The widely used phrase, comfort zone, is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a place, situation, or level where someone feels confident and comfortable." It isn't a physical place, though numerous restaurants, bars, and children's camps use the phrase for their names. The phrase is a metaphor, and like all metaphors, it identifies something familiar — a zone — with something less familiar — a psychological or behavioral situation.
That identification is literally incorrect. A zone isn't a psychological space. A zone, again from the dictionary, is "a region or area set off as distinct from surrounding or adjoining parts." It's a contiguous region on a surface, such as the inbounds area of a tennis court, or the Greenwich Mean Time zone, or the territory of New York City.
Using metaphors entails risk. The literally incorrect identification of "zone" with "psychological situation" can distort thinking about the psychological space. Here are four issues for which the metaphor can cause muddled thinking.
- Dealing with discomfort
- The comfort zone isn't a "region or area" distinct from its surrounds. For example, when presenting to your team, you might be in your comfort zone, until your company's CEO enters the room and takes a seat. Clearly, the comfort zone wasn't the conference room; nor was it presenting in that room. In this case, the comfort zone's definition must include the audience. Thinking of the comfort zone as an area, when it's actually an audience roster, can make dealing with the discomfort more difficult.
- Taking responsibility for growth
- People talk about "breaking out of your comfort zone," or "pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone," as if something external holds one there. Constraining forces might indeed exist, but they're usually internal. Regarding these forces as external shifts the responsibility for making a change to someone else (or something else). That responsibility is ours alone; it cannot be shifted.
- Feeling a false sense of security
- When we People talk about "breaking
out of your comfort zone,"
or "pushing the boundaries
of your comfort zone," as
if something external
holds one therefeel that we're in our comfort zone, regarding it as a "zone" can create a false sense of security. Real "zones" — that is, regions or areas — are places that persist over time. Zones aren't usually subject to sudden change. Situations are. Situations can be comfortable in one moment and uncomfortable — even unsafe — in the next. To grasp how quickly situations can change, we must think of situations as situations.
- Seeking real security
- When we think of "seeking a comfort zone," the metaphor compels us to seek a place that's permanently comfortable. This is an objective different from seeking a situation that's comfortable for now, or for some other short period. So we end up looking for something possibly more difficult to find than what we actually need.
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- See "Metaphors and Their Abuses," for more about the power and risks of metaphors.
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Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps.
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