Those moments in my comfort zone are what make the more challenging ones possible.
I was spooning Nutella into my mouth, trying not to drip on my microfiber pillow, when I had an epiphany: We can’t all be our best, most out-of-our-comfort-zone, badass selves all the time. It’s simply impossible to consistently be living our best lives and be our best selves, and more importantly, who would want to? (My apologies, Oprah.)
First of all, it’s exhausting on a practical level. Sure, I love the abstract concept of drinking fresh green juice everyday, but the reality of shoveling bales of kale into a juicer to extract a few drops of mossy liquid leaves me disappointed, underwhelmed, and ravenous.
As an introvert entrepreneur, most of my work has involved getting out of my comfort zone, a.k.a., “getting out of bed.” I attend countless networking meetings and events, but I’m most at peace when I can stay right where I am at this moment — happily writing in total solitude.
But one day I asked myself:
What if I could stay in my comfort zone, even in uncomfortable situations? What if I could harness the same level of comfort and peace that I feel when I’m alone and carry that with me in my briefcase for when I need it — when I’m in a room filled with people?
After some trial and error, I learned it is possible. Here’s my story, and what I learned.
Social Anxiety and a Stutter Crippled Me
When I was struggling with a confidence-crushing mix of social anxiety and a stutter, I would do anything to avoid being pushed out of my comfort zone.
And at that point in my life, being out of my comfort zone might mean someone randomly speaking to me in line at the grocery store.
One time, at a meeting, I pretended to become suddenly ill and hid in the bathroom just so I didn’t have to introduce myself in front of a group. I used to do the same thing in elementary school when we had to take turns reading paragraphs aloud. As an adult professional, I was constantly terrified of being called out for what I believed I was: a coward and a fraud.
Fast forward to today, and I actually look forward to speaking and networking events. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still an introvert, and I still need my me-time. A wild Friday night can involve TV hospital dramas and my jammies, but that’s the point: I realized those moments in my comfort zone are what make the more challenging ones possible.
As introverts, being around a lot of people can be draining. We desperately need times of solitude to recharge our batteries and refresh our souls. And that peace we experience in our comfort zone can be harnessed and infused into situations when we need it most.
The transformation I experienced took time and effort, but was not about getting out of my comfort zone. It required going deeper into it.
Imagine what it would be like to schedule “comfort time” for yourself, and give it just as much importance as anything else. Now imagine feeling that same blissful sense of no expectations or pressure, and learning how to embody that version of yourself all the time. I bet you feel better already, right?
But I can almost hear your inner critic chiming in, “Are you kidding me? You can’t do that.”
Actually, you can.
Change Your Mindset, Change Your Experience
Here’s a secret most people don’t know: The expectations and pressures you place on yourself only exist because you’ve created them. They can stop existing. Most of us don’t realize we have that power.
I certainly didn’t, not for more decades than I’d like to admit. When you set an intention for how you want to show up for yourself, you control your experience, instead of letting fear and anxiety dictate it for you. When you stop telling yourself you have to get out of your comfort zone and let yourself off the hook, you create a space where you can be at ease, even when your mind is telling you that you ought to be freaking out.
When I walk into a room of strangers now, I know that I can remain in my comfort zone by being my authentic introvert self. My business suit might as well be pajamas. That’s how comfortable I’ve become. I don’t have to talk to everyone, I don’t have to pretend to be someone I am not. I can have a meaningful conversation with one or two other people. I mostly ask compelling questions and listen, and I completely let myself off the hook about any “selling” I have to do.
The funny thing is, when I show up in this way, I end up with more significant business connections and referrals. Total win-win.
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It Starts With Lowering the Bar
By lowering my own expectations for myself, I let myself off the hook to allow for more comfort. I set a clear intention of what a reasonable success out of my comfort zone would be.
For example, if I’m at a social function of any kind, I tell myself that if I can connect meaningfully with just two people, then I don’t have to talk to anyone else. I define connecting meaningfully as asking those people good questions about their life, then really listening.
I’m also off the hook in a way, because I can simply be the listener. I don’t have to worry about responding or reacting to anyone. It’s rare that a person feels really listened to, and the person I connect with tends to really be at ease and seems appreciative. It’s a win-win.
It’s like walking around in your jammies ALL. THE. TIME.
Focus on How You Want to Feel
Here’s a simple but effective tip for the next time you are about to enter an uncomfortable situation: Find a quiet place, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths (I love the solitude of my car for this). Then decide on one word that defines how you want to feel when you enter the room or place of discomfort.
The challenge is to refrain from choosing a rah-rah-living-my-best-life word like “BOLD!” And please stop telling yourself you must always be “confident.” Lower your expectations! Instead, try a word like “peaceful” or “calm.” If you feel stuck, think of how you feel when you are in your comfort zone and find inspiration there. Sketch the word in your mind. As you enter the room, let that word be your mantra.
Once I began to realize I could stay in my comfort zone all the time, I immediately felt relief, like I had just quit the worst, most stressful job of my life. The more I practiced, the more things began to shift in powerful ways. I began to be at ease even as I challenged myself professionally. It was as if I had all this pent up confidence and courage that had been patiently waiting backstage for a moment in the spotlight.
And when the moment came for me to step into that light, I didn’t step out of my comfort zone. I stepped into it.