Beyond the Comfort Zone Part 2: Dealing with Discomfort

When fear acts on us, we lose. When we act despite fear, we grow.

Part 1 of Beyond the Comfort Zone spotlighted fear as the main reason we resist leaving our comfort zones. When I talk about stepping outside a comfort zone, I’m not referring only to substantial actions like changing jobs or moving away, etc.

Getting out of a comfort zone can involve things like setting and enforcing boundaries, learning new skills, making new friends, and breaking unhelpful habits. Really, it is any situation that causes fear in any of its various guises: guilt, sadness, remorse, awkwardness, anxiety, loss, or regret.

Let me say right here: fear is completely normal. Repeat after me…

Fear is normal!

It might be normal, but fear is also unpleasant. This is why we try to avoid it, push it away, distract ourselves, or numb the discomfort.

Take a moment to think about some of the ways people do that: working more; working less; bingeing on TV, movies, and social media; food; alcohol; avoiding certain people, places, or activities; dropping out; sleeping in; hobbies; and spending money (there’s a reason it’s called retail therapy!)

Let’s admit it, we’ve all been there. And when employed judiciously and temporarily, there’s little harm done. But when we rely heavily on unhelpful ways to avoid discomfort, it costs us dearly. How? Wasted time or energy, work problems, health problems, troubled relationships, financial problems. All of which increase – not decrease – uncomfortable feelings. That compounds the problem and the whole situation becomes a vicious cycle.

It doesn’t have to be like that, though. There is another way of dealing with discomfort. The key is…


In his book The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris says,

Willingness is essential because it’s the only effective way to deal with life’s obstacles. Whenever an obstacle presents itself, you can either say yes or no. If you say no, your life stagnates or shrinks. If you say yes, your life gets bigger…Even if you don’t want to say yes, you can still choose to. And each time you make that choice, you grow as a person.

So, it is the willingness to feel discomfort that allows us to deal with the fear of stepping beyond our comfort zone. Without willingness, we are going nowhere.

Take Action Despite Discomfort

The following is a nuts-and-bolts exercise taken from chapter 31 of The Happiness Trap. Harris calls it the Willingness-And-Action Plan. It’s very powerful so I do encourage you to try it.

Grab a pen and notebook or the digital equivalent. It’s tempting to do this kind of exercise in your head but putting it in writing helps clarify thoughts, boosts motivation, and increases the likelihood of actually following through. It is also revealing to look back on your notes in the future.

First, think of a goal and write it down. It’s ok to start small but be specific. “Lose weight” is not specific. “Lose 5 kgs” is.

Here’s a peek at one of my Willingness-And-Action plans from a while back. The goal I chose was: Avoid all refined sugar for one month.

Now write down why your goal is important to you. Again, be specific. Try to connect your goal to something you highly value. When something is truly important to you, you are more motivated to do it. For instance, I want to lose 5 kgs because my health is important to me is more motivating than I want to fit into my jeans again.

This is what I wrote about why my goal was important: 

Out-of-control sugar consumption is damaging my health by increasing migraines. More migraines increase my use of medication, with potentially serious side effects.

Next, we’ll list the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges that will arise while pursuing our goal. This is where willingness kicks in. We must be willing to make room for those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings in order to achieve our goal, to get out of our comfort zone.

Here’s what my summary looked like:

Thoughts I’m willing to have: I deserve a treat. A little bit won’t hurt. Sugar is too difficult to avoid. If I fail and get a migraine, I’ve got medication to fall back on.

Feelings I’m willing to have: I feel deprived. It’s not fair; others can have sugar without consequences (like my husband!)

Sensations I’m willing to feel: Cravings for something sweet, especially chocolate. Stress from trying to do something difficult.

Urges I’m willing to have: Just have a tiny bit. Give in; it’s too hard.

I found it particularly helpful to have all of this down in writing. Awareness is powerful. Being prepared in advance helped stop those anticipated thoughts, feelings, and urges from derailing my progress.

The next part of the exercise involves jotting down useful reminders. Think motivational quotes, previous success, and helpful facts.

My useful reminders were: Lots of people have to give up sugar and they do fine. Everyone faces the consequences of sugar addiction sooner or later. Good health is better than temporary pleasure.

Next, decide if our goal would be easier if it were broken down into smaller steps. What are those steps? List them.

I didn’t do this with my sugar elimination goal – I went cold turkey instead. It may have been easier to wean myself off sugar in steps such as gradually reducing the number of days a week I indulged myself. But, in my case, sugar is an addiction and cold turkey was the best option.

If smaller steps are the way to go, write down what is the smallest, easiest step you can take.

And finally, write down when you will take that step. Be specific – time, day, and date!

Nothing Changes if Nothing Changes

There’s a lot of merit in that thought. Author Courtney C. Stevens builds on it, saying, 

“If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’re getting. You want change, make some.”

However, that is not necessarily true in the context of comfort zones. If nothing changes, that is, if we don’t take action to move beyond our comfort zone, something does change. Our comfort zone shrinks… and so does our life! It may not happen tomorrow, but it will happen eventually.

On that note, I’ll leave you with a final thought, one that inspires me greatly:

A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for. John A. Shedd

Photo by Karan Mandre on Unsplash



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