I was always arriving late.
I had traveled far from who I was,
I could not answer any questions about myself,
I had too often left who I am.

–-- Pablo Neruda, The Sea and the Bells

To Grow, Stay Within Your Comfort Zone

Wait a minute! Isn’t it the other way around, that to grow into our potentials we need to get out of our comfort zones or at least operate at the “top” of them much of the time?

That does seem to be the common belief, yet let me play the devil’s advocate a little. We’re all familiar with the theory, articulated so well by the title of Susan Jeffers’ 1988 book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Surely there’s truth in the notion that repeatedly pushing back the fear and doing things in the face of anxiety can lead to changes — in relationships, skills and self-concept. I think how I learned to speak to large audiences at training sessions and at conferences. The first time I spoke in front of a hundred people my mouth felt pretty dry. Repeated experiences, moving into and through the fear eventually helped me know I could do it, and I could do it well. I became more comfortable and confident.

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I can tell the story just this way, but I’m not so sure it’s actually the real story. What seems truer, looking back, is that over time what I did was experience my genuine comfort zone, the one I’d had all along, even before I did public speaking of any kind. My learning had nothing to do with “expanding” that zone or becoming another version of myself. What I experienced, instead, was simply a flow and wholeness, of being in everything, not outside of anything, even a previous me. Sure, it took awhile to let go of my discomfort, but the experience was exactly that; not gaining some special skill or acting courageously so much as letting go of something that was, in the end, not me.

The same thing is true for writing. Some days, you know, it’s a hard to getting going — but that’s when I’m actually most outside my comfort zone. Like a diver I bounce once on the board, rise into the curve and when I do, that’s where the freedom is rediscovered and the total engagement. The beauty of the words, like a million bubbles, suddenly surrounds me as I hit the water — having left hardly a wake. Is the writing perfect? Can I be a better “diver?” Surely, there is always room to improve, but I know what it means to be at the heart of the flow. Am I willing to take more risks to stay there more often? Yes, that is true, too. Is this the place I grow the most, that is my practice? Absolutely.


It’s sitting anxiously on the edge of the pool that seems to me most outside our comfort zones. We palliate ourselves with television, snack food, mindless political discourse, cleaning and polishing and arranging, waiting and procrastinating, listening to our own complaints and worries of all kinds, watching and comparing ourselves to others — a process for me at least that really needs to culminate in a martini. This is not to say that we should all be diving and swimming 24/7, but I’d dearly like to arrest the hypothesis that somehow personal growth is just one long strenuous series of challenges after the next, always uphill, always two-steps forward, one step back, always requiring courage and a hard push against the boundaries of ourselves. This version of hard changes sounds like such a struggle of puritanical proportion, as if wholeness is achieved only through disciplined suffering rather than touching a source of meaning, congruence and love deeper down.

Such notions of suffering detract, I believe, from what I think is a clearer view: we are “there” (here) all along and it’s our conditioning that causes the fear. The state of being afraid of our wholeness is not a comfort zone, but a dis-comfort zone, a dis-ease we may be trying to habituate ourselves to. What we are actually pushing against is what is not-me, a not-truly-me that is indeed lethargic and tense. This not-me is our conditioning, our past learning about how not to be ourselves, and this includes all those privately envious comparisons to others; subtle competitions for whatever we think we’ll get when we finally get there (wherever there is); all those internal performance appraisals we conduct on ourselves — with their judgments and blame and insecurities thrown in. We can become hard on ourselves in another way, too, believing we have not yet discovered our true passion or our gifts. This, in turn, creates more interference, more barriers to being ourselves until we do. Then, not so usefully we go to workshops and seminars to hear we should love ourselves but, for crying out loud, “get out of your comfort zone!” as if discomfort, in and of itself, was valuable.

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Ahem. These patterns of thought are not so helpful, or at least not as helpful as they could be because they result in yet another problem, which is incessantly needing to have someone else tell us how to be ourselves, as if we were not naturally imbued with that knowledge. We must learn the techniques for how to do the risky stuff. Learn how to speak up, to write the book, to resolve a conflict, add a good idea to a challenging conversation, to play a song for friends — whatever — as if in some way these things are just like jumping out of an airplane. It’s no wonder we have so much trouble when it comes the more basic stuff, such as standing up in our truth, or leading change in an organization or in a society. It’s the hiding — especially from our comfort zones — that creates the stress.

It’s the not-me we keep dragging around as if the not-me is really-me.

To grow you could ask yourself, “Where is my true comfort zone?” and reject any and all answers that tell you that you are inept, inadequate, wrong, lazy, stupid, disappointing, worthless, useless, difficult, “challenged,” scared, insecure, defective, terrified — or weak in some other way not here named. That’s not you.

What a number, after all, we can do to ourselves.


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  • Amen! As it happens, I had an experience reinforcing this idea just a couple of weeks ago: http://andys-other-blog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/much-ado-about-nothing.html

  • Andy, this is such a great story — and wonderful example. Just when we thought we might be less, we turn out to be bigger by following desire. Bravo!

    And thank you for dropping by here, Andy — as always, so good to hear your voice.

    All the best

  • “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

    I read this last night from either my cell phone or kindle so wanted to wait until I was back in front of my regular computer to reply. : )

    Another fantastic post Dan.

    The truth of your message really hits home as it’s been a large part of my own. As tribal people regardless of how advanced in technology we become, we still have the inherent need to ‘belong’ and so naturally have this tendency to ‘adopt’ the beliefs and mannerisms of whatever tribe we happen to be a part of. And yet…this is also where we so dangerously lose getting to know our own selves. Still connected to the larger ‘body’ yet distinctly unique all on our own.

    Depending on what religion (or lack there of) your family happens to believe in at the time of your birth, you may be indoctrinated very early with the idea that you entered the world in shame and there is something inherently WRONG with you. And you NEED something outside of yourself to be ‘saved’. Then we go to school and are taught more ideas of how to obey…how to belong…and generally with a large bias in favor of whatever country you happen to be born and raised in.

    I suppose the challenge and opportunity for any of us lies in learning how TO BE within that constant struggle. To learn how to live with the creative tension between belonging in a group and being true to ourselves.

    Which reminds me of another quote that has meaning for me:

    The love I gained with such uphill effort and self-defacement was not meant for me at all but for the me I created to please them.’ ~Alice Miller.

    Thanks for such a refreshing call to rest in our own comfort zones….


  • Samantha, thank you. You get to the heart of the dilemma. To be loved, we give up parts of ourselves; then over time move forward into the darkness and light of learning how to reclaim them. If only we saw that work as taking us into the real comfort zone of our lives! Thank you for the wonderful quotations and, as always, your insightful commentary!

    All the best

  • Dan,

    Thanks again for a very insightful article. We seem to avoid our comfort zone. The avoidance is in not doing the things that make us come alive or explore thoughts that enable us to grow within our zone. The key point is in doing, jumping in.

    Your perspective is spot on. Time to stop sitting on the edge of our comfort zone. Time to start doing fully!


  • Jon, your words claim the essence of the message. I especially like, “The avoidance is in not doing the things that make us come alive….” That is such a great phrase.

    I know that in some workshops participants are asked to name a moment when they felt most alive. In this context, that would be another way to locate your true comfort zone.

    Much appreciation for dropping by!


  • Another beautiful post Dan. As I read, I recalled this poem that I encountered some 25 years ago:

    In the beginning,
    Everywhere I went,
    I didn’t always go along.
    I didn’t know it then,
    but I was afraid I’d meet myself.
    When we finally met,
    I wasn’t who I expected I’d be….
    but, oh, it was a relief
    to have someone to be with…
    at last.

    Love to you as always

  • John, what a wise poem, clothed in such simplicity, and so true to what I know of your own spirit. It seems we begin the same — in fear of meeting ourselves — only to find relief when we finally do. There really isn’t much of anything else that needs to be said.

    Except thank you, too, John for your love and friendship, which is returned in equal measure. Everyone should should have the pleasure and honor of meeting such a kind and kindred soul as you.

    All the best

  • Dear Dan,

    Once again,another beautiful post that speaks to our deepest desires (that we are enough as we are) and fears (that we are not). Derek Walcott’s deeply moving “Love After Love” comes to mind.

    Every time I re-read it, it reminds me of the ways have disowned ourselves and can rediscover ourselves with tenderness and love.

    The time will come
    when, with elation
    you will greet yourself arriving
    at your own door, in your own mirror
    and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

    and say, sit here. Eat.
    You will love again the stranger who was your self.
    Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
    to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

    all your life, whom you ignored
    for another, who knows you by heart.
    Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

    the photographs, the desperate notes,
    peel your own image from the mirror.
    Sit. Feast on your life.

    Here’s the essence you capture, of this disowning we practice (are taught to practice in overt and so many subtle and insidious ways)

    “This not-me is our conditioning, our past learning about how not to be ourselves, and this includes all those privately envious comparisons to others; subtle competitions for whatever we think we’ll get when we finally get there (wherever there is); all those internal performance appraisals we conduct on ourselves — with their judgments and blame and insecurities thrown in.”

    And the stinging but potent quote Samantha offers from Alice Miller,
    “The love I gained with such uphill effort and self-defacement was not meant for me at all but for the me I created to please them.”

    Thanks Dan for another reminding of the comfort of loving ourselves with gentle eyes, ears and heart.

    With deep appreciation,

  • Dear Louise~

    So wonderful to hear Derek Wolcott’s famous lines again — it has been a couple of years. With each new listening, the resonances sink in a little deeper — the mark, for me, of a good poem and a greater truth.

    We are too easily drawn (or thrown) off center. We can be so hooked by our fears of not being enough that we stop ourselves from trying, and so bound by our desires to be more that we create one false self after another. Part of the tragedy is allowing ourselves to believe that the “not trying” and the “false selves” are comfort zones when in fact they are anything but — they are, to use a Buddhist phrase, “in the realm of hungry ghosts.” Our true comfort zones lie elsewhere.

    As always, thank you, Louise, for weaving your gold threads into this shared cloth.

    All the best

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar wrote:

    Nice 🙂

    Have a great day.

  • Thank you, Gurmeet! You have a wonderful day, too.

    All the best

  • melanie miller wrote:


    Thank you thank you thank you…and to Louise,
    as well for…”loving ourselves with gentle eyes, ears,
    and heart”…being thoughtful before I say more…
    just taking it in, and just wanted to include
    myself in the conversation…warm regards, love…blessings…Melanie

    “let yourself be silently drawn by the gentle pull
    of what you really love” Rumi

    “the best way to know God is to love many things”
    -Van Gogh

    “name all the things you love” -Jean Houston

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