Mel Schwartz, LCSW

Breaking Free from Your Comfort Zone

Our Most Intimate Relationship

The most intimate relationship we will have in our lives is not with our parents, our spouses, our children or closest friends. It is with our thoughts. They are our constant companions. Our thoughts will impact our lives far more than any relationship. In fact, they will greatly impact those relations. The quality and nature of what our thoughts tell us will largely script the experience of our lives. Learning to break free from the confines of old thought is the key to personal growth.

Thoughts can either be our supportive allies or our critical antagonists.  They are the very filters through which we experience our lives. A particular thought – embedded as part of a larger belief – can either imprison or liberate us. Our thoughts very much tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies.

Just consider how the difference between the thoughts “I’m not good enough” and “I am of value” will script your life experience. Self-critical thoughts are damaging. Imagine having a critical, judgmental voice perched on your shoulder assaulting you all day long. That would ruin your day. Now, imagine it for a lifetime.

How different might our lives be if we learned at a young age, as part of our primary education, to enter into a healthy habit of thinking? Regrettably, the only time we tend to look at our thinking is when we are stumbling in life or running into a wall. It need not be this way. Developing a healthy relationship with your thinking should be a primary undertaking in life and yet it is tragically ignored.

Many transformational pundits and a host of well-intentioned speakers and writers in the self-help field would have us believe that transformation is as easy as changing your thoughts. Their maxim might be: Change your thoughts, change your life. This aphorism has merit, but understanding how to accomplish this lofty goal is glaringly omitted from the message. The simple exhortation is regrettably not enough.

Often, people come into therapy with me feeling very disappointed, after having been highly motivated by such promptings, only to settle back into old territory. Changing your thoughts does in fact alter the script of your life, but learning how to do so requires learning a new skill set.

Comfort Zone or Familiar Zone?

Our thoughts are primarily informed by our experiences and our beliefs. Thought, therefore, represents our beliefs and life experiences. The word “represent” is literally to re-present. As such, we tend get stuck in particular grooves as old, habitual thought continues to re-present our past. When this occurs, we aren’t present in the now as we’re enslaved by old thought and, hence, old feelings. The present becomes stuck in the past.

The moment we attach to a thought, it automatically summons our personal history of accompanying emotions, and we become embedded in this conditioned reflex from the the past. The desire to come out of old thought requires breaking free from what I call the familiar zone. Ordinarily, we might call this the comfort zone, except that it’s not particularly comfortable, simply familiar. The struggle to liberate oneself from this basin of old thought and to engage change, if not transformation, requires surging beyond the barriers of the zone of the familiar.

The primary difficulty in this pursuit is that old thought literally defends its territory, as it proclaims that it’s too dangerous to venture outside the familiar zone.  We create excuses or justifications to either procrastinate or utterly avoid the discomfort of new thinking and new behavior. So, thought mightily protects its sovereignty by proclaiming the danger of new thinking and new terrain. We become very adroit at justifying why we ought not venture into this new territory, ranging from a simple “it’s too scary” or “it makes me uncomfortable” all intended to defend against the new movement.

Make Discomfort Your Ally

I’ve enjoyed considerable success assisting people beyond this self-imposed boundary by encouraging them to shift their relationship with their discomfort. If the disquiet of moving into new terrain becomes our justification for maintaining old thinking and old behavior, we need to alter our relationship with this anxiety. Begin to look at the discomfort as your ally, as a signal that you’re venturing out of the familiar zone. If you’re comfortable, you’re likely stuck in the groove of old thought. Therefore, being comfortable needs to become problematic. When I’m working with someone who may claim that trying to change their thinking makes them uncomfortable, I might say, “I’m happy to hear that.” What I’m proposing is that we need to embrace the disquiet in order to progress.

Just as working out and training our bodies into shape requires a certain discomfort, so does learning to free our thinking from the groove. Many people are prepared to engage the discomfort of working out strenuously for the anticipated benefit to both their health and vanity, yet we’re inclined to be more tentative surging beyond our familiar zone on emotional and psychological levels. If we put as much effort into our internal processes as we do our physical and material states, we’d be rather surprised at how different our reality might look.

At times, when I encourage people to make this stretch they might protest and say, “That’s not easy to do.” I ask them how they come to believe that if they’ve never been taught how to accomplish this. The very thought that “it’s hard to do” something is an illustration of old thought defending its territory. That thought becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and impedes the process. As always, we must ask what informs our thoughts and beliefs. From a meta view, the belief that it’s hard to change would make perfect sense in Newton’s mechanistic universe of fixed objects. Yet, the emerging worldview is one of flowing, unfolding movement in which change is constantly happening.

The familiar zone acts as a literal boundary, which limits and constrains our experiences. I recall having a walking therapy session with a young woman at the beach, not far from my office. She was seriously challenged with social anxiety and self-protected by being reclusive. The very consideration of socializing with peers overwhelmed her and provoked acute stress and anxiety. Rather than engaging her fears, she succumbed to the avoidance of encountering such stress.

Trying to help her come out of the familiar zone necessarily triggered her anxiety. She therefore used this anxiety as a justification for not breaking out of her zone. I walked onto the sand with her and drew a circle around her, tracing the sand with a stick. I asked her to remain within that circle while I walked off to get some lunch and a drink. She asked me in alarm if I were serious, and of course, I explained that I was only trying to illuminate her problem. Her life was metaphorically encircled by her avoidance of the stress of moving into the unfamiliar. She had a choice: succumb to avoiding the anxiety around movement, or remain in his very limited zone and become more depressed.

Typically, remaining in the zone contributes to feeling depressed, whereas moving beyond engages anxiety. The relationship between anxiety and depression reveals the movement – or lack thereof. Progress may be achieved by embracing the anxiety, which enables it to wither, as we expand beyond the constraints of the familiar zone. Remaining imprisoned within the familiar zone may be comfortable and familiar, yet it is stagnating.

Once we make some progress and move into the new mindscape, there is a tendency to rest in the satisfaction that we’ve expanded beyond the boundary. The circle becomes a bit larger. And so we breathe a sigh of relief, as we’ve grown a bit. Yet, there is an inclination to be pulled back toward the familiar zone, almost as if by a gravitational force. We’re inclined to feel as if we’re still in the orbit of the familiar zone. The way to counteract this influence – the retreat back to the familiar – is to perpetually expand farther and farther into new territory. Having done this, our familiar zone is now immeasurably larger, and so is our life. We can literally break free of the old orbit.

To be continued… This is the first article in a series devoted to exploring the nature of our thinking.

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Nora Gluck

Very good article! I tell my clients, “When the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of changing, you will choose to change.” Of course, I have experienced this in my own life, as I’m sure we all have.

Beaux Petry

“Many transformational pundits and a host of well-intentioned speakers and writers in the self-help field would have us believe that transformation is as easy as changing your thoughts. Their maxim might be: Change your thoughts, change your life.”

I was thinking similar thoughts just yesterday, in relationship to the number of desparate people who fall into this compelling trap then wonder why they are not “cured” with that initial recognition of changed thoughts. Most therapists or guides are not as honest as you and don’t tell the potential client that replacing old thinking with new doesn’t happen over night……….but over months and years.
Thanks for a very good article and for being honest about a critical issue for many of us.

Matthew Selznick

Hi Beaux and thanks for your comments. Yes it requires devoted attention, but I have seen that moments of breakthrough or epiphany can occur sooner, provided the intention is earnest.

Mel, this is great and very eloquently worded. I love the imagery of anxiety and depression I get…it’s almost like a teeter totter the way I envision it. I have recently read an article online about depression being “mental constipation”. It’s true that you must push yourself into the uncomfortable because change is very much what a dysthymic person needs much of the time. If they sit around waiting to be motivated, it just won’t happen. I will use your article to remind me to talk to my clients about the possibility of increased anxiety when trying to fend off depression. Thank you.

Matthew Selznick

Yes Holly, if we can embrace the disquiet of anxiety, we put wind in the sails of change.

Depression – thoughts that limit personal exploration and growth? | Clear Mind thinking …

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saeed sadri

I like the article, thanks, but what if the “comfort/familiar” zone is really comfortable? how do we know is time for change and how far and for how long should be pushing the circle boundries and embrace the anxiety?

Matthew Selznick

Saeed, this is a very good question. Being comfortable in and of itself is not an issue. What we need to pay attention to is that which makes us uncomfortable. I’m not referring to drunken driving or using dangerous drugs. I am speaking to what happens when we try to break free of old thinking/habits that are familiar and we realize that the new territory that we seek makes us anxious to venture into. So if positive growth requires discomfort, this becomes a cause for action. Just look at your interpersonal relations and ask yourself where you would benefit from growth. Then consider if that movement would make you discomforted. If so, you have your answer.

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