertoire of life skills and self-knowledge. As you do this you are also expanding the size of your comfort zone.
Leaving your comfort zone ultimately helps you to deal with change---and making change in a much better way. Life transitions are all about change. Each time you transition you move to another level. Inevitably, these life transitions transform you.
It may seem overwhelming and daunting to step into the unknown. But instead of thinking of the “big picture”, it may be easier to break down what you want or need to accomplish by making small changes. Small changes accumulate and each change builds upon the last one. Soon enough you have a series of small changes leading up to the big picture.
Try to make small changes that take you out of the every day and familiar, yet are not too emotionally challenging. We are all such creatures of habit. Change your daily and/or work routine. Try something new---food, music, activities you’ve never done. Undertake a creative project of any kind where your thinking is channeled in a whole new way. Add newness to your life. Be open to experience.
My takeaway for myself: I have within myself the ability to make big change. I did it once. I can do it again.
And you can, too.
I am the least athletic person you will ever meet.
From the time I was a child, I always dreaded fitness. In fact, some of my least favorite memories of elementary school are of "the run," the standard fitness test in which all of the children in any given grade would have to try to run a certain distance (determined by age) within a fixed amount of time.
I remember wanting so badly to beat whatever time was set as the "benchmark." Although not often, I would occasionally see this goal through - however, at a price. I remember, even at seven years old, my lungs would burn and my side would hurt when I ran. Although I was never technically diagnosed with asthma, for whatever reason, I visibly struggled more than most of my peers who were asthmatic.
Still, I was always a skinny child. And other than adopting a largely vegetarian diet at a very young age (the reasons why being a whole different story in and of itself), I never paid very much attention to what I ate. While compared to most children, my food intake was relatively good... I still ate a lot of junk. For example, despite having two medical professionals as parents, I was raised having sugary snacks every night before bedtime (such as two big chocolate chip cookies or a big slice of cheesecake).
One of my favorite transformation pictures, posing outside of the Hulk Roller Coaster at Universal Orlando, 4 months apart.
Yet, I was still thin when I hit puberty. I was thin when, for the first time in my life, my health became rocky.
One day in the ninth grade, I awoke to agonizing abdominal pain. Even though the pain was torturous, I didn't want to go to the Emergency Room, as my parents had both worked in ERs, and had told me stories of people who took advantage of using the ER when they really didn't have the need for it, and I was, consequently, scared of being "that person." A day later, the pain subsided. However, it came back the next month, before subsiding again... just to come back the month after that. Finally, during my third round of pain, my dad dragged me to the ER.
I had an ovarian torsion (three times around). Which, is basically as pleasant as it sounds. At the age of fifteen, I literally went into a form of organ failure. (Also - side note: if you EVER feel acute pain or if something doesn't seem right, please DO NOT hesitate to see a medical professional ASAP). I lost an ovary and a fallopian tube. Consequently, my OB-GYN immediately started me on hormonal birth control, as it can help prevent the ovarian cysts that often cause torsions (a preventative measure in order to keep the remaining side of my reproductive system healthy).
Being a late bloomer, I had only started puberty about a year and half prior to this occurrence, and now, in addition to puberty, my hormones were thrown out of whack. In the midst of this experience, I developed an unhealthy mindset - that my body, including my weight - was out of my control.
So, I continued to eat the way that I always had, ingesting cookies every night and eating at least two large portions at every. single. dinner. From my sophomore year through my senior year of high school, I steadily gained weight. And, just like with most people, the start of college certainly didn't make my eating habits any better.
I guess it's no shock that I eventually became overweight. I tried to ignore my weight gain until last spring break. Taking pictures with my friend, who had gotten into health and fitness a couple of years prior, I felt like the "fat friend," and even though now I am able to look back and see beauty in myself no matter my weight, and know that "fat" is FAR from synonymous with ugly, at the time - I felt ugly and gross.
That same spring break, I got my teeth whitened for the first time. Now, I know that you're probably thinking: what the heck does this have to do with health and fitness? Well - here's my answer; after getting my teeth whitened, I had to limit my diet to white, processed carbs for a couple of days so that I wouldn't stain my newly white teeth. While the food that I ate for these days was a far cry from health food, it was the first time that I came to the realization that I had the power to control what I ate.
After that spring break, for the first time in my life, I decided to make a change in my lifestyle. It started small, by simply not going up for seconds at dinner. I also downloaded an at-home workout app, working out only once every week or two.
Slowly, I started to workout more and more. After school let out, despite my continued hatred for cardio, I would spend 30 - 60 minutes a day on my mom's treadmill, trying to burn off calories. I didn't know how else to work out: as all my mom ever did was light cardio, my exchange sister also was a "cardio-bunny," and my dad had never been into fitness.
My transformation, from near the very start, to twenty pounds down!
I continued doing cardio and app-based workouts while on Walt's Pilgrimage this past spring, a Study in the States program through WMU's Lee Honors College that brings one to Chicago, Missouri, San Fransisco, and LA over the course of a single week in order to study the life of Walt Disney.
While the course was incredible, I felt so alone being the only one who headed to the hotel gym after long and intense days. Still, at this point I had shed upwards of ten pounds, and was determined to keep going.
After returning from the trip, I made a renewed effort to clean up my diet, focusing especially on protein intake, being a vegetarian. I began drinking protein shakes daily and eating protein bars consistently.
It was at this point in my journey that my friend told me about Grand Haven Fit Body Boot Camp (as GH is my hometown and was my summer residency last year). Still having very little clue what I was doing in the gym, I decided to give it a go. I still remember the first workout. It was HARD. But I came back, and kept coming back day after day. I had a "tribe" of workout friends to help get me through. We would joke around with the trainers about how much we "hated" the workouts, even though we all loved the way they made us feel afterwards. (Another quick side note to my current coaches: if I seem cynical, this is definitely why, I PROMISE that I am just being sarcastic!) And even though I was still an un-athletic, red, sweaty mess - by the time July rolled around, I was consistently doing two sessions a day at Boot Camp. I shed off the weight - twenty-five pounds by the time I left for summer school in the United Kingdom at the University of Cambridge at the beginning of August.
While I still occasionally worked out at Cambridge, I suspended my diet (with no regrets) in order to best experience my time abroad. (For me, personally, I want to experience the world through the food it has to offer, and sometimes this means giving up monitoring my diet for short periods of time. What I have found however, is that as long as I am consistent in my day to day life, it ultimately does not affect my progress, and helps me to maintain a healthy relationship with food.)
Coming back to Western in the fall, I was ready to get back into it. However, this time I didn't have my friends to workout with. Yet, I still had faith in the FBBC franchise, so I decided to sign up at the Kalamazoo location - alone. Even though I was intimidated, I walked into the building, signed up, and have attended regularly ever since.
By October, I had lost thirty pounds. I was back to being relatively thin. My confidence was up. Soon after, I began to try other fitness classes. And this past spring break, I began to finally workout using machines and weights. I am planning to start weight training more often. I also have an appointment with a nutritionist to revamp my diet, as now, after weight-loss, I am ready to see my body's full potential. What it is capable of. What I am capable of. (However, FBBC still holds a large place in my heart for the instrumental role that they played in my weight-loss, and I plan on continuing to attend sessions there.)
Despite my success, I would still get discouraged. Even though I had an overall trend of weight loss, I would occasionally gain a little weight instead of losing weight between individual weigh-ins. In addition to this, even as I did lose weight, like many girls, I began to see attributes that I liked about myself (to be blunt - such as my breasts and booty) shrink before my very eyes. To this day, I still get discouraged. Over spring break, I literally broke down crying because I haven't improved - only maintained, since October. Some days, my body confidence is through the roof and all I want to do is take bikini pictures on the beach. Other days, I still feel "blah" about my body, like it's not good enough and there's so much more that I can achieve. I still compare myself to others, even though I know that I shouldn't.
My one year transformation! March 2017 - March 2018! Thirty pounds down and determined to continue to tone up in the next several months!
My journey, just like anyone else who has had a journey in health and fitness - is ongoing. It's a constant process, full of failures successes, and, quite literally - sweat and tears.
Recently, after a Fit Body Boot Camp session, the coaches asked our group why we were there. I remember thinking "Man, I could write a book on why I'm here!" but I simply answered: "It improves my mental well-being and positive thoughts," which wasn't a lie. It does. After a workout, I am often feeling relatively confident and am less prone to the anxious and paranoid thoughts that often cloud my brain.
But it's so much more than that. I started to workout to lose weight that I put on due to both medical reasons that were out of my control and poor personal choices that were completely within my control. However, I now feel empowered by working out and eating healthy. I feel like, ultimately, I have taken back the power that I thought I lost when I started gaining weight.
After that session, being the emotional person I am, I went back to my car and cried. I cried for myself and the roller coaster of a journey that I have been on. I cried for everyone else in that building and how they found themselves there. I cried because I saw so many others who were taking back power that they once felt had been taken away from them.
I am still the least athletic person you will ever meet, but you know what? Now, I am proud of it. Because even though I am not a natural athlete, I make an effort, nearly every day, to be stronger, both physically and mentally, than the day before. To me, this is what matters the most.
My transformation from day 1 of my lifestyle change... to (roughly) day number 365!