Is it Possible to Push Too Far Out of Your Comfort Zone?

You’d think not.

Especially when famous quotes like Eleanor Roosevelt’s “do one thing every day that scares you”, and Neale Donald Walsch’s “life begins at the end of your comfort zone” regularly do the rounds on social media.

(In case you’re curious about who Neale Donald Walsch is, he’s a self-described modern day spiritual messenger who writes about how best to speak with God.)

Your comfort zone is a tempting place to stay in most of the time, because… well, it’s comfortable.  Like an overprotective mother, it cossets you against life’s harshest fears and pressures, bearing a never-ending supply of tea and hot buttered toast.

If you want to grow and develop, or generally amount to anything in life, it’s an accepted fact that you’re going to have to spit out that toast, put down that dainty china teacup, and get the hell out.

But if you make it, how far should you run?

Before Covid made its merry way into our lives, I signed up to do an improvised comedy course that comprised ten group lessons, followed by an ensemble performance… on stage, in front of an actual paying audience.

As a confirmed introvert, walking into the first lesson and a huge roomful of strangers was terrifying enough for me, but it felt like something I had to at least try.  

I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t, and as it turns out, I would have done.  

The atmosphere was warm, friendly, and completely non-judgemental right from the start, and performing fun improv games felt like being back in the school playground again (but in a nice, non-bullying sort of way.)  

Yes, I looked completely ridiculous, standing in a circle and making my fingers talk to each-other in silly voices, but so did everyone else… that was the whole point, in fact, and it felt freeing and gleeful in a way not many other things in life do.

But around six lessons in, we started practising the ‘on-stage performance’ part.

From the moment I walked on, blinking in the glaring footlights, I knew I was in the wrong place.  I was so terrified that I could hardly move, let alone speak… and I don’t remember anything I actually said or did while I was up there.

The moment my part of the practise performance finished, I rushed off stage and burst straight into a flood of hot, embarrassing tears.  There was no way I was going to go on that stage again, in front of a real audience!  

No way at all.

Now, if you think I’m about to regale you with an uplifting tale about how I bravely overcame all my fears, pushing myself far out of my comfort zone to perform the funniest comedy show the world has ever seen, here’s a spoiler for you. 

I’m not.

I didn’t perform on stage then, and I don’t intend to perform anything on stage in future.  

Not only did the whole thing feel intensely terrifying, but I found I wasn’t aching to overcome that particular fear.  I’d reached my personal limit, and I didn’t want to keep pushing myself beyond it, because that felt unsafe.

But should I have ignored how I felt, and pushed on regardless?  

That uncomfortable feeling niggled away at me for a while, so I decided to do some wider reading on comfort zones.

And it turns out that pushing yourself way outside of yours is officially a “terrible idea”.

Goldilocks in the “zone of proximal development”

In an article for The Guardian, Melody Wilding writes about how relentlessly pushing her comfort zone “led me straight into burnout.” 

As part of her recovery, she talks about the “zone of proximal development,” a term coined by the developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky.  

Referring to a “conceptual space… which is near the comfort zone,” this is the place in which you can learn new skills, and take on small, deliberate challenges that allow for “healthy, gradual growth.”   

If you need more convincing that pushing yourself too far can be detrimental, the best-selling author James Clear gathered scientific research to conclude that we should work on tasks of “just manageable difficulty” – something he terms the ‘Goldilocks Rule’.

“The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.” (James Clear)

In my improv comedy scenario, joining the course, walking into the room on the first session, and learning new comedy skills are all examples of me as Goldilocks in the zone of proximal development. 

But performing on stage… well, that’s me as Goldilocks in the zone of having her head ripped clean off her shoulders by Papa Bear.

I’m sharing this story, and these examples, because I don’t believe it’s always the best thing to push yourself way out of your comfort zone, and neither do many people who are much more credible than I am.

And if that isn’t good reason to sit back and enjoy another lovely round of toast, I’m not sure what is.

Sign up to get
exclusive news...