Am I in My Comfort Era, or Am I Just Afraid of Trying New Things?

In June 2019, I wrote the word "ASPIRATIONS" in my journal, all caps and underlined. The first item beneath it read "Handstand, because it's one of those things I've just accepted I'll never do." Underneath that: "Scuba dive, because I'm afraid and it's not something I've ever pictured myself doing." Underneath that: "Finish a story, because it terrifies me."

Nine months after I wrote down these goals, COVID happened. And sure, I could've kept moving forward with those aspirations while I was locked down in my apartment; it's not like I needed to go anywhere to work on one of my dozens of half-finished short stories or start trying handstands. But I was in no place, mentally or emotionally, for experimenting with new hobbies and goals. Uncertainty was everywhere; why would I sign up for more? It was all I could do to read my books and watch my shows and bake my emotional-support banana bread, cocooning myself against the fear, anxiety, and isolation.

Nearly three years later, for better or worse, the world is opening back up, and I'm realizing that this comfort zone is starting to feel more like a rut. When confronted with a new experience — downloading a dating app, reaching out to a friend I haven't talked to in a while — I freeze up, cower, and crawl back into bed. And sometimes, that's fine. Sometimes, I legitimately don't want to go to dinner or the pottery class or the date I'm not really feeling. Sometimes, it's self-care. Other times — and I can tell the difference — it's fear.

According to my therapist, this is my anxiety, trying to get me to stay stationary and safe forever. "It wants to keep you where you are," she says, "because anything new is unknown and therefore terrifying." This makes sense, and I get it, but I also want out of the spiral. I want to try handstands and scuba diving and things I never imagined myself doing. I'm ready to leave my comfort era, but how do I know if I'm ready? And if I am ready — how do I even start?

It's Not Your Comfort Zone's Fault

Look, it's easy to demonize your comfort zone as the thing keeping you away from all your big, shiny, terrifying goals — god knows I've done it — but your comfort zone itself is not inherently bad. Everyone has a comfort zone. There's nothing wrong with wanting to hang out there for a while. "There's a pressure in our society to constantly grow, evolve, and hustle," says Kelly Neupert, LPC, a psychotherapist in Illinois. That pressure can make us doubt and question ourselves "when we take a minute to rest or lean into comfortability," Neupert tells POPSUGAR.

If you're truly, authentically happy where you are, it's fine to stay there. Don't feel like you have to change because society demands it. It's perfectly OK to lean into your moments of peace and comfort, especially if you're going through a tough time. "It's actually important for us to have sufficient space to be in our comfort zones, especially when our lives or the world in general feel too chaotic or unpredictable," explains licensed clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD. "So if being in your comfort zone feels good and gives you the space you need to learn and expand, you may be in just the right place." You're not required to be chasing big goals and pushing yourself all the time, even if it seems like that's what everyone else is doing. (FYI: they're probably not.)

Especially as the world opens up post-pandemic, "many people feel pressured to expand their lives in ways that may not yet be comfortable for them," Dr. Manly tells POPSUGAR. If the idea of expanding past your comfort zone causes panic and anxiety, for example, "it may indicate it is better to stay within your comfort [zone] for the moment since you are not ready to try something new," says Ellie Borden, RP, a psychotherapist in Ontario and clinical director and supervisor of Mind by Design Psychology. "You should not put your mental health in jeopardy."

But How Do I Know If I'm Ready?

I think we all know, in our guts, when we're ready to start branching out of our comfort zone, but sometimes, that instinct isn't enough to overcome the fear. So how can you convince yourself that you're ready or, conversely, realize that it might not be time yet?

Short answer: look at what's motivating you. "Are you staying in place due to fear of taking a risk or being uncomfortable, or because you're authentically content with where you are?" Neupert asks. "If your fear is preventing you from living life according to your values, it's time to get out of your comfort zone."

"If you stay in the comfort zone forever, you'll never grow."

Here's a way of sussing out the difference: ask yourself, if you could wave a magic wand and make the fear and anxiety go away, would you want to do this thing? The answer "can provide clarity about why we are choosing not to do something, which can help us be more intentional in our choices," says Alexandra McNulty, LCSW, a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety disorders at McNulty Psychotherapy and Integrative Wellness.

Let's say you want to be in a relationship but have avoided dating due to fear of rejection. If you could magically make that fear disappear, is there anything left that's holding you back? If the answer is no, well, now you know that you're being motivated by fear, rather than contentment with where you are. That's not to say the fear isn't valid, real, and a legitimate reason not to act — you're just recognizing it as the reason you haven't been taking action. Now you have more information to work with before you move forward.

What Does It Take to Move Forward?

By definition, leaving your comfort zone is going to be uncomfortable. For that reason, experts recommend taking it slow. "If you stay in the comfort zone forever, you'll never grow," says psychotherapist Elyse D. Schunkewitz, LCSW. "But you don't want to push yourself so far out initially when trying something new that your nervous system enters danger territory." Here's what you should do instead:

  • Accept that fear and discomfort are part of the process. "Taking risks will always be uncomfortable," Neupert explains. Minimizing, invalidating, or shaming your discomfort will be counterproductive and make you feel like sh*t at the very moment when you need support and encouragement. Instead of pushing away the discomfort, Neupert suggests, try reframing your mindset in a way that acknowledges it: "I know this will be uncomfortable, and I can handle it." If you're dealing with intense fear and anxiety, talking with a therapist can also help.
  • Don't let your brain play tricks on you. The truth is, we're all a lot more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. Yes, leaving your comfort zone is terrifying, but there's a good chance your brain is overselling the threat, and for good reason. "Our nervous systems are wired for survival, and the brain survives by pattern recognition or prediction," Schunkewitz points out. "As long as we stay in our comfort zone, we can predict what might likely happen next. If we move outside of our comfort zone, trying something new and challenging ourselves, it's much harder to predict." In other words, your brain reads any type of uncertainty as a threat and sends you into panic mode so you stay where you are. Instead, pause to really look at the feeling and give yourself some perspective. Is this actually as terrifying as your brain is telling you it is?
  • Decide on a long-term goal, then plan "small but achievable" steps to get there. For example, if your ultimate goal is to start dating, your first step could be as small as researching dating apps. The next step could be downloading one of them, then starting to build your profile. Taken as a whole, the goal of starting to date can seem scary, but focusing on one small step at a time takes the overwhelming, I-can't-do-this aspect out of it. "As you accomplish the smaller goals, the more you will build confidence and be able to maintain being outside of your comfort zone," Borden explains. This is more sustainable and way less intimidating than feeling like you have to accomplish the entire goal all at once.

A lot of incredible experiences, places, and people live outside your comfort zone, and working up the courage to see them isn't easy. Taking small steps, giving yourself perspective, and accepting the fear and anxiety can all help. And chances are, you know when you're ready to leave your comfort era — you've read this far into the article, after all. If there's a small, determined part of you telling you it's ready to try something new, it might be time to listen.