I loathe comfort zones. I believe these areas of inaction and apathy are some of the most destructive challenges we face. Comfort zones are where dreams never become a reality, and only mediocrity prevails.
The son of a pastor, I grew up in churches across the country. I watched my father pull his hair out as the comfort zones of others held each church back from reaching its full potential. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people all chose complacency and apathy over a calling (and sadly they never fully achieved their life’s purpose).
As a kid, I directly saw the destructive power that comfort zones had on people. These people were far too cozy in their little existence, and they couldn’t overcome the fear of stepping out. As a result, they never reached success or even maximized their abilities. This phenomenon stuck with me, and as I grew up, I vowed never to settle into comfort zones. I vowed never to remain complacent.
You can imagine my shock when I came to realize the other day, that I was also stuck, shoulder deep, in a dark and muddy (you guessed it) comfort zone.
‘For cool things to happen, you have to get out of your comfort zone.’ – Rony Abovitz
What are Comfort Zones?
‘Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioral space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security. You benefit in obvious ways: regular happiness, low anxiety, and reduced stress.’ – Lifehacker
Think about that quote for a second, ‘Minimizing stress and risk’ and ‘providing a state of mental security.’ As Depression Fighters, we spend most of our days trying to outsmart our illness. We come up with tricks, hacks, and safety measures all to survive a day with depression. In other words, we work our butts off to create a comfort zone for ourselves in an attempt to overcome the illness.
It doesn’t sound like that bad of a thing, but even comfortable circumstances can become destructive.
For over four years, I worked with homeless families living in rundown motels. These bug-infested, dingy rooms were considered home to thousands of underserved men, women, and children. Each week I helped these families faithfully, and became friends with many of them. I was shocked the day I pieced together that one of the most significant challenges they faced was their comfort zones.
I don’t want to generalize, as many had a variety of circumstances and obstacles keeping them in poverty. But I began to notice that many didn’t take any action to improve their situation. They did what they could to maintain their status quo in life, and that was it. Fear kept them from reaching beyond their current position and putting in the effort to better their lives. Instead, they came up with reasons why they couldn’t do certain things, or why some suggestion wouldn’t work, why they couldn’t do this or that or whatever needed to get done.
‘Certainly,’ I thought, ‘if I were in that situation I would be doing [insert action] to try and make my life better.’ But they were in their comfort zones. Yes, some people can acclimatize to even uncomfortable circumstances like homelessness.
That’s why we must always be on the lookout for comfort zones. They’re subtle, sneaky little traps that suck us in.
Depression Trained Me How to Live
I ended up in my own uncomfortable comfort zone. Upon reflection (recently surfacing from a brutal five-year fight with severe depression), I think my condition lasted a little longer than necessary. Don’t get me wrong, depression and I had a twelve round, dirty, angry, bloody fight. And I didn’t finish with a knockout by any means. It went to a decision, and I squeaked out with the win.
But it wasn’t until I realized I was in a comfort zone that I ‘snapped out of it’ and actually finished the fight.
My chronic depression created a situational depression too, so it got to a point where I didn’t know which was which. Was I more depressed chemically (chronic depression) or had I just become dissatisfied with how my life became shaped by it (situational depression)?
I realized that I had my chronic depression on the ropes and I was winning. But I was still living my life like I was losing and continually depressed.
As Depression Fighters, we create habits to survive our depression. Then, when we make progress and beat our depression, we just keep living our lives with those same habits (even though we no longer need them).
I call these tricks, and hacks we come up with, ‘reactive habits.’ A reactive habit is any recurring activity or approach you’ve built into your life to accommodate your depression.
Don’t get me wrong; these habits are critical to surviving depression. Something like avoiding specific topics of conversation may seem subtle, but that’s a habit that saves you from hitting a depression trigger. We do all types of little things throughout the day to keep our depression from getting worse. I used to avoid phone calls, never check my email, and skip certain movies, all to save me from the pain of depression later. And it worked well; I subdued my depression.
But I ended up on the other side with all my friends scared of me. They didn’t want to talk about certain things, didn’t invite me to specific activities; I ended up feeling isolated and not treated like a ‘normal’ person, which then sparked my situational depression.
Everybody, including myself, lived like I was fighting for my life against depression. And when I won the fight, we all just kept living in ‘fight mode’ which only prolonged it.
It wasn’t until I stopped living that way that the symptoms of my illness truly started to lift.
I’m not saying the habits and tricks we use to fight depression are bad. Quite the opposite, we need them to survive. But it’s important to realize when you can stop fighting and move out of your comfort zone. Ultimately, that’s how you begin to live your life to its fullest.
So how do we identify these comfort zones in our lives? How do we root them out and, most importantly, remove some of them, so our quality of life improves drastically?
Question Everything You Do (or Don’t Do)
You must question why you do everything. If this sounds exhausting, it is at first, but it’s key to identify why you’re doing some of the things you’re doing.
For example, for years I struggled with PTSD related to my email inbox. I’d go months without checking my email to the frustration of everyone around me. But fixing my ‘email issue’ was not only low-priority when I was facing my depression, avoiding my email was helpful because it was one less trigger for me to deal with when I was in a fight for my life.
Now that I’m on the other side of my battle, and doing much better, I’ve identified that I don’t need to avoid my email anymore. So, I’ve been slowly working it back into my routine over the last few months. I still feel uncomfortable with email, but avoiding it had become a crutch. And to keep moving forward, crutches must go.
Ask yourself why you do, or don’t do certain things. Challenge your perspective and see if there are some changes you can make to help yourself feel better. You must confront the idea of ‘normal’ in your life because there are habits that may no longer be relevant in your battle. If they aren’t relevant, they just end up weighing you down.
Alert Friends and Family
If you’re fortunate enough to have supportive people around you, ask them for feedback. Certainly, they have things they do or don’t do around you because of your illness.
I found that I trained everyone in my life so well that when my depression subsided, they kept treating me as if my depression was at full strength. That wasn’t their fault, but it helped keep the feeling of depression vibrant.
I talked to those closest to me and told them I was feeling better. I asked each person if they did (or didn’t do) specific things or treated me a certain way because of my illness. Absolutely! They unanimously confirmed it.
Together, we’re working to change that. My friends now treat me less like a ‘depressed person’ and, as a result, I’m starting to feel more like the ‘real me’ again.
Don’t run too fast and get rid of all your reactive habits. You may still need some of them. Think of your reactive habits as a cast on a broken arm – too many habits gone, and you weaken the cast and break your arm again. So, baby-step the entire process. Remove each habit with care and consideration. But remain focused on eliminating those reactive habits, so you eventually stand on your own again.
This entire process takes time, and challenging your comfort zones takes effort. There will be setbacks. Keep pushing and keep challenging yourself. That’s how you get better, and that’s where your greatness awaits.
Make the Commitment
‘Don’t settle for the mediocre just to avoid stepping out of your comfort zone; it’s too big a price to pay. Your challenges and risk experiences are cumulative. Every time you try something new, allow yourself to be open to whatever experience arises, you are learning, and expanding your repertoire of life skills and self-knowledge. As you do this, you are also expanding the size of your comfort zone.’ – Psychology Today
Commit today to pushing the boundaries of your comfort zones. By doing so, you’ll improve your depression and live a fuller, richer life.
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