Do something every day that scares you. It's a mantra that's reflective of a YOLO-esque spirit, and it's often proclaimed by people who love the buzzy thrill of taking risks, getting out of their comfort zone and trying new things. But are there real benefits of leaving your comfort zone, or is that sense of excitement overrated?
Well, according to a 2020 Gallup poll of more than 1,000 people from 116 different countries, the vast majority of people would actually rather live a calm life than an exciting one: 75 percent of respondents in the U.S and 85 percent in East Asia indicated they would prefer a calm life over one rich with excitement.
- Desreen Dudley, PsyD, Dr. Desreen N. Dudley, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 10 years of experience treating individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness.
- Sage Grazer, LCSW, a psychotherapist and the co-founder and chief clinical officer of the mental-wellness platform Frame
While a sense of adventure caters to keeping things interesting, life amid the pandemic has underscored for many the value of familiarity and safety within one's comfort zone. In fact, it makes you wonder if leaving your comfort zone (whether to do something that scares you or otherwise) is even important at all.
Are there benefits to leaving your comfort zone?
Sage Grazer, LCSW, co-founder and chief clinical officer of California-based teletherapy platform Frame, says she supports getting outside of your comfort zone, but not so much the framing that glorifies doing something that "scares you." "When you think of something as 'scary,' you're perceiving it as being a threat. Instead, I would reframe it as doing something that may be uncomfortable for you," she says. (Grazer points out that a lot of people incorrectly use these words interchangeably. For example, someone may say that going to a party where they don't know anyone scares them, but it's not a situation where they're actually in danger. Instead, it's just something that makes them feel uneasy. In cases like these, "uncomfortable" may, in fact, be a more accurate descriptor than "scared.")
But even if you're not legitimately afraid, just how important is it to put yourself in situations where you must overcome a sense of unease? Is there anything wrong with skipping the proverbial party? Well, maybe. "If you never leave your comfort zone, you won't grow as a person or expand your life," Grazer says, adding that getting comfortable with being uncomfortable isn't just beneficial, it's crucial. Otherwise, you aren't setting yourself up to accomplish goals you set for your life. "For example, if you want to be in a relationship, you have to meet new people and date, which is uncomfortable for many people," she says. "Or if you want to grow in your career, you often have to step outside your comfort zone to get there."
"If you never leave your comfort zone, you won't grow as a person or expand your life." — Frame co-founder Sage Grazer, LCSW
Licensed clinical psychologist Desreen Dudley, PsyD, gives another reason why stretching yourself is important: "I treat many individuals who struggle with anxiety, and anxiety is defined as a fear of the unknown. One of the main ways that anxiety can be overcome is by going toward what is feared," she says, adding that no matter how predictable you try to make your life, it's inevitable that you will encounter change at some point. So, the more often you put yourself in new situations and try new things, the less scary it will be when you're forced to encounter change with no warning.
While the experts are in agreement about the benefits of leaving your comfort zone, that doesn't change the reality that many would rather live a calm life than an exciting one. With that in mind, is it possible to live a calm life while growing and evolving? "I’m not sure that one can always live a calm life. Life can be like a roller-coaster at any point, and to get off the ride is to not live," Dr. Dudley says to this. Welp, bubble burst.
Instead of aiming to live a calm life, Dr. Dudley suggests striving for balance. (And just as "scary" and "uncomfortable" shouldn't be used interchangeably, neither should "calm" and "balanced.") "Creating a sense of peace and stability for yourself and your family is important, but when experiences occur that force you out of your comfort zone, or if you voluntarily choose to step outside of your comfort zone and take a life-changing risk, you step toward those experiences feeling secure that you will land on your feet, regardless of the outcome," she says of what balance amid less-than calm times can look like.
How often should you be leaving your comfort zone?
"There are no strict rule about how often someone should be leaving their comfort zone," Grazer says. "It depends on a lot of factors like their personality and what's going on in their life." For example, she says that if someone is going through a hard time—perhaps they are mourning the death of a loved one or struggling with depression—it's much more important to give themself grace than to focus on taking risks. On the other hand, if someone just moved to a new city and is excited about the fresh start, they may be readily exposed to ways to expand their life that they can embrace, whether it's joining a new social club or even just knocking on their neighbor's door to introduce themself.
"It also can depend on how introverted or extroverted someone is," Grazer says, noting that an extroverted person may crave discomfort more than someone who is more introverted. Furthermore, what constitutes discomfort may also change based on how introverted or extroverted someone is. In the aforementioned example about knocking on a neighbor's door, an extroverted person may think nothing of it while it may be a big deal for someone more introverted.
In terms of figuring out the best ways to get uncomfortable in your life, Grazer suggests considering how you want to grow as a person. For example, if one of your goals is to get better at public speaking so you can take your career to a new level, she suggests leading smaller meetings before working up to a booked event space. And if you want to feel more comfortable being alone, try going out to dinner by yourself.
"Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone becomes important to do when not doing so is producing a significant amount of anxiety and fear and is hindering one from reaching their life goals," Dr. Dudley says. If you can relate to this, she suggests focusing on small ways to try new things: "This can be cooking a new meal or driving a new route," she says. She also recommends reframing the way you look at getting outside your comfort zone. "What catastrophe do you think may happen if you do leave your comfort zone? What positives may come out of your doing so? See taking a risk as increasing the skills you have to deal with changes and new experiences," she says. Consulting a therapist may be a helpful option, too.
So while the sentiment behind the directive to "do something every day that scares you" is in the right place, instead of scaring yourself, focus on taking chances that may feel uncomfortable but will ultimately help you grow as a person.
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