I stood against the side of the gym wall, staring out onto the fall homecoming dance floor. I was a strongly introverted, highly sensitive, and slightly shy high school freshman. I had been dancing with a few of my girl friends, but they were paired off now.
The dance had only started thirty minutes ago, but I was already tired. I just wanted to be home in my pajamas, reading or writing in my journal. Besides, I really didn’t know what I was doing here. I was convinced that I was a horrible dancer — essentially terrible at anything involving kinesthetic movement.
I decided to give it a little longer. I stayed fifteen more minutes, all of which was divided between staring a hole through the wall, picking at my nails, and hiding out in the bathroom when the dancing got too crazy.
I left vowing that I would never go to another dance again.
‘I Am Going to Mess This Up’
Fast forward six years.
I stood against the side of the gym wall, staring out onto the gym floor. An assortment of swing dancing and Zumba-like moves was taking place. Kind of disorienting.
It was the middle of September, and I was at a weekend conference. Choosing to come to this conference was one of the more spontaneous decisions I had ever made, not to mention a huge step outside my comfort zone. It had been a great weekend of learning, personal growth, and meeting some new people.
But in this setting, I could sense the clock rolling back to that dimly-lit Friday night so many Septembers ago. Less-than-pleasant memories of my awkward high school years were brewing with an evil vengeance.
I proceeded to make my way toward the door. I planned to return a missed call to my mom — and from there I would go back to the dorms. Clearly, there was no place for me here.
And then I heard my name: “Ellen!”
It was none other than my Family Group leader — a friendly, kind-hearted fellow student. He flashed a smile that nearly turned my knees into water. Three seconds later, we were out on the floor.
Having learned only three moves several minutes ago, I felt by no means prepared. Everything in me started to panic. Crap, I am going to mess this up. I’m going to look like a complete idiot and ruin this guy’s night.
But before I could back out, the music started… and we began dancing. Just as I expected, it wasn’t perfect. I messed up a few times. But something else happened that I wasn’t expecting:
I had fun.
I enjoyed it.
The dance lasted about two minutes. I expected it to be awkward, painful, and something I would beat myself up about for years to come. Instead, those two minutes created one of the most memorable experiences that I will always look back on and smile.
And it wouldn’t have happened had I not been willing to step out of my comfort zone.
How to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
Risks and community are two words that have always struck a chord of fear within me. Just like any strongly introverted person, I tend to be guarded, reserved, quiet, and cautious. I avoid risks and chance of failure like the plague. I like to sit back, far away from the action and observe. I like remaining where safety and stability are promised and certain.
Those things are not in and of themselves bad. And yet I’ve come to realize that, all too often, I let my overwhelming urge to protect myself prevent me from experiencing things that have the potential to grow my confidence and be fun. As hard as it can be to put myself out there, the times when I have fun experiences are worth it.
Here are five tips that I’ve found to be helpful in stepping out of my safe bubble and into unknown territory:
1. Take small steps toward something that is unfamiliar or scares you.
This doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t have to dive straight into dancing. It could be as simple as asking a friend to get coffee with you. I have a friend with whom I try to meet once a week and we’ll talk about anything. When we first started doing it, sometimes it’d be me who initiated the invitation (again, something out of my comfort zone). But it paid off — these deep (and sometimes silly) conversations leave me refreshed and energized.
2. Accept that you are not going to be perfect at what you set out to do.
This may sound like common logic to some. Yet as someone who wants to be good at everything, this advice is easier said than done. If I know I’m not going to be successful at an activity I’m interested in trying out, I’m less likely to attempt it. However, if I let that unrealistic expectation rule my life, I would miss out on a lot of opportunities.
3. Life is meant to be lived, even if it’s not always comfortable.
Even though certain situations easily overwhelm me, I also believe life is meant to be experienced. Sometimes going to the occasional retreat or social function is worth being tired or overwhelmed. I always have the opportunity to rest and experience solitude afterward.
4. Decide what balance you’ll strike between being “innie” and stepping out.
I need lots of downtime to recuperate and reflect after classes, work, or church. But there are times when I do need to drag myself out and be around people. I may be a strong introvert, but I still need some community in my life.
Decide what that balance will be for you. For me, that means being social a few nights during the week and having my weekends as a time to catch up on studying, reading, and hobbies.
Oh, and sleeping. That’s a given for any college student.
5. Above all, don’t change who you are.
But don’t turn down every opportunity to try something new just because it doesn’t fit the “stereotype” of your temperament.
I certainly never thought I would like swing dancing. I’m not anywhere close to being good — yet. But I plan to master it someday.
The truth is, I’ll never be naturally gregarious. It’s just not in my temperament. I’ll always be introverted. And that’s okay.
But what has changed is my willingness to step out of my head every so often: choosing to participate in life with good people, and choosing to stretch my comfort zone. As a result, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing things that I never could’ve imagined myself doing — even two years ago.
It’s taken me some time to bloom. Even now I’m just beginning to open up more, but I’m glad I can be open to new experiences without changing who I am.
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Image credit: @dimove via Twenty20