Don’t Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

Where did the “comfort zone” come from? It seems of recent vintage, although the combination of words may have been influenced by thermostat marketing. From the 2004 New Yorker story “The Comfort Zone,” chronicling an episode from 1970s America:

“My father came home on cool nights to complain about the house’s ‘chill.’ My mother countered that the house wasn’t cold if you were doing housework all day. My father marched into the dining room to adjust the thermostat and dramatically point to its ‘Comfort Zone,’ a pale-blue arc between 72 and 78 degrees.”

The story traces a back-and-forth between the couple. What’s striking is how both the father and the mother have good arguments for setting the “right” temperature. A current reading would probably scold the father for being intransigent and praise the mother for her support of hard work.

Should he have stepped outside (the most common phrase used with “comfort zone”) his comfort zone? The house was cold to someone who had been in the heat, but normal for someone who had been working in it all day. Instead of dogma about “your comfort zone,” perhaps we should see that what’s comfortable depends on the person’s situation, and that having comfort – a temperate house, a relaxing chair from which you can reset your brain by staring off into space – is not always bad or “safe” (regrettable that this word has negative connotations now).

I thought of this New Yorker vignette when I recently visited Mammoth Cave in Brownsville, Kentucky. It was in the high 80s F outside, but once we neared the cave’s entrance, cool air wafted over us. The cave itself was a constant 54 F. After a working up a sweat from walking and ducking through the passages, we barely noticed the temperature that just minutes ago had seemed cold.

Maybe we had stepped outside our etc. But that 54 F became comfortable too, and it felt good to go back to the 80 F temps from before. We stepped back inside the comfort zone, one could say, and it felt good. Despite having trekked through a 54 F cave, I wouldn’t say that it is now within my “comfort zone,” though – it would still feel weird at first, and I wouldn’t want to stay forever.

Anymore, “comfort zone” is a dark place for peddlers of corporate management theory or lifestyle coaching. It’s not hard to see why – you need to get out of it before buying into their programs, which presuppose that:

  1. everyone benefits from the new stimuli of doing “uncomfortable” tasks
  2. doing “uncomfortable” things is voluntary – a matter of “want to” not “have to”
  3. it’s possible to fundamentally change someone’s attitude, usually from a “negative” to a “positive” outlook.

# 2 sticks with me. I think of how many people involuntarily venture beyond what a life coach would euphemistically call their “comfort zones” just to survive – working a job for which they’re overqualified, having to apply for unemployment insurance, raising a child for the first time. They’re constantly having new experiences that aren’t comfortable and that they may not want to repeat, but if evaluated through the lens of “comfort zone” behavioral analysis or Internet discussion, would likely be “ordinary” people, “trapped” in 9-5 work and unwilling to “step outside the comfort zone” by skydiving, doing improv comedy, or being put in charge of some intramural game.

Indeed, the stakes of voluntarily ditching the vaunted “comfort zone” through such activities are often low. I can remember doing many such extroverted activities to feel more comfortable, only to see the same feelings of anxiety crop up again over the years in similar situations. The experiences were not transferable, and I questioned their value as anything other than lingo in practice. Plus, it’s ironic that proponents of extra-“comfort zone” expansion express their views through a cliche. It’s so meaningless that even uncomfortable actions that are familiar – living with pain or sadness – qualify.

For the father coming home to his thermostat in the 1970s, having a literal Comfort Zone on his thermostat was probably a relief from the pressures and annoyances of work. It’s ok to rest, to slip back into what we’re comfortable doing sometimes; otherwise we’re tasked with reinventing ourselves around the clock, “stepping it up” to meet some unfulfiling ideal, and heading toward burnout.


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