Expand Your Comfort Zone

From the WebMD Archives

By Elizabeth Kuster

Initially, the title of this article was "Break Out Of Your Comfort Zone." But then I talked with bestselling author and fear expert Rhonda Britten, founder of the Fearless Living Institute, and she schooled me. "I'm not interested in people getting rid of their comfort zones," she told me. "In fact, you want to have the largest comfort zone possible -- because the larger it is, the more masterful you feel in more areas of your life. When you have a large comfort zone, you can take risks that really shift you."

Our comfort zone, according to Britten, is our safe place. "Whatever is your norm, whatever your life is right now, whatever you're not even thinking about changing -- that's your comfort zone," she says. "Some people call it a rut. It's not a rut; it's life. It's the things that are regular, that are predictable, that cause no mental or emotional strain and stress."

Britten says that our comfort zone is where we go to recharge in an ever-changing world. "It's our place of reprieve, where we can conserve our energy and not have to figure anything out," she says. "People often don't honor the comfort zones they've created; they think it's wrong or bad to need one. It's not! If you deny that you have a comfort zone or pretend that you don't need one, you'll be stressed all the time."

When you want to make a life change, Britten suggests you build off your existing comfort zone instead of revamping everything at once. To that end, she created a strategy she calls "Stretch, Risk and Die."

"Picture a dartboard," she explains. "The bullseye is your comfort zone. The next ring is your 'Stretch' zone, the one next to that is your 'Risk' zone, and everything outside of that is your 'Die' zone. Each time you move into a new zone, you have to go through a little fear, because you have to think differently about yourself and what you're capable of."

Here's how to use Britten's system to expand the possibilities in your own life.

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GOOD: Stretch

"A stretch is something we tell ourselves we 'should' do, but just haven't done," says Britten. This zone includes all of the self-improvement moves we know we could make, if only we weren't so lazy/afraid/misguided. "The stretch zone is where we beat ourselves up the most," says Britten. "It's like, 'What's wrong with me? Why am I not doing this thing I know I should be doing? That I know I could do?' But whenever we go to actually do it, all of a sudden it feels hard. It's not in our comfort zone, and we don't now how to act when we're feeling discomfort."

Stretch yourself: First, focus your efforts. Answer the question, "In what area of my life would making positive change have the most impact?" (Maybe it's your health, or your job, or your love life...) Once you have the answer, come up with three things you've been feeling you "should" do in that area, and do one of them... today.

BETTER: Risk

"A risk is something you're not sure you'll be successful at," says Britten. "It's something you wish you could do, but never believed was possible for you. It's kind of an extension of who you are already -- it's in the same arena -- but you have an 'I can't' attitude about it. A 'what if I suck?' kind of fear." Example: Michael Jordan's (brief and mysterious) baseball career. Playing a different sport was a big risk, even for an elite athlete like Jordan. And it didn't work out too well for him, either.

Risk it: Staying on the same theme you chose for stretch, give something up. Make it difficult. Make it scary. Make it be something you never thought you could achieve. Giving up sugar (or alcohol, or meat, or caffeine, or gluten) for a month? No Sundays spent couch-potatoing it this season? No more hiding in the corner at parties... ever? Yes.

BEST: 'Die'

"A die feels like a crazy choice," says Britten. "As in, 'If I have to do that, I'll die.' You shake in your boots at the thought of it and immediately move into: 'No!' Dies bring up a huge fear of failure. They're those secret wishes hidden down deep -- the ones you'd never admit to anyone else." For many people (even Warren Buffett), public speaking is a die. So is salary negotiation. And skydiving.

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Do a die: Sticking to your theme, ask yourself this question: "It would be so awesome if I could XYZ, but that's just not who I am." Then (you guessed it!) take action toward actually doing that XYZ. Quitting your job and going back to school at age 35? Chairing an important company-wide meeting? Traveling abroad alone, to a country where no one speaks English? Yes, yes and triple yes. Take steps to make it happen.

"What's a die for you may just be a stretch for somebody else," notes Britten. "It's about emotions and mindset. As you begin to stretch, risk and die, your comfort zone will grow, and you'll find that things that used to be dies to you are now just risks. Unlike typical goal-setting -- which can be detrimental because it focuses too much on outcome -- expanding your comfort zone is about motivating and inspiring yourself in a way that honors your whole person. It's not 'I'm going to be good at everything,' it's about not being scared to try."

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