Alasdair White in a book titled “From Comfort Zone to Performance Management” published in 2009 discusses the concept of the comfort zone as an aspect of the psychological state of workers. In the book, a comfort zone is seen as a psychological state of an individual in which that individual is familiar with things around, is at ease, is in control of the environment (evidently internal and external), and therefore experiences minimum anxiety and stress. In management circles, such a psychological state enables the optimum and steady performance of tasks. This concept should be seen as critical for corporate managers and should be regarded as a summary of the ultimate task of personnel management.
Judith Bardwick in a 1995 book submits that comfort zone should be seen as an ‘anxiety-neutral position.’ But a zero level of anxiety for an extended period of time is virtually impossible and is not even desirable particularly in the workplace, reason Alasdair White states that work performance might be enhanced with some level of stress. However, it can be argued that in some circumstances and in some vocations, stress enhances performance and therefore in such a stress-innate situation, presence of stress is, in fact, a comfort zone situation and absence of it amounts to taking someone out of a comfort zone.
For instance, in academics, it appears that stress creates a better operating environment for writing and even for assessing students. And there is no gainsaying that for mountaineers, a large dose of anxiety propels them upwards towards the peak. In this case, the presence of anxiety is a comfort zone.
Mark Stall writing in 2004 is of the opinion that too much stress or anxiety can be counterproductive in the management decision-making process. It may lead to fewer decision alternatives being tried as well as the application of known measures that may not be useful. This is the idea of a ‘danger zone,’ the point in which stress is in excessive dimension and should be avoided. Brene Brown in a paper in 2010 presents a more comfortable position by stating that comfort zone is “Where our uncertainty, scarcity, and vulnerability are minimized – where we believe we’ll have access to enough love, food, talent, time, admiration; where we feel we have some control.” This definition avoids absolutes and expands the perspectives to reflect personal attributes and feelings.
It is not likely that there is anyone out there that does not exit his/her comfort zone occasionally. The issue is the extent or dimension of the move. If we travel somewhere local or abroad say on holidays, it is verily exciting ab initio but our usual place of domicile is our comfort zone even if it does not provide all the comfort we expect. It is where we know and where we are to some extent, secure and in control of some variables in the environment. When we are elsewhere, we have to go through a process of adjustment to make ourselves comfortable and indeed, restore our physical and psychological equilibria. A tourist from a temperate zone, for instance, has to adjust to the searing and debilitating heat of a tropical location, so must a tourist from a tropical zone adjust to the incapacitating cold of winter.
Moving out of one’s comfort zone however uncomfortable is one path to progress. The Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, wife of Prince Harry quoted from Nayyira Waheed’s poem, Lands thus: “My mother was my first country; the first country that I ever lived.” As a fetus, every human being lives inside the womb which is in a woman. But imagine that a child had the option of permanently residing inside that extremely comfortable ‘country’ rather than come into the naked world which is suffused with turbulence and uncertainty even for the silver spoon in a palace or zanadu (check out the feelings of Donald Trump Jnr. who is currently facing an uncertain future and even a possible jail term following a subpoena by Republican-controlled Senate Committee). All human beings must leave the womb which is a comfort zone; thus all through life, they have to keep moving away from their comfort zones if life is to be meaningful.
Some parents keep their children at home from kindergarten to high school and sometimes reluctantly let them off when they are admitted into tertiary educational institutions. Some of such children find the process of adjustment from the comfort zone of the home too much for them. In the process of establishing a new comfort zone, they could run into wrong hands, for instance having a father figure who turns out to be a depraved soul. Yet, people must keep moving, from school to one job, the next, more schooling, and even changing their place of domicile. Moving house is, in fact, one big case of change of comfort zone.
A critical issue in exit from a comfort zone is when it is imposed by others or circumstances outside the control of the individual. A damning case is that of the group described as ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDP). If a family decides to seek a better life and migrates to another city or country, the family is likely psychologically prepared for the challenges that will come, for there must be challenges. But imagine a family fleeing a war zone or escaping persecution and stuck at the border of an unreceptive nation. Imagine that such a family had say, a one-bedroom apartment back home with conveniences in situ. Imagine that irrespective of the possibility of having a two-bedroom apartment in an unforeseeable future the family is at present compelled to share a tent with dozens of strange people. One should expect that such a family is indeed in the danger zone. It is thus so difficult to understand why some people chose to put their fellow human beings in situations of discomfort citing ethnic, religious, or political reasons.
This piece on the concept of a comfort zone was motivated by a recent personal experience. A relation is still immersed in the pain of the loss of a loved one several years after. And anyone thought to have had a hand in the event is a de fact enemy. This person appears to be so comfortable with the state of intense negative emotions on some persons thought to have been associated with that loss even without proof. Any attempt to reason this person out of the emotion attracts instant rebuff: “I don’t want to discuss it at all.” This state of pain backed with resentment has, in fact, become a comfort zone.
Alina Tugend writing in the New York Times of 11th February 2011 notes: “We all know people who seem to feel most happy being unhappy – always complaining or worrying about something. That’s their comfort zone.” Getting out of a comfort zone can be salutary and possibly salubrious. However, Alina cautions that it is unnecessary to challenge oneself often just to be more productive.
Individuals must be ready and willing to get out of the cozy, secure, tension-free space or feeling described as the comfort zone because, among other things, creativity could result. And another more comfortable comfort zone might rise from the ashes of an old comfort zone. The idea of comfort zone actually arose from temperature with a zone of 67-78 degrees Fahrenheit (20-26 degrees Centigrade) being optimal. This is the range that is regarded as room temperature. But imagine that to be sure of a sustained optimum temperature in one’s house, obtaining the higher qualification and getting a better paying job at a new location are pre-requisites? One, therefore, has to move out of the current location, study, get a better job so that one can have the money to fund temperature modifiers.
Carolyn Gregorie writing on the HuffPost of December 7th 2017 indicates that human beings are wired to seek and appreciate comfort, the reason they resist change when their comfort zones are being tampered with or assailed. This should remind us of the philosophical concept of hedonism; a rational being should seek comfort and avoid pain. It is thus not out of place when people resist attempts to take them out of their comfort zones even when such level is less than optimal. Some women in unhappy marriages rationalize their decision to stay on with an argument such as the fear of another woman coming to ill-treat their children. The truth is that fear and uncertainty of the unknown tie them to unhappy marriages.
It is also pertinent to add that comfort zones are different for different people. What may be one person’s comfort zone may be a war zone for another person. It is thus not too appropriate to be judgmental on this issue but rather to show understanding and tolerance and treat each case on its merit.
As the last line: accepting stress can lead to better performance but one must avoid straying into the danger zone. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is like taking risks. Risk takers are entrepreneurial while persons who are risk-averse are in fact the typical comfort zone apologists who are generally not associated with great achievements. If you are too comfortable, you are prone to less than optimal performance; if you are too uncomfortable, you are prone to less than optimal performance. Probably Aristotle’s happy mean is the ideal psychological state?