Why Your Comfort Zone Is Holding You Back, and How to Start Leaving It Behind


You know your comfort zone is a trap. It’s the inertia that keeps telling you not to rock the boat, that “good enough” is good enough, and that change is risk and risk is scary. Don’t betray your dreams or undersell your abilities. Use these techniques to spring the trap and step into your better self.

If we’re going to be completely honest and upfront about it, we know that we need to push ourselves if we want to realize our life goals and certainly our career goals. It’s getting harder and harder to trust that our employer has our back. Chances are, they’re too worried about other issues to focus on our advancement. And while it’s great to land a job that we love, there are many unpredictable factors that could upend that status quo.

We may not even realize – or want to acknowledge – that we are living in a comfort zone. “Are you kidding me!? My job is anything but comfortable! I’m under pressure and scrutiny every day!” Yet the daily regularity of your discomfort and stress may actually be a comfort zone.

Any steady-state, status quo situation that you find yourself needing to justify for whatever reason to yourself or others is likely a comfort zone.

The Telltale Signs

Predictability is perhaps the first giveaway of your comfort zone. That predictability can be very reassuring. Consistency is another. Now, this can be confusing and contradictory because usually, these are two favorable and sought-after qualities.

The key question is whether or not this status quo is serving you.

  • Are you accomplishing anything?
  • Are you fulfilling one or more personal goals?
  • Are you making progress towards a rewarding or defining milestone?
  • Are you receiving support, recognition, respect, and acknowledgment (e.g. promotion, pay raise, more responsibility) for your work?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is “no,” then you should in most cases be thinking about how to get out of this situation and find something more suitable and supportive. If you’re not, or you’re avoiding this conversation with yourself, you may have fallen into the trap of your comfort zone.

In evaluating whether or not we are in a comfort zone, here is a series of questions you can ask yourself, and tests you can apply to your situation, to see if you’re being too complacent about your job, your future prospects, or other factors that might be putting your career on hold, delaying your advancement, and jeopardizing your goals and your dreams.

Is it Hard to Have Difficult Conversations with Others?

Are you avoiding talking to your manager about a promotion? Are you uncomfortable talking to your colleagues, friends, and significant other about what’s bugging you in your work? You may feel like you would rather “think positively,” or take a “go along to get along” attitude around issues that are bothering you, Psychologically, this is known as denial. If the situation is untenable, no amount of positive thinking is going to fix it.

Is it Hard to Have Difficult Conversations with Yourself?

Reflection and introspection are important life and career skills. It’s important to be able to support yourself by honestly admitting and addressing what’s not working in your life. If you’re not, and you’re coming up with excuses or deferments to these questions, something’s amiss.

What is Procrastination and Why is it So Hard to Overcome?

If you’re bottling up your feelings and disappointments about work, you may find procrastination an increasingly frequent problem. It’s often a big indication of your avoidance. By putting off the completion of your work, you’re trying to slow down your reality so you won’t have to deal with it. When you finally sit down to complete what you need to get done, you invariably rush through it, turning in sub-par work, and creating even more anxiety.

This anxiety becomes yet another distraction that shifts your focus away from what is really bothering you. Trying to deal with procrastination by feeling guilty and shaming yourself to work through it just compounds the issues you’re having in your comfort zone.

What is Overwhelm and Why is it So Overwhelming?

Feeling overwhelmed can be another symptom of avoidance. Reasons for overwhelm include:

  • Allowing tasks to pile up,
  • Delaying necessary conversations with your manager or colleagues about your work, or
  • Failing to establish reasonable and effective boundaries in your working relationships,

Overwhelm may feel almost physically asphyxiating. Being figuratively buried under work is a powerful symbol of your own lack of control over your life. Allowing your circumstances to get to the point where they are overwhelming you is another ironic extension of your comfort zone. As with procrastination, this powerful and very real-seeming experience is a crisis that must be handled. And as such, it perpetuates the underlying state of inertia that is eating away at you.

Are Endorphins and Dopamine Always Your Friends?

Are any of your colleagues or friends gym rats? Do they spend an inordinate amount of time working out – and working out hard? Don’t get me wrong: exercise is one of the most important ways to achieve balance in all aspects of your life. But the key word is “balance.”

Endorphins are the pain relief hormones. Dopamine is another neurotransmitter that is part of your brain’s reward system. When you exercise, these chemicals can work together to make you feel physically fit and happy to feel good about what you’ve accomplished.

But if you’re stuck in your comfort zone, you can use your body chemistry to mask those stuck feelings. It can be another great way to remain in your comfort zone, all the while feeling like things are just fine because you’re active, fit, and feeling good about yourself. But that’s at the expense of the areas you’re avoiding that are otherwise keeping you stuck.

Stop Telling Yourself Change is Hard – ChangeYour Script!

In 1903, James Allen published what is perhaps one of the first modern self-help books called “As a Man Thinketh…” We all know the conclusion of that refrain: “so he becomes.” It’s based on a passage from the Book of Proverbs. And it demonstrates that we’ve known for thousands of years that our minds have the power to change our lives.

Modern neuroscience has backed this up with studies that show how repeated focus on a belief or an action physically reinforces the neural pathways that solidify that belief or action.

It’s common for all of us to talk about how hard it is to change. There’s no doubt that most people struggle with change. But, again ironically, that resistance to change – or belief in the resistance to change – keeps us stuck and “comfortable.” “Sorry! Change is hard. It’s a fact. So I’m not going to chance it. I’m not going to try and fail. That will be worse than not trying.”

By reaffirming the difficulty, we reinforce its reality for us.

Stop! Interrupt the pattern. Take a minute right now to identify the biggest dream or goal that your comfort zone is lulling you away from pursuing.

Write a simple one-sentence affirmation starting with “I am….” followed by a gerund (the active verb form ending in “ing”) to help you get into a doing, accomplishing, and succeeding frame of mind.

Why Fear of Risk is Ridiculous at This Point

If you’ve been in the workforce for decades, you have a lot of experience to fall back on. Even if you’re not being sufficiently recognized in your current team, department, or company, you know what you know. And you know that there is, out there somewhere, a manager, a team, a company who will recognize and appreciate you.

You know too much about too many things to let your inertia, your limiting beliefs, your inattention, and/or the factors I’ve cited above stand in your way.

As an older, more experienced professional, more is expected of you. You’re supposed to have it all figured out by now. Don’t disappoint your audience! Be bold, stand up, and step forward.

It’s Time to Embrace Your Divine Unknowing

One of the biggest obstacles to leaving your comfort zone is the vacuum and void you feel when you try to contemplate what lies ahead. You are most definitely not alone. Most people whom I work with share this same discomfort around not knowing what to do next.

Many people jokingly refer to this (yes, at and over age 50…) as still trying to figure out what they’re going to do when they grow up.

Know this: nature abhors a vacuum. Said another way: one door closes, another door opens.

If you are experiencing anxiety and feeling blank about what the future looks like, you are actually well along your pathway to finding what is going to work for you in your new job, your next career phase, or your second act.

I love this concept of the “divine unknowing.” It turns this blank state into a sacred state. It transfers responsibility for your next steps to the universe that is much larger and more interconnected than you are feeling right at this moment.

Trust that you’re going to figure it out. After all, you’ve gotten to this point in pretty good shape. Chances are you’re going to continue pretty much as you have in the past. You’ll overcome this challenge and be on to the next thing.

Being older doesn’t mean that your options are limited or that you’re in decline. Quite the opposite. You now have so much more experience and wisdom to inform your choices. The chances are that whatever you choose to do will be undertaken with greater awareness and ability. This increases your chances of success.

And here’s the zinger: Maybe the minute you decide to get out of your comfort zone and actually take the first step toward risk and change, the universe will be right there to fill that vacuum with a new idea, or open the door to an unforeseen opportunity.

Adopt Discomfort as a Lifestyle. Start Here.

There’s the secret: you’ve got to make the first move and take the plunge.

Like all significant changes, stepping out of your comfort zone will take a little time and a little effort. Nothing you can’t handle.

Be radically self-responsible

Remember that you are the only one standing in the way of your leaving your comfort zone. Stop blaming other people, or timing, or circumstances that you can’t control. And then stop blaming yourself.

Start committing to small, even tiny goals. Yes, if you do this, you run the risk of disappointing yourself if you don’t follow through. That’s why you want to choose small goals. Make them “micro-steps” – goals that are too small to fail. They’re so small and easy to do every day or every week that you begin to believe in yourself and your ability to successfully change.

The biggest problem with goal setting and habit building is that we disappoint ourselves and unconsciously lose our self-trust. By setting micro goals and making good on them, we can restore that self-trust and go on to do bigger and better things.

“Seek Out New Worlds”

(Sorry, that’s my Star Trek fandom showing.) The point is to be curious. One of the factors that distinguishes successful people is their curiosity. Their willingness to learn, explore, and constantly seek new challenges is the essence of pushing beyond the comfort zone.

Get back into the habit of being curious. Seek out people, activities, and ideas that challenge you. Start with small challenges and differences. Pursue them with openness and a beginner’s mind. You don’t have to like what you discover. Just keep discovering.

Try new foods, start or renew a hobby, learn a new skill, join a book club, change your hairstyle and/or your wardrobe, take a class. The list goes on.

Gradually you’ll find yourself naturally moving away from your comfort zone. Who knows what awaits you down that road. But whatever it is, it’s better than staying stuck.

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


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