The self-development industry is rife with the overused term comfort zone.
This mystical place is spoken of like a psychological prison that we must constantly seek to escape from. This prison’s walls are made of the status quo; an almost insatiable drive to keep everything the way it is – to avoid change at all costs.
The typical prisoner is a person who prioritizes instant-gratification over living with integrity. They will stick with the job they hate because they think they need the money. They will binge on alcohol, drugs and food to avoid feeling painful emotions. They will drown their spare time in Netflix instead of actively trying to participate in life. They will mire in low-quality and often harmful social relationships rather than take the initiative to create new, more powerful connections.
The problem with calling these prisoners “comfort zone” dwellers is that their life is anything but comfortable. Sure, at first the decisions they make are rewarded with pleasurable physical sensations, like the wave of pleasure you feel after your first bite of the caramel slice you chose instead of sushi. But this pleasure is extremely short term, and is quickly followed by either a disconnected no-feeling emptiness, or actual pain.
A representative example of this are women who suffer from what is commonly called Battered Wife Syndrome. These women seem incapable of leaving their abusive relationships; they have an inexplicable attachment to psychologically damaged men, who provide them with no real value but plenty of measurable harm. Even when they finally leave these relationships, it’s usually only a matter of months before they’re in another harmful relationship with an almost exact replica of the first guy.
Make no mistake; this is the same comfort-zone mentality as anyone who binge-eats, stays in a crappy job, or sticks with a belief-system that brings them no apparent reward (e.g. misogyny). Yet it seems ludicrous to label such lifestyles as “comfortable.” Physically, mentally, socially, emotionally and spiritually, living this way is a source of almost constant boredom, disconnection, loneliness and suffering.
So why the fuck would anyone stick with such “comfort” so stubbornly? Because…
IT’S NOT REALLY ABOUT COMFORT
It’s about familiarity.
We may all want to be comfortable – something we often refer to as happiness – but what’s even more important to us is the sensation of certainty, the feeling that we know what’s going on.
Battered wives feel they understand abusive relationships, and they often demonstrate far more terror about getting into a relationship that has no abuse. Compulsive over-eaters know they harm their bodies and can clearly see that being fat and unfit doesn’t make life easier, but they feel like they’re in control when they eat. Weekend binge-drinkers might be destroying their livers and feel alone most of the time, but at least they know what it feels like to be drunk, which is far less daunting than the other darker feelings they fear are waiting for them if they stay sober and silent for too long.
The simple, devastating truth about us humans is this:
We’d rather die in suffering than risk the unknown.
We’d happily sacrifice comfort for familiarity, and we already sacrifice growth for it, growth being the opposite of familiarity. How often have you avoided opportunities to change with the excuse of not knowing “how to do it?”
Think for a minute on how absurd this excuse is.
You were born “knowing” only how to breath, suckle, cry and grasp. Everything you are now capable of, from eating to tying your shoelaces to driving a car to talking with people, you have since learned. You didn’t know how to do any of it, yet you went ahead and learned it anyway. You bravely faced your fear of the unknown thousands of times, to discover knowledge.
So what the fuck happened to you?
When did you change your mind about this obviously helpful approach? When did you decide that “I don’t know how” was a reasonable excuse for avoiding action and integrity? Why did you give up a way of living that was obviously helping you grow?
You’d ask similar questions of any nice, upstanding citizen who has inexplicably become a raving drug addict.
GETTING HOOKED ON COMFORT
Like any drug addict, you probably started small, at first.
Maybe your first hit was the time you fluked an A+ grade on your spelling bee and that was the only time you didn’t get criticized by your parents. Or maybe it was the time you asked out your crush in high school and got brutally humiliated, and it hurt worse than pining for them secretly ever did. Or perhaps it was recently, where after years of being a broke student you finally started getting some money in your bank account and felt more safety than you ever did before.
Maybe it was all of these and more.
Somewhere along the way, you started spending longer and longer in your familiarity zone. This is a natural progression for human beings. It’s often said we learn 80% of everything we’ll ever know in our first 5 years of life, given the huge early development of our brains. We slowly progress along the spectrum over our lifetime, from not knowing anything at all, to feeling like we know a lot.
We like the feeling of “knowing,” don’t we? We like being in a situation that provides no real emotional challenge, where we are the kings and queens of our domain.
I remember my first real job, in a picking and packing warehouse. After a few months, I knew the basic system inside-out and had redesigned half of it. I remember the pride I felt. I remember wanting to maintain that pride. But what was I proud of? Intimately knowing how to run a primitive system that made money for someone else while I worked my arse off, had no time for a social life, and felt depressed being around my constantly miserable workmates. What kind of accomplishment is that? Somehow I went from hating my job to feeling reluctant to leave. The job was the same – it still sucked balls – so why wouldn’t I still want to bail?
WHY DO WE DO IT?
Essentially, the human brain has a single mission: To simplify your survival.
All the systems in your brain are themed around living longer and remaining as safe as possible. 1,000 years ago, when survival was fucking difficult, these systems probably served us well. Look, there are over 7 billion of us now, it must have helped!
Your brain tries to keep things focused and simple, meaning it categorizes information without your conscious awareness, it tries to steer you away from anything requiring new learning that it doesn’t deem necessary for survival, and it gives you massive waves of physical discomfort any time you do something that it sees as risky to what is “known.”
Your brain will let you get beaten to death by your boyfriend, or emotionally torn to pieces by your girlfriend, rather than let you feel the uncertainty of being single. It will let your soul rot in a shitty meaningless career until you die of old age, rather than let you feel the uncertainty of being broke and without purpose. It will let you destroy your body with sugar and poisonous chemicals, rather than let you feel the uncertainty of trying to cook a healthy meal for the first time, or trying to socialize while sober.
Your brain stem and limbic system oversimplify the concept of “the unknown,” translating it as being immediately life-threatening, yet these same parts of the brain remain unaware that this oversimplification process threatens your quality of life on a regular basis. It ain’t 200 B.C. any more, but your brain doesn’t know that!
If there is even a single area of your life that makes you want to trade places with another person, then you have fallen victim to the familiarity circuits in your brain, and you are already circling the drain.
You already know you’re bullshitting yourself.
That cake doesn’t feel so good after you’ve finished the fourth big piece. Hanging out with those losers every weekend doesn’t make the loneliness go away when you’re lying in bed at night. The money in your account doesn’t do shit for the anxiety you feel on a Sunday night before a busy work-week.
So why do you do it?
Because familiarity, like any drug, is fucking addictive. It feels good at first, and then it simply stops feeling good anymore, yet you continue to crave it.
12 STEP RECOVERY PROGRAM
I want to help you. See, I’m in recovery from addiction myself. Let me share my story.
For most of my life, familiarity meant being liked by people, getting good grades (later it was recognition and promotions at work), having a weekly routine you could set your watch to, binge-drinking and drug-taking on the weekends, and endless hours of snacking while zoning out to pirated movies. Each of these activities provided great dopamine and adrenaline hits, and it wasn’t long before I became addicted.
Like all addicts, eventually the drugs didn’t feel as good as they used to. No matter how many people liked me, I still worried about it all the time. I still felt like an imposter at work, despite being promoted to the highest levels, and I just spend whatever money I had on crap, even when I kept earning more. I no longer looked forward to night-clubbing. I had to smash even more drugs and alcohol to motivate myself to pursue empty women who didn’t like me anyway. My weight ballooned and my body-image fell, and no amount of ice-cream, chips or movies made a difference to how I felt looking in the mirror.
I didn’t hit rock-bottom all at once, like some addicts do. The problem with familiarity and comfort, as opposed to something like heroin, is that you can remain completely functional and do no harm to others. There will be no tear-soaked family interventions, or getting beaten up in crack-house, to give you that much-needed wake up call. In fact, you’ll be encouraged and enabled in your addiction, because almost every other human on the planet is addicted as well. We’d need to rent out the moon to host our Comfort Addicts Anonymous meetings, there’s that many of us.
There needs to be a 12-step program for familiarity addicts. Until someone does a better job, I’ve invented one based on what I did. Here it is, if you dare:
1) List everything in your life that you’re comfortable with but would trade for a better deal, if only you knew how and it was easy. This includes your work, your friendships and relationships, your health, your habits, everything.
2) List all the reasons, rules and excuses you use to maintain your addiction to these things. Anything that says you “have to,” or that you don’t have enough resources, or that you must wait for something you can’t control to happen first, like waiting for someone else to do something or for your kids to grow up.
3) Identify the top few reasons, rules and excuses you feel have the most powerful grip on you, those things you think “But I have to – there’s literally no other option.” Even if rationally you know they’re bullshit, recognize that your current behaviour proves you ultimately believe them at an emotional level (where decisions are truly made).
4) Find and connect with at least one person, or more if possible, whom you believe:
- Is mostly fulfilled, healthy, genuine and free
- Will have your best long-term interests at heart and is bold enough to offend you with their truthful opinion
- Is NOT currently addicted to familiarity
5) Show that person your list of reasons, rules and excuses, and ask for their opinion on how legitimate they are.
6) For any that they challenge or disagree with, ask how they view it differently, and what they recommend you do to break through these.
7) Research online to find living examples of people who break your rules. Find people who live without needing what you think you need, and who managed to overcome barriers you think are impossible to overcome, just to see proof it can be done.
8) Using all this feedback and your own ideas, create and complete a list of actions that would break your rules. For example, if your rule is “But I need the money,” try to survive for a whole week on only 10% of what you usually spend.
9) Repeat this process, preferably with the support of other good mentors and peers, until you have successfully broken every rule you were able to come up with that justifies your addiction to comfort.
10) Make a public announcement, to anyone who will listen, that you don’t wish to be a slave to the rules everyone follows anymore, and that you wish to be held to account for living more freely. Ask people close to you to challenge you any time they see you choosing the easy way out or tolerating bullshit. (E.g. I posted on Facebook that I was going to start my own coaching business and that I would never be an employee again.)
11) Completely quit anything in your life that you are engaged in out of fear of the unknown. Your job. Your marriage. Your city. Whatever it takes.
12) Let go of all safety to actively pursue the unknown and find what you’re truly passionate about. And definitely hire a coach to help you do it.