Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to break free from our comfort zones?

Well, the first thing we need to understand about a comfort zone is that its name is misleading. You would think that a comfort zone would be lovely. A haven, a safe place to land. You would think a comfort zone would at least be comfortable, right? I mean, it’s right there in the damn name, after all.

A comfort zone might be a nice place to be, but it doesn’t have to be, either.

When I think of the term “comfort zone”, I tend to think of plush, tranquil chaise lounges of serenity. So, why then, does it not feel that way when I’m there? Comfortable is not my experience, when I’m there.

Often, my comfort zone isn’t all that comfortable. It is not a five-star resort with an absurd number of pillows on an impossibly large bed that wouldn’t even fit in my bedroom at home. It’s more of a 1.5/10 and that’s being generous only because while the furniture is not comfortable, it is at least made to last, and I do appreciate quality workmanship.

Why, oh why is my comfort zone not that comfortable, and why is it so hard to leave it?

That’s because it doesn’t necessarily mean comfort the way we’re used to defining it. We’re thinking comfort like we tend to define the word “comfortable”: comfy, cozy, peaceful and enjoyable.

Interestingly (at least to me, because my first degree was a major in Anthropology and a minor in Writing, so I like old things and words), the concept of comfort that we’re used to using is relatively new(ish). I’m reading At Home by Bill Bryson, who is one of my favourite authors, and he shares that the idea of comfortable as meaning agreeable and home-y only came to be in the 18th century.

Before that, comfortable meant only that a person was able to be comforted. Consoled. To receive sympathy and condolences in the face of some unpleasant circumstance to which one has fallen victim.

Well, that makes a lot more sense in terms of why we don’t want to leave our comfort zones. We get to be consoled and remain victims, which is an easy rut to fall into, especially if our circumstances do include agreeable accommodations.

Maybe a better term would be our familiar zone. It might be comfortable, or it might not be, but what really matters is that we’re used to it. It’s a place we’ve grown accustomed to being in, and even if we don’t love it, we know our way around it in the dark with our eyes closed.

Your comfort/familiar zone might be full of self loathing, or toxic behaviour to which you’ve grown accustomed. Maybe you grew up in poverty or dysfunction, or experienced an abusive family life. Your comfort zone is not going to be considered home sweet home by anyone else’s standards, but it’s familiar and feels like home to you. And we all tend to look for and find what’s familiar, if we’re not actively choosing something different.

It can be really hard to leave difficult circumstances, even though we all like to think we’d be out of there like a shot. Humans are creatures of habit, whether that habit is helpful or harmful.

It’s the moving out of it that makes it so tricky. A bed of nails can be relatively comfortable, if you stay still. Even if it’s not exactly goose down, at least it’s not all that painful until you decide to move.

And so, we don’t move. Sometimes, for a really long time. And if you tend towards self-loathing, you add the fact that you’re staying put in a rut to the list of transgressions that prove that you don’t deserve anything more, anything better.

So a comfort zone that isn’t comfortable is hard to leave because it’s difficult to know what else is out there. It’s hard to imagine a life that is better, when you’ve only known suffering, and there’s a lot of fear of the unknown when all you’ve ever known is fear and doubt.

And a comfort zone that is comfortable is hard to leave because why on earth would you ever want to leave something cushy and easy? There’s a lot of inertia to overcome when we’re perfectly content to stay still.

Oh, and breaking free from a comfort zone, comfortable or not? It’s not a one and done. Even though it feels like “if I could just change these circumstances, I’d be happy forever,” we both know that’s not true.

Once you’ve gotten the courage and strength to leave the place that has become familiar, you’re out in the unknown, which is new and exciting and filled with possibility, yippee!

At least, until it becomes your new place of familiarity, your new comfort zone, and you’re back to square one, wondering why you feel stuck again.

If you’ve done this enough times, you might feel a lot of resistance to exploring out past the boundaries of your familiar comfort zone. You know what it’s going to take, and you might not feel up to the task again.

So, we become apathetic to our circumstances, and we tell ourselves it’s good enough, and it could be worse, and we should be more grateful, et cetera. We don’t allow ourselves to complain enough that we become present to our discomfort, and we don’t allow ourselves to dream of anything too far beyond where we already are.

If you want to leave your comfort zone, it might be helpful to first discover what about your current comfort zone is familiar. Is it a place you’re genuinely happy to call home? If you had to put a sign out front, stating why you’re staying put, would you be okay with what that sign said?

If you decide you do want to make a move, then please be gentle with yourself. Maybe it’ll take a giant glorious leap of faith, or maybe it’ll take a series of unremarkable tiny steps that inch you ever closer to what you want. Both are totally okay, and either is amazing.

Get supported. Tell a friend. Tell more than one. Ask for help. Talk to a coach and a therapist. A coach can help you move forward, and a therapist can help you heal from what kept you stuck.

I don’t know for sure that what you want will work out, but I do know it’s unlikely to happen if we aren’t willing to risk leaving our comfort zones.

There is so much more out there for all of us, but only if we’re willing to leave what is familiar for what is possible.