Years ago, Diane and I escorted three Catholic nuns to a seminar in Portland. One was a philosophy professor at Seattle University, one the principal of a school in Alaska, one a second grade teacher in nearby Bellevue, Washington.

I remember that the second grade teacher was never hungry. She wouldn’t come with us into any nice restaurants. She’d say, “Oh, no thanks. I’ll just get a sandwich later.”

On Saturday, the third day of the seminar, Diane took the three nuns window-shopping at some fashionable stores in a nice section of Portland. They paused to look at one elaborate storefront, and then started to go inside. But the second grade teacher said, “No, I don’t have time. I have to get back to the hotel.” So they all went back.

At the hotel, Diane asked her, “Why wouldn’t you go into that lovely store with us? Why wouldn’t you eat in those restaurants?” You know what the woman said? “They were too nice for me. I don’t belong in places like that. I don’t need to eat expensive food, and I don’t need to wear those clothes.”

When we stick to our environmental comfort zones, we don’t allow ourselves to go into situations we believe are either not good enough or too good for us. Subliminally, we build a restrictive zone”This is good enough for me”and we don’t go outside of it. Since we limit ourselves by the way we think, we must learn to think outside of our limitations.

Good Enough for Me

Where and when do you feel out of place? With what people? In which business situations? During social activities? The beliefs you build with your own self-talk regulate your comfort zones. If you believe “I’ll always be poor,” then you’ll probably stay poor, unless you learn how to see yourself at the next plateau. You might say, “No, I won’t stay poor. I’ll just gut it out.” Go ahead you might make it, but you also might die of the stress.

On the other hand, you could anticipate change like a kid looking forward to opening birthday gifts. That’s better than being thrown into the situation and having to gut it out, waiting for the tension to strike. Using imagination, visualization, and affirmation, you create a picture in your mind of what the new situation will look like before you get there.

It helps to know exactly what you expect of yourself. So ask this question: “What is good enough for me?” That applies to all aspects of your life emotional, physical, moral, educational, financial. If, for example, you average $3,000 a month in sales commissions, why can’t you make $6,000? It’s not that you can’t make $6,000 every month; it’s just that, in your mind, it would be stretching what’s “good enough for me.” You resist: ”Who needs the stress? Besides, I want to spend more time with my family.” You think other people don’t? ”I want to have more free time for recreation.” You think other people don’t? “I’m concerned about my health.” You think other people aren’t? Watch how creative you get to stay inside your comfort zone.

comfort zone quote

Stress comes when you know you’re a $3,000-a-month person and you try hard to earn $6,000. But if you believe you belong at the $6,000-a-month plateau, your system will create the motivation for you to make that every month automatically, effortlessly, free flowingly, without stress. Remember: We only get the stress when we try to be what we “know” we’re not when we try hard to exceed our self-image. So you can expand your comfort zone, and eliminate the stress, simply by altering, in your mind, what you believe is “good enough for me.”

Environmental Comfort Zones

Internal comfort zones regulate our emotions, making us feel either safe or afraid, competent or inept, happy or sad, loving or cold, disappointed or satisfied, meek or strong, proud or ashamed, aggressive or shy, smart or dumb, open minded or locked-on. By defining what’s good enough for us emotionally, ethically, and spiritually, our comfort zones control our internal reality.

But we also define “the way things are supposed to be” externally. We have an idea about the way our environment should look whether we should live in the city or country, at the seashore or in the mountains, desert or rain forest. We know what our apartment or home should look like. We have an idea of the stores where we should shop, the car we should drive, the neighborhood we should live in, the work we should be in.

Environmental comfort zones aren’t right or wrong. But once you get the picture in your mind, whenever you feel out of place for you, negative tension occurs. Have you ever been far away from home for a while and told yourself, “I’m homesick”? You probably got very creative finding ways to leave. Even if that vacation resort or home away from- home was a lot nicer, more fun, and more relaxing, you were still driven to get back home “where I belong.”

What happens when you’re out of your environmental comfort zone and the tension hits to get you back where you belong but you can’t get back? Your subconscious will remind you to “Stay with the familiar.” Re-create your familiar environment to relieve the negative stress.

When the Dutch left Holland, the English left England, and the French left France, they came to America, where they were completely out of their environmental comfort zones. What did they do? They recreated their picture here. That’s why we have New Holland, New England, New Hampshire, New York, New Orleans. The negative tension feedback”There’s no one like me here”was so powerful, it drove them to re-create their houses, their shops, their streets, their whole culture to feel more “at home.”

Look at Little Havana in Miami. Anti-Castro Cubans who fled their homeland for Florida clustered together in Miami and re-created Cuba. They hung signs: “Spanish spoken here.” They renamed the streets the same as those in Havana. They ate Cuban food, played Cuban music, sold Cuban goods. See? Stay with the familiar. When you’re out of place, you either get back to where you belong, or you re-create “the way things are supposed to be” right where you are.

Environmental comfort zones help you adapt to anything new. But they can also become mental prisons; they can put bars on your potential. They may keep you from venturing too far away from the familiar to experience the new. They might deter you from exploring new languages, new foods, new cultural traditions, or people of different races, colors, and creeds.

For example, many Americans who travel abroad prefer to stay at the Hilton or the Holiday Inn. They aren’t comfortable staying at the local inns or hotels; they need to feel they have a familiar “home” base.

The American military understands the concept of environmental comfort zones. One U.S. Army barracks in America looks like every other U.S. Army barracks in Germany, Korea, or anyplace else abroad. The military knows that when you transfer troops to a new environment, you transfer their comfort zones. You re-create the barracks they had at Fort Dix or Fort Bragg or Fort Campbell. That relieves much of the negative stress in adjusting to a new comfort zone. Then you sell them American products at duplicate PXs; feed them hamburgers, hot dogs, and beans; and provide American movies, newspapers, and magazines. Many of those kids seldom leave the barracks. When they do, they travel in packs of kids exactly like themselves, they don’t go very far away, and they hustle right back. They tell each other, “Hostile out there! Man, they don’t even speak English!” They fear stretching their comfort zones.

That’s why some of us still cling to our old high school friends; why we won’t leave our hometown; why we always listen to the same music; why we return, again and again, to the same vacation spots. Stay with the familiar. But if you want to fulfill your potential, if you want more excellence, more success, more variety in life, you must continually shift your picture of “the way things are supposed to be.

What happens when an elderly person who’s lived in the same house for 40 years is suddenly put in a rest home? That’s tragically hard on them. Nothing’s familiar; they feel out of their environmental comfort zone with no way back. The stress of the new environmental reality could literally kill them.

Ineffective leaders don’t know why people resist change and growth, and so they fix the blame on their people for not growing.

Remember the programs started in the 1960s to help the undeveloped nations? Their founders had high ideals and unselfish motives, but little understanding of environmental comfort zones. They found cultures where people weren’t using their potential and decided to show them how. They said, “Let’s shape them up. Let’s teach them our language, our economic system, our agricultural and sanitation techniques. Let’s put these people into a new situation so they can use their potential.”

So they went down and “shaped them up”according to their picture and then left those people on their own. They returned 10 years later to see the fruits of their efforts. Why, those ungrateful wretches! They kept their animals in the houses that were built for them! They had their oxen pulling the tractors! What’s the matter with those people? Don’t they want to change?

expanding your comfort zone

Lasting change can’t be imposed from the outside. You can temporarily change the environment, but the moment you let go, the momentum starts turning back again.

So how can you change your comfort zones? It’s a matter of imprinting in your subconscious the image of the new before you ever get there. You visualize yourself in the new situation before it’s part of your “reality.”

With all your major future goals, learn how to change on the subconscious level before you go after the goal. When you can do that, you will no longer be content with the old environment, living the same old way, staying only with the familiar. And yet you won’t feel tense and uptight, nervous and sick. You can do “easy time” without gutting it out. Because you can learn how to take yourself out of your comfort zone safely and deliberately.

Deliberately venturing beyond your comfort zone stimulates within your system the creative tension and energy to resolve conflicts, accomplish new goals, expand comfort zones, and grow. Deliberately taking yourself out of your comfort zone is called adventure. You can create so much positive change in your life that adventure will become “the way things are supposed to be” for you from now on.

 Where do you belong?

The walls that surround your comfort zones are as real as the walls in your house. And since you won’t let yourself crash through them, they restrict the use of your potential. It is an inside problem, not an outside problem. As you change on the inside, the outside expands. The quality and quantity of your thinking on the inside are manifest in your life on the outside. If you want the world to change outside, change on the inside. By setting personal goals, affirming them, controlling self-talk, and changing attitudes, you change the quality on the inside and then life gets better on the outside.

If you aren’t honest with yoursel if you don’t face what frightens you, where you start to sweat, why you won’t go to the party, why you won’t invest, why you won’t grow, why you won’t try you won’t grow much. So learn to capture your feelings and fears and face them.

Of course, you won’t need to do any of this if you don’t set a goal, because you’re already camped in your comfort zone and you don’t want any feedback. When some people say, “I don’t feel that I’m out of my comfort zone,” I think, “Of course, you’re still in the same neighborhood, going to the same stores, doing the same shopping, playing cards with the same people, going bowling in the same place. You don’t need this to stay the same.” You do need this if you’re starting a continuous improvement process to take yourself from here to there. As your there gets bigger, you keep asking, “Where can I go next?”

I know what stops me is not only my comfort zone, but also the comfort zones of the people I live and work with. What stops me is when the people around me get intimidated by an expansive or an expensive idea. You can’t afford to associate with people who won’t go where you want to go simply because it’s outside of their comfort zone.

You have an inner image of where you belong. For example, if you need to use a public restroom at an airport or theater or ball game, you know you belong in one or the other. If you walk into the right restroom, you feel free of tension and relaxed enough to use your potential. But try going into the opposite restroom and using your potential. You have the need, the desire, the know-how, and the ability, but you’ll find it hard to use your potential when you’re in the wrong restroom. You’re out of your comfort zone.

You may feel that you’re in the wrong rest room when you try to mix or work with people of different race, religion, nationality, industry, or even gender. You tend to join or create clubs, companies, and other environments to keep certain others out. You try to surround yourself with people of the same religion, color, vocation, income, and comfort zone.

walls photo

In today’s world, you must be comfortable with people from many nations, races and religions. You and I are not so different, as much as we make ourselves different. But the world is changing, and you’ve got to grow with it, until it becomes a boundaryless world for you and for your children, your company or organization.

Boundaries are the comfort zones fixed in your mind and in the minds of the people who work with you. But they are expandable, using constructive imagination. You can take yourself out of where you are into the next level, the next environment, the next adventure. You can travel safely there, first in your mind and then in your body.

I remember the first time I travelled from Seattle to Spokane, 300 miles away. That was a big trip for me then. Once, I went all the way to Colorado to work with Eddy Crowder, who then was the head coach at the University of Colorado. That was a big adventure for me. Now I may leave Seattle for Pittsburgh at midnight, make a presentation, and fly home for dinner.

You might say, “Oh, it’s easy for you.” But remember where I started. As a high school teacher and coach, I didn’t get around. Diane was an art teacher, but I didn’t go to art shows. My attitude was, “Who wants to be around artists? I mean, the women are all right, but those men.” I created thousands of rational, ugly reasons why I wouldn’t go.

You don’t wake up in the morning and ask, “Where can I go make a fool of myself? Oh, that’s where I’ll go.” Your subconscious says, “No, don’t go. You’ll blow it. Stay with the familiar. Stay where you belong. Stay with who you know. Don’t try to expand.”

But you can learn to use your imagination and forethought to stretch your comfort zone, your idea of where you belong, to allow yourself to move safely to where you’ve never been before without the negative feedback that causes you to give up and go back.

When you are surprised by change and quickly dropped into the unfamiliar, your mind becomes an abundant source of negative synergy. You will come up with 10 reasons why “this won’t work.” And you’ll share those ideas with other people who have their own 10 ideas. Soon we have 1,000 ideas why we ought to shut this place down. “What do you think?” “Me too. Me too. Me too.”

What’s the “home field advantage” in athletics. The players who are traveling aren’t cowards the environment’s different. And that causes them not to think effectively when they’re on the road. They call the wrong plays. They forget plays. They tighten up. They drop the ball. They miss open shots. They do dumb things.

When you are “on the road,” you may try to get temporary results by gutting it out, overriding the system, forcing yourself to move ahead. But before long, you find reasons why you should bail out and go back: you don’t want to move into the neighborhood, or go to the schools, or try the business. Any venture is “risky business” when you don’t use your imagination correctly.

 Growing Beyond Your Comfort Zone

When you take yourself in your imagination outside your comfort zone into things that are not natural for you, you get the same feedback as if you were there.

Certain signals tell you when you are out of your comfort zone. Your memory gets blocked. You suddenly become awkward, clumsy, accident-prone instead of being comfortable, easy-going, and relaxed, the way you are with close friends. You feel tense, your head starts pounding, your hands get sweaty, you feel sick to your stomach, your blood pressure rises, your pulse rate goes up, your knees get shaky, you lose your balance, your vocal cords tighten to make your voice sound funny.

Now, if every time you try something new, you suddenly feel uptight, and your head pounds, and your heart thumps, you start sweating, and your voice sounds like Donald Duck what do you tell yourself? You say, “Are you nuts? Why are you doing this? Stick to the familiar!” So, you won’t let yourself try new things, seek new friends, try new careers, find new recreation, change neighborhoods, or have adventures. You’re more comfortable staying with the same routine, having the same friends, bowling the same night, eating the same foods.

It’s the difference that makes the difference. Your subconscious isn’t concerned with benefits or drawbacks. It is concerned with keeping you in line with “the way things are supposed to be” for you.

You can sit comfortably at home, talking to a few friends, and be very astute. But when you try to address the same subject in front of a conference of 5,000 people, your mind goes blank. You have the knowledge, desire, and potential but nothing comes out.

You could easily walk across a six-inch-wide beam when the beam is placed on the floor. You could do it 10 times in a row; you could do it backwards, perhaps even blindfolded. But if I put that same beam 500 feet above the ground and challenge you to walk across, you may not do it, even for $1,000,000. Why not? It’s the same beam. You have the skill, the balance, the potential. You’ve already done it backwards and blindfolded on the ground. Yes, but the difference makes the difference. You can’t use your potential when you’re suddenly 500 feet above ground. You’re too far out of your comfort zone.

Tension feedback keeps us from wandering too far from our presently dominant self-image. It makes us stick closely to our present attitudes, habits, and opinions.

One time, my teenage son said to me, “Dad, you never show me that you love me.”

I said, “What do you mean? Why do you think I adopted you?”

He said, “I didn’t say that you don’t love us. I said that you never show it.”

Now, I had all the potential to be very loving and warm to my wife and daughters, but not so much to my sons. It wasn’t part of my picture. My father died when I was 12, and I pretty much raised myself. Since there were no loving hugs from dad when I grew up, I thought, “I don’t need that stuff. Besides, it isn’t manly.”

When I was a high school football coach, my idea of showing love to a boy was yelling at him: “What do you mean, I don’t love you, son? I hollered at you yesterday! Don’t you remember?”

“Oh, was that love, dad?”

“Well, certainly! What’d you think it was?”

After my son told me this, I tried harder to be loving and warm toward my boys. I’d come into the room, give them a quick hug, and say, “There, I love you. Now get out of here.” Of course, it wouldn’t “take.” I felt pressured and uptight. I was out of my comfort zone, and that’s what came across. I couldn’t be free-flowing with my love even though I felt it, even though I wanted to show it, even though I had the potential to show it. Every time I tried hard to show love to my sons, nothing came out.

When you learn how to visualize and imprint the new situation in advance, making it part of your picture of “the way things are supposed to be” for you, you create a venturesome spirit and take yourself safely to the next level or the next situation.

Challenge the Status Quo

You need to challenge where you know “this is the way it is supposed to be.” Cliff Young, a 62-year-old fellow in Australia, once entered a race between Sidney and Melbourne, 600 kilometers, running against world-class runners. He showed up in Oshkosh overalls. Race officials didn’t think he was qualified. But in his first race, Cliff beat all runners by a day and a half. How? He wasn’t faster. They had locked on to knowing “the truth” that when you run 600 kilometers, you must sleep 6 hours and run 18.

Coming from the outback, Cliff never hung around the people who knew the truth. He didn’t know you were supposed to sleep. So he ran while they were sleeping. People said, “No, you can’t do that, it’s physically impossible.” But the guy was too far out in front to hear “the truth.” The next year, they broke his record.

You change the way you think, and you change the way you run your life. Your present beliefs entrap you in your own comfort zones and your own thinking. You manipulate your own senses.

An MBA student once told me: “Our teacher gave us a case study, told us corporate policy, and then said: ‘Your goal is to improve efficiency by 800 percent, without laying anybody off.’ We could all improve efficiency by 800 percent, but not without laying people off. Finally, the professor asked, ‘Did you think to add a shift on weekends?’ We said, ‘No, it’s against company policy,’ to which he replied, ‘But you could always change company policy.'”

To expand your current comfort zones and to get from here to there in your life, you’ve got to become an option thinker, an optimistic person with constructive inner dialogue.

As psychologist Martin Seligman points out, the test comes in two forms: 1) How do you think when good things happen? and 2) How do you think when bad things happen?

When bad things happen, the pessimist thinks, “It’s all my fault; it’s going to ruin everything; and the ill effects will last forever”even when there is clearly nothing they could have done to change the outcome.

Optimists think when a bad thing happens that they’re not accountable for all of it and that while it might ruin their day, it won’t ruin their life. They isolate the ill effects.

When good things happen, the pessimist says, “I had nothing to do with it.” The optimist says, “I caused it.” The pessimist says, “It won’t last.” The optimist says, “It’s going to last forever.” The pessimist says, “But it was just in this one thing.” The optimist says, “My luck in life is changing forever.

One of the best basketball coaches in the nation is a good friend of mine. His team had just beaten a Top Ten team, and so I called him on the phone and said, “Congratulations! Look what you did.”

He said, “Lou, it was a miracle.” And in the paper, he was quoted as saying, “It was just luck.” Well, his team believed him. They dropped right out of the top ten, then out of the top 25, and struggled the rest of the season.

In effect, he told himself and his team, “We didn’t cause it. We’re not that good.”

When you expand your comfort zone, you make some mistakes. But you don’t let it damage your self-esteem. Don’t dwell on it; don’t worry about it. Just laugh about it, and say, “That’s not me. I’m better than that. Next time I’ll do it right.” And you move on. You build resiliency, and you keep your ideals burning inside.