Comfort Zones are Confusing Places
Why do I keep stepping wildly outside of mine? I’m not sure, actually
It’s a wonder I now write for a living.
In kindergarten, we had these brightly colored journals with red plastic binding. Each day, we’d draw a picture on the first half of the page and write something about that picture on the lines underneath.
At the time, I had several irrational fears that seemed perfectly rational and paralyzing to my six-year-old self. One of those was the fear of spelling a word incorrectly in my journal and accidentally writing something very, very bad and offensive to my beloved teachers.
They’d gently correct me again and again, but I wasn’t buying it. It simply didn’t seem possible that “there” wasn’t spelled “der” (as in “I went over der”). My creativity never extended to the visual realm, so half my drawings were of “desins” (you’re saying the “g” is silent, but I simply don’t believe you, teacher). This continued all year and never once did someone get impatient with me. I don’t remember when I finally worked up the courage to use their preferred spellings and see what happened.
I may have been unusually tall for my age, with big, bold purple, pink and green glasses you could see from a mile away (hey, it was the ‘90s), but my comfort zone back then was very small. Over time, though, I developed a knack for putting myself into situations that catapulted me out of my comfort zone like those acrobats that get shot from cannons at the circus.
I once volunteered to give a speech in front of my whole high school for women’s history month, fully aware of my public speaking fear. I once joined my dance school to perform at halftime at a NBA game.
In college, I was somehow hired as the managing editor of our campus fashion magazine, despite knowing very little about fashion.
By the time I graduated, my pursuit of endeavors outside my comfort zone reached a level that would stop six-year-old me dead in her journal-writing tracks. “What ARE you doing?” she’d ask.
I followed my boyfriend of three months to Barcelona for five days.
I accepted a job at a public relations agency, even though I had zero experience working with clients.
When I found myself freelance writing and restless in a new city, I ended up flying to India to teach for three weeks. At a school with hundreds of children. Knowing I had zero teaching experience. Oh, and I’ve always been terrible at remembering names. More about that experience here:
That Time I Got Restless and Ended Up in India
The case for trusting your instincts on the big stuff
Later, I took a job at a three-year-old startup that required a three-hour, round-trip commute. Which, you know, makes tons of sense for someone who gets anxious when there isn’t enough free time to check things off their to-do list.
I went rock climbing (afraid of heights). And then I decided that wasn’t good enough and climbed to the top of the highest mountain in Curacao at night with my roommate and a bunch of very kind strangers. Water bottle in one hand and flashlight in the other. Later in that trip, I went scuba diving (great activity for people who are claustrophobic). Many years later, I climbed a glacier in Iceland. There were tears and French tourists cheering me on from below, but I did it!
Sometimes, I felt great afterwards. Other times, I felt utterly defeated and questioned my judgment. I started hyperventilating halfway up that mountain in Curacao. Less than a week into my time in India, I felt like a complete fraud. I wasn’t qualified to walk into this amazing school with amazing students and offer them anything they didn’t already have.
Instead of a fear of leaving my comfort zone, did I have a fear of staying within it? How many of these things did I do because it seemed like the right thing in my brain, but not in my heart? Was I doing some of these things for the story, or doing them for myself? And if that was the case, which ones were which? What was I looking for or hoping for anyway? Total transformation in a matter of weeks?
I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answers to these questions, and I’m okay with that. What I have learned is that simply going through the motions in a new environment will not change you. Not in the slightest. It might even set you back as it did when I went to India. For no one’s fault but my own, I went through the motions and came back with a serious hit to my confidence and a laundry list of things I was suddenly convinced I was terrible at.
Then, the summer before I turned 30, it finally clicked. I found myself on a free trip to Israel with 26 other Jewish 27–32-year-olds. I didn’t just go through the motions. I leaned into it fully. The goal of these trips is to make you fall in love with Israel and your Jewish heritage. I fell in love with the person who I could be outside of my comfort zone. For seven days, we traveled together on busses and slept in small hotel rooms, large tents in the dessert and on a kibbutz, running on little sleep. We went out for a night in Tel Aviv and belted songs at the top of our lungs in a crowded bar. I had a Bar Mitzvah alongside other people on the trip, something I never did growing up. I gave a speech at dinner that night.
I connected with people (plural) and continued connecting with them long after I came back home. I didn’t feel like I was catapulting myself out of my comfort zone, even though it might’ve looked that way to 6 or even 16 or 26-year-old me.
Around the same time, I started a new job. My fifth job since graduating from college, and the first where I feel like I truly belong — like my coworkers are family and I don’t have to think twice before voicing my opinion. In two years, I have never once questioned that I belong there. These are my work people. A lot of them are even my outside-of-work people.
Had I changed? Did I get better at choosing the right comfort zone-breaking life choices? Is my comfort zone expanding?
Well, ladies and gentlemen… I have no idea. I also have no regrets. After all, the totally uncomfortable moments… err… three-week-long trips to the other side of the world made the ones that felt so right feel extra right.