I love a routine. It helps me get things accomplished, helps me maintain healthy habits like exercising, getting eight hours of sleep, keeping regular meal times. If you ask me what I’m doing at 10 a.m. on a particular day, I can usually tell you: Tuesday I’ll be with a client; Wednesday, writing; Saturday cleaning the house. On most Friday nights my husband and I will be eating pizza at The Silos in Oriental.
Having a routine keeps life predictable and safe. In times of heightened stress or during a crisis a solid routine can maintain our sanity, but like anything, moderation is key. Safe and predictable also keeps us in our comfort zone. We don’t grow, change or learn if we linger here long.
Too rigid a routine and life can dull and lose its luster. I often have clients say, “My life is so good. I don’t know why I’m depressed.” Further exploration reveals all their basic needs are being met. They’re even enjoying themselves on occasion but there is no challenge, no spontaneity. Life is most fulfilling when we have moments of living at the edge of our comfort zone. This is sometimes referred to as the flow state, where a challenge meets or slightly exceeds our abilities.
Since moving to Oriental I’ve become an avid stand-up paddle boarder. When I began, simply standing on my board and paddling in calm water put me at the edge of my comfort zone. I was quickly captivated by the sport partly because every time I got on the board I had the opportunity to push myself into new territory. Soon I increased my distance, paddled in white caps, competed in races. I felt invigorated, even when I was scared.
In the cold last winter, a warm, sunny paddle around Key West in the spring sounded inviting. In January, I signed up for the 13 mile Key West Classic and May seemed a long way off, until it wasn’t. I read the course description again: start in the Atlantic Ocean then enter the Gulf of Mexico! What was I thinking? This was a far cry from Smith and Green Creeks in Pamlico County. They’re protected and close to home, in other words, in my comfort zone.
Two weeks before the race I couldn’t sleep imagining ocean swells, waves, and strong winds. Would I finish? Would I fall off every five minutes? Would I end up in Cuba? I’ve counseled people through more difficult issues, but I needed help I called a sports psychologist friend and we talked about visualization and calming mantras and he reminded me that, "It’s only a paddle board race.”
Finally it was race day. The gun went off and I paddled. I paddled over bigger swells then I’d ever encountered. I paddled on my right side for an hour because of the wind. I paddled through fatigue and muscle cramps, never fully certain I would finish. I was literally at the edge of my comfort zone.
Three hours later I rounded a corner and saw the finish line. Music blared from the speakers and the crowd cheered. I’d done it! I cried, hopped off my board and ran under the arch of balloons on the beach. When I look back at that day I remember the color of the water, the angle of the sun at the finish,, the feel of the sand on my feet, the hugs from my husband and paddle friends, and the extreme joy and pride at accomplishing my goal. My experience was captured vividly in memory because at that moment I was fully alive, something that doesn’t occur in a predictable routine.
Pushing my physical limits comes more easily than stepping outside my comfort zone in other areas. Thankfully the success I’ve had in this realm contributes to my overall self confidence and emboldens me push myself in other areas: to say no because I want to, ask someone I’ve just met to lunch, or follow through with new avenues to promote my novel, Hungry Mother Creek. Who knows, one day I may even order something besides pizza at The Silos.
My experience and the wisdom I’ve gained from counseling my clients has revealed strategies that may help propel you out of your comfort zone.
- Mindfulness - Being comfortable can anesthetize feelings of boredom and lack of inspiration. Mindfulness makes you aware of your thoughts, moods and environment. Being fully present in each moment allows you to identify subtle feelings of discontent so you can act on them before your routine becomes a rut.
- Embrace your fear - Once you’ve decided to create change, your immediate reaction may be fear - fear of the unknown, fear of failure, and sometimes fear of success. When you notice your fear, label it as a normal reaction to pushing beyond your comfort zone and proceed anyway. Remind yourself that fear and excitement feel similar.
- Embrace failure - When you try something new, most likely you won’t do it well in the beginning, whether you’re learning a sport, practicing a new art form, traveling to a new place or speaking up for yourself. Use mindfulness to pay attention to what’s working and what’s not, make adjustments and try again. Failure is not a reason to quit.
- Use your support system - Most things are more achievable with support. Ask a friend to join you in your new adventure. Seek guidance from someone who’s more experienced. Have a couple of cheerleaders, people who can provide feedback and support as you grow. Be aware that some people in your life may be less supportive than you had hoped, most likely because your change disrupts their comfort zone. Show them compassion and respect, but don’t let their reaction change your course. In the end you may inspire them to improve their life.
Once you’ve successfully expanded the limits of your comfort zone, celebrate! Savor your success and enjoy the gifts your change has brought but don’t become complacent. Be alert for the nagging feeling that something is missing in your life. That’s your signal it’s time to grow again.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!