The Discomfort Zone and What it Means for Your Health and Happiness

If there exists a hall of fame for worn-out motivational platitudes, then” life begins at the end of your comfort zone” has got to be up there with the greats. Right up in between “quitters never win” and something about drinking more water. From all this, one could reasonably deduce that none of us should ever be comfortable again. 

Don’t get me wrong, pushing yourself out there a bit into what I call the “discomfort zone” can be a tremendously valuable thing.

Intentionally pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone is a powerful tool for growth, success, and life satisfaction. 

But just like with the other two Hall-of-Famers above, there’s a difference between embracing a good thing and forcing it into an absolute. You won’t make it very far if you quit on everything, but quitting can also be an essential success strategy. For example, drinking water makes your pee fancy or something (idk, not a doctor), but that doesn’t mean you should be drinking water 100% of the time. 

Getting out of your comfort zone can help you make your life extraordinary. But there’s a right way to do it: intentionally and with balance.

Why Do I Need to Leave My Comfort Zone at All?

It’s worth asking the question, why do we even need to do this to ourselves? If you could choose between being comfortable and being uncomfortable, why on Earth should you put yourself through what feels like the worst of those two things? Isn’t life hard enough already? Why do so many motivational posters encourage us to make it worse?

Humans are weird sometimes. Maybe you’ve encountered this yourself. 

As much as we enjoy comfortable, familiar things, short-term enjoyment isn’t the only thing we need for a healthy life. Over lengthier periods, we find great enjoyment and fulfillment by experiencing new things and expanding ourselves into new spaces. Things that give us discomfort at first can go on to be some of the greatest parts of our lives.

Discomfort is a powerful force for good. Our comfort zones, too, are essential for our health and self-care. They’re not enemies.

The only problem is once quippy motivational images and loud Twitter personalities melt this idea down to “never allow yourself to get comfortable” or some such self-aggrandizing nonsense. The truth is, what we need is balance.

Comfort Zone Vs. Growth Zone Vs. Danger Zone

Think of your entire world as filling three zones. Everything falls somewhere in this picture – all of the people you know and those you don’t know, places, experiences, jobs, music festivals, and your favorite Star Wars quotes.

Uh oh, watch out, here come the graphics.

comfort zone and discomfort zone diagram a

The above comfort zone diagram demonstrates the three zones: your comfort zone, discomfort zone, and danger zone. The boundaries of each one will be unique to you, but here’s how it works:

Your Comfort Zone

The innermost circle is your comfort zone. Your comfort zone is where all is familiar and easy. Y’know, comfortable. Nothing here threatens you, and nothing is new or scary. It is a safe place. 

Possible examples:

  • Watching TV in your living room
  • A cup of coffee with a close friend
  • Your collection of Lilo and Stitch DVDs

Your Discomfort Zone (aka Growth Zone)

The next circle is what I call your discomfort zone. Others have called it the growth zone or the learning zone, but don’t worry too much about the names. Things here are less familiar to you and might make you nervous.

Your discomfort zone is where you can find excitement, growth, and possibilities if you are open to them. Each has the potential to expand your world and make it a more brimming place.

Possible examples:

  • Meeting a new group of people for the first time
  • Taking on a new responsibility at work
  • A type of food you haven’t tried before

Your Danger Zone (aka Panic Zone)

Finally, the outermost circle is called the danger zone, or panic zone. Everything here is new, and most of it is scary. The stuff in your danger zone is the stuff you aren’t yet ready to face. Maybe someday, but not today.

Stepping into your danger zone typically leads to more emotional distress than meaningful growth. Therefore, it is best to avoid your danger zone whenever possible.

Possible examples:

  • Working a job that you aren’t qualified for
  • Traveling to a new country alone
  • Speaking in front of a large crowd with no experience

Again, don’t sweat these names too much, or even the examples. All that matters here is that there’s the comfy-cozy spot in the center, the overwhelmingly scary region on the outside, and the goldilocks zone in between. You will know what falls where for you.

Draw Your Own Borders

The most important thing about these three zones – comfort, discomfort, and danger – is that they’re not permanent. They grow and evolve as you do. So the boundaries between them are constantly shifting. And you hold the pen.

comfort zone and discomfort zone diagram b

Imagine you had never flown in an airplane. Flying halfway around the world, alone, to a foreign country would be a lot—too much for most people to deal with the first time. Even flying cross-country to visit family for the first time could be uncomfortable. 

But taking that first uncomfortable flight makes flying not as new, not as scary anymore. Eventually, international travel might still be intimidating, but less so. Same with traveling alone.

This is how the discomfort zone works. By willingly exploring your discomfort zone and encountering new things, you expand your world. You can find new things that you enjoy. And something that was once way out of reach in your danger zone may drift more accessibly into your discomfort zone.

The reverse is also true.

If you never challenge yourself and never step into your discomfort zone, then you will become trapped in your comfort zone. Your comfort zone may even atrophy and shrink over time as you harden in on only that which is most comfortable. This cycle leaves your life severely wanting for something new.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Your comfort zone is a beautiful thing. It takes care of you, looks after you, and gives you a place to breathe and heal in between life’s more challenging moments.

But we need to push beyond it sometimes. We need to take ourselves out into new places and see who we might become in those new places. This growth is the purpose of your discomfort zone – a place where you can learn, evolve, and discover new sources of joy and fulfillment.

As with all things, the key is balance. Feel the thrill of being uncomfortable, trying new things, and creating new possibilities, but don’t let pressure from online advice make you feel like all comfort is evil. It’s okay to come back to your comfort zone to rest, heal, and enjoy your progress from time to time.

Embracing discomfort in a healthy way, rather than fighting it OR overdoing it, allows you to enjoy the journey all the way along. Use your comfort zone and discomfort zone together, and breathe new life and joy into your world.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

2 thoughts on “The Discomfort Zone and What it Means for Your Health and Happiness”

  1. I totally agree with this! I’m all about taking small, manageable steps and watching that discomfort zone grow. Also all about owning a lot of Lilo & Stitch DVDs because Lilo & Stitch is the bomb diggity.

    • Glad you liked it! I think we’ve both been working on this comfort zone idea lately and trying to figure out where the balance is between growing yourself and your world, while still making room to breathe deep and enjoy yourself.


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