Comfort Zone

You’ve probably heard about the comfort zone. Usually, this concept is used to invoke a feeling of guilt in the listener/viewer/reader.

comfort zone

It goes like this: you don’t want to aspire to new heights because you’re in your comfort zone. If you step out of your comfort zone, then you’ll start striving for new heights. Step out immediately, or stagnate because you’re afraid to leave your comfort zone, you lazy bum!

Because of this, a myriad of people begin to worry – thinking, here I am living my life, everything is generally good, I’m satisfied, but this is the comfort zone, and being in it is bad. Therefore, something must be wrong with me since I’m in the comfort zone, not growing. How do I get rid of this?

Please don’t laugh – I regularly encounter such problems with my clients. Just two words ruin their lives more severely than inflation.

But there are even worse situations. When a person in trouble is reproached with the comfort zone – for example, the wife of an alcoholic. She allegedly lives with him only because it’s her comfort zone (an alcoholic as a comfort zone? Seriously?).

All this fuss about the comfort zone ruins people’s lives, so let’s figure out what it is and what it’s all about.

The Origin of the Comfort Zone

This concept was introduced in 1995 by American Judith M. Bardwick in the book “Danger in the Comfort Zone.”

The book is devoted to personnel management since Bardwick herself is a management consultant (this is her primary activity). The danger in the comfort zone is simple – when subordinates feel good (they are in the comfort zone), those subordinates, according to Bardwick, start to perform worse.

Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. Pay attention to something else – we are talking about a manager’s view of his or her subordinates, whom he or she perceives as a resource, allowing him or her to earn more money. Or not allowing, if this resource is in the comfort zone.

That is, we are talking about a very specific situation and a specific view of it.

But what does this have to do with an individual’s life? Why must they necessarily step out of their comfort zone? Why is it bad to be in the comfort zone (and why, if it is bad, is it a comfort zone)?

There is no answer. Because if you answer, it turns out that this concept simply doesn’t apply to the life of an individual.

Zone of Proximal Development

Instead of the misplaced and therefore harmful concept of the “comfort zone,” I recommend using the appropriate and useful concept of the “zone of proximal development.” This term was coined by the great Soviet psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (he truly is great, no kidding – his works are still actively studied worldwide).

The essence of the zone of proximal development is simple – these are certain operations that a person can perform with the support and assistance of another, more experienced person. A toddler walks when helped by a parent. A child rides a bike when a parent holds it from behind, a novice drives a car when an instructor backs them up with their pedals.

In the zone of proximal development, learning happens relatively easily and simply, progress is constantly noticeable, and failures are comparatively insignificant. As a result, a person learns and gains mastery over more and more operations.

Why is the zone of proximal development better than the comfort zone?

Firstly, it has scientific justification (see the works of Vygotsky and his disciples).

Secondly, while you’re simply suggested to step out of the comfort zone, everything is clear with the zone of proximal development – you need to look at what you can’t do, and determine what you can accomplish with the backup of another person.

Thirdly, the concept of the ‘zone of proximal development‘ helps you measure the correct workload. If things become too difficult or are not working out, it means you’ve stepped out of the zone of proximal development into the zone of further development, where it is too early for you to venture. Just go back and continue practicing. Then, the zone of further development will become the zone of nearer, and then the proximal development (did you appreciate the play on words?).

So, the zone of proximal development is much more useful as a term.

Learned Helplessness

Another problem with the comfort zone is the blame placed on anyone who is in uncomfortable conditions and does not leave them. However, a person may remain in uncomfortable conditions due to falling into a state of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a condition proven by Martin Seligman in 1967. The essence of the condition is this – a being is subjected to uncontrollable stress and eventually stops fighting. It doesn’t try to escape the situation even when escape is possible. Somehow, the being doesn’t see this opportunity.

Such behavior has been found in rats, dogs, and indirectly in humans. Indirectly – because no one would allow such an experiment to be conducted on people, it’s unethical.

Here’s a vivid example of an experiment on learned helplessness. Two rats are in cages equipped with pedals for dispensing water. One rat’s pedal works, and the other’s does not. The second rat receives water only if the first rat presses the pedal. The second rat doesn’t know this and is in stress (in – emphasize – uncontrollable stress). After some time, the second rat develops learned helplessness. No signs of dehydration were observed – the creature had enough water.

The same happens with some wives of alcoholics – the husbands create uncontrollable stress, and the women fall into a state of learned helplessness. They sink – and cannot leave such husbands.

How to cope with the situation of learned helplessness? Look for opportunities to restore the subjective feeling of control over the situation. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

However, when someone is told that they are just sitting in a comfort zone, like a fool, it doesn’t help to change the situation at all. It only adds guilt and shame – as in, “Look at me, what a loser, sitting in the comfort zone, unable to get out, even though it’s so easy.”

As you can see, it doesn’t smell like a comfort zone here at all.

In conclusion, the comfort zone is an unscientific concept introduced to describe a specific view in a specific situation. Transferring it to the life of an individual can be quite dangerous. Instead of the concept of “comfort zone,” it’s better to use the concept of “zone of proximal development,” which provides a proper understanding of the ongoing processes. Moreover, it’s important to know about learned helplessness and not blame people for passivity but help them regain subjective control over the situation.