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Don’t “Break Through” Or “Step Outside” Your Comfort Zone – Expand It

Karen Brown is the Founder and CEO of Exponential Results. She draws on 30 years of success as a corporate executive with over 20,000 hours of senior executive coaching experience. Years ago, Ms. Brown discovered the key to greater performance and effectiveness: identifying and addressing blind spots – the repeated thinking patterns that impede success.

Executive Contributor Karen Brown

We all have comfortable things in life: yoga pants, hot pizza, and the easy 9 to 5 job. Comfort zones come in all forms, from tangible things to physical places, emotional states of mind, jobs, and even relationships. We’ve all experienced comfort zones and frankly, we need to redefine this concept if we’re going to shift our mindset and take ourselves to the next level.

sign post at the beac

Comfort zones have this sneaky sound to their name as if they’re something positive, something to strive for. Who doesn’t think that comfort sounds like a good thing? Consider the most common definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “the level at which one functions with ease and familiarity.” In other words, “a place or situation where one feels safe or at ease and without stress.”

We often like to think about comfort zones being plush, pleasant places in which to live. The reality is that comfort zones are actually self-constructed prisons. They are all like the ancient siren songs, luring us into danger by creating a false reality filled with counterfeit comfort. We often create these zones where we put up walls and limitations, thinking we’re protecting ourselves. In reality, we are limiting ourselves from our full potential. In that respect, what may feel “safe” is actually a scary place to be.

Safety ranks high on the needs list

However, as we all learned in ninth grade psychology, the feeling of safety is second only to the physiological requirements in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. From a macro perspective, there’s a reason most humans want to stay in an area of relative comfort and safety: it helps keeps us alive. 

However, there is a big world out there where you can break down walls and reach seemingly impossible goals. You may be doing fine in both your personal and professional lives but think about how much better you could be doing if you break down the self-constructed walls that a comfort zone erects.

Ultimately, we need to redefine our comfort zone. Generally, we think of comfort zones as something to “breakthrough.” The truth is, we should instead view them as psychological spaces that require expansion; think of them as infinitely expandable rubber bands. Breaking through something is different than expanding. You can break through something once, but expanding boundaries can occur repeatedly. The process can be painful, just like physical training, but only incrementally. We should celebrate this, instead of lamenting it. It’s a beautiful process – difficult, but well worth the effort.

An iron will

In order to meet my huge goal of competing at the Ironman World Championships in Kona years ago, I had to perform some major expansion of my comfort zone. I was a good athlete in many ways, but working toward this goal pushed me out of that comfort zone and into an arena that required a far higher level of athletic performance. In the process, I learned that not only could I compete on this advanced level, but I could take pride in the fact that I had actually earned my spot. Had I stayed in my comfort zone, I would never have experienced this knowledge and level of athleticism.

An article in Forbes succinctly outlined the benefits, particularly in the business arena, of stepping outside your comfort zone. Here is a summary:

1. Build adaptability

Stepping out of your comfort zone requires adaptability because you are willingly putting yourself through change. As a result, you get the chance to find out how well you do while thinking on your feet. By immersing yourself in new situations and experiences, you’re building trust in your ability to think “on the fly.” Plus, you’re developing confidence that you can quickly adjust to virtually any situation. 

2. Creating stress resistance

Studies have demonstrated that when stress is viewed as “good,” it can actually boost performance since it pushes you to do your best. What’s more, after experiencing stress (and riding the fear that accompanies it), you’ll be better able to navigate other stressful situations in the future. anxiety

3. Expand your skill set

One of the most essential qualities of being a business leader is being open to learning new skills. As you successfully complete new projects, build new connections, and achieve your goals, you will develop more efficient ways to assimilate new knowledge, which will translate to a greater sense of self-trust in your ability to make effective decisions.

4. Create a ripple effect

Your team looks to you for guidance, advice, and insight. Inspiring others to work hard involves realizing your own aspirations; stepping away from what’s comfortable is an excellent way to do just that. As team members witness your enthusiasm for accepting new challenges, it will become infectious.

5. Recognize your own capabilities

Once you’ve expanded your comfort zone, you can gain new insight and self-confidence that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Temporary discomfort will give way to seeing your dreams fulfilled, and you’ll be grateful you took that first step. And you’ll learn that your capabilities are capable of being expanded much further than you ever imagined.

Finding the balance

The Yerkes-Dodson Law suggests there is a relationship between performance and arousal. Increased arousal can help improve performance up to a certain point. For example, your excitement (and the attendant adrenaline) about an athletic event in which you will be participating might elevate your performance. Or you might be able to meet what you thought was an impossible project deadline due to the increased pressure to finish on time.

However, at the point when arousal becomes excessive, performance diminishes. Thus, it is essential that you find the stress “balance point”, the line where improved output ends and debilitating anxiety takes over. Even self-help entrepreneur Tony Robbins agrees, writing in an article in Real Simple, “Too much certainty, and we won’t fulfill our need for growth and new experiences. But too much uncertainty can lead to anxiety and lack of productivity.”

So, what is your comfort zone right now? What is holding you back from breaking down the walls and seeing what’s on the other side? I encourage you to redefine what a comfort zone is and view it as the hindrance to your success that it actually is. Don’t let yourself be held back by thinking that bad things will happen outside this supposedly secure domain you’ve created. When you expand your comfort zone, you’ll be expanding your career opportunities, your likelihood of success, and your chance at a more fulfilled life. 


Karen Brown, Leadership Development Coach

Karen Brown is the Founder and CEO of Exponential Results. She draws on 30 years of success as a corporate executive with over 20,000 hours of senior executive coaching experience. Years ago, Ms. Brown discovered the key to greater performance and effectiveness: identifying and addressing blind spots – the repeated thinking patterns that impede success. Using a professional coach and science-based methodologies of how our minds work, she busted through her own blind spots to achieve astounding results. Her discovery led to the creation of Exponential Results’ proprietary Power Pathways™ method, based in neuroscience. She’s also a focused athlete, having competed, as an amateur, in the Ironman World Championship.



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