Getting out of your comfort zone safely with the art of stretching strengths

Stretching yourself – getting out of your comfort zone without panicking

The word stretch has always been interesting to me.  There’s something really satisfying about having a good stretch – you extend parts of your body to their fullest extent and you can feel muscles that you’d forgotten you had being called into action. And yet when you’re over-stretched…when too much is being asked of you and you start to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope, or you’re not in control of that stretch, like being extended on a rack with someone else at the controls…stretch is more likely to induce anxiety or even panic.

So, when it comes to your development and growth, how can you stretch yourself safely? How can you continue to develop and grow and learn and improve, or move to the next level of performance, without feeling that you might just end up toppling over a cliff into an uncontrolled descent?

Today’s podcast is about stretching safely. It’s about recognising that to get out of your comfort zone, you need to experience discomfort. And it’s about taking your strengths with you as a way of feeling confident about the challenge you’ve taken on.

The comfort zone – a warm place where no development happens

Welcome to the comfort zone. It’s warm and fuzzy and comforting here. Most of us spend a lot of our time in our comfort zones, feeling…comfortable. Why not? We’ve worked hard up to now, taking risks along the way to push ourselves, acquire knowledge and gain experience. And so we’ve arrived. At this point in our career. Feeling pretty good. Confident that we’re competent and that we’re doing our jobs just fine. Why push it? Why risk that? Why not stick rather than twist? Keep on doing what we’ve become accustomed to? What we’re good at. This is a happy place. This is the comfort zone.

Like I say – nothing wrong with it. We spend a lot of time here for good reason. But, at some point, we might just feel that there’s something missing. That sense of excitement, maybe even fear comes with trying something new or different. Risking falling short, even falling big time. Failure.  So there comes a choice point – to stick or to twist. To say ‘yes’ to that opportunity that might see us push beyond our current known into new, uncharted territory. Or to say ‘no thank you’. Not right now. I have too many other commitments in my life, and too much stress elsewhere to consider taking on that challenge. I’ll come back to it. Maybe it’s not for me anyway.

And there it is – the choice of whether to stretch ourselves or to stay in our current comfortable form. We each have a different calibration point. Some people love constant stretch and challenge. For others, it takes a lot to make the decision to take a risk on a new opportunity. But when we do make that decision, it’s inevitable that we’re going to feel discomfort. Because we’re leaving the comfort of the comfort zone. Bumpy road ahead.

Re-interpreting discomfort as an opportunity to learn

I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll say it again. Change is pain. Neuroscience tells us that the experience of change is picked up in the same part of the brain that registers pain. That sounds painful. Why would we choose pain over comfort, we’re not that species right? And yet without change and some element of personal risk, we won’t be able to extend further into fulfilling our potential.

So in deciding to take on an experience that will need us to push outside the comfort zone, can we reinterpret what’s happening as readying ourselves for a challenge rather than seeing it as a fear-inducing, painful experience that is best avoided?

This is an important step for our sub-conscious, because it can lead to a different physiological response when we take that step beyond the comfort zone.  If we’ve prepared our bodies and brains to interpret stretch as a positive experience, we’re more likely to be able to stick with it and not go into flight mode and run away or avoid it.

So there’s my first tip – to reframe discomfort as an opportunity to learn, grow and develop. That way, you can start extending out the boundaries of your comfort zone without scurrying back to its safe and fluffy centre too quickly.

Making the journey possible with your strengths

There’s an array of tools you can take with you on your stretch journey. As well as reframing to change beliefs as we’ve just discussed; meditation to stay present so you don’t feel anxious about the future or ruminate about the past; social support to stay safe; and finally, your strengths can provide an additional confidence boost.

Your strengths represent those qualities that define you at your best. At your most confident, competent and energised.  And what better place to bring them into action than when experiencing change? Including developmental stretch like we’re talking about here.

So how can you go about swinging your strengths into play?

Let’s go through a real example. If I decide I’m going to take on a stretch challenge – maybe delivering a keynote speech to 5,000 leaders on a live broadcast in a TV studio.

Now there is so much there that could feel overwhelming to me – everyone is stressed by different things but for many people, the unfamiliarity of the studio, make-up, lights, cameras, the knowledge of the watching audience, fear of live mistakes streamed while thousands watch on.

All of these things and many more could lead to an emotional hijack…a fight flight freeze response.  That was no different for me when I faced that situation recently.

To prep for it, I drew on my strengths. On this occasion, I took with me Self-confidence, Collaboration, Leading and Empathy. Self-confidence to get assured enough on the subject matter I was there to ‘expert’ on…in short, I prepared, so I could draw on my Self-confidence. Collaboration to spend time with the people organising event so I could feel part of a team, and invested in a shared goal (running a successful event).

Empathy to connect with my interviewer and on screen collaborator, so that I could sense what she really wanted and needed. And Leading to remember I was there to take the audience on a journey of self-awareness about their impact on others. And when the time came…Boom.

I looked back at my FitBit after the event and I noticed that my heart rate was high as the Producer counted us in from 5 and we went live. But it went well, the feedback was very good and I could feel my strengths flowing through me as the outer extent of my comfort zone got stretched.

I learned from it and there were things I would do differently next time. The acid test I suppose is whether I would feel I could do it again, with an even bigger audience and higher stakes of failure? The answer’s yes. Any fear or anxiety I felt was natural but it was also helpful and I’d do it again.

That’s tip 2: bring your strengths with you, they’ll make you feel you can do it.

Making it happen at work – take control of your development and your career

Let’s bring this back to the workplace and think practically about stretch at work. We’re often hearing from our Corporate Learning and Development and HR colleagues how they would want their people to ‘take more control of their careers’ rather than waiting for the next move to be presented to them.

Well, to take ownership of your career, you need to move out of the comfort zone and into the stretch zone. Lean into conversations with your line manager about the next stage of your career and the development you’d need to get there. Get your line manager and other stakeholders on board to be looking out for stretch opportunities on your behalf…whether they’re next role, maybe a project-related assignment to another team or a stretch project in your current role.

Opportunities for stretch can be found in many places but they’re even better when you have a hand in shaping them yourself. So be clear on where you want to take your role and career and grab or create the opportunities you’ll need to get there.

Tip 3 then is to craft the stretch opportunities you want to come your way rather than waiting for them to be presented to you.

Knowing when to pull back – helpful stretch vs painful pressure

It’s also important to recognise that you CAN have too much of a good thing, and sometimes helpful stretch can turn into painful pressure. You may have taken on a project that you thought was one thing and you then experience scope creep or you’re left isolated to get on with it as it becomes bigger and badder than you thought.

In all stretch situations, listen to what your body is telling you and get familiar with feelings of chronic tension as opposed to that feeling of acute ‘body readying’ that I described during a live broadcast countdown.

They’re different. Chronic stress is something that happens sometimes quite gradually and insidiously, but it will be depleting, and not enriching if you’re staying way outside your comfort zone without a sense of safety and control for too long.

To get some more tips on how to spot stress as opposed to stretch, and what you can do about it. check back on my podcast and blog Managing stress and change – controlling the controllables, which is at Season 7, episode 4: Managing stress and change 

My last tip is to listen to your body, stay attuned to how you’re experiencing stretch and keep actively managing your experience so that it doesn’t tip into negative stress.

Conclusion – getting comfortable with discomfort

The most important takeaway from today’s episode that I’d like to leave you with is the importance of getting comfortable with discomfort if you’re going to continue to learn and grow and stretch your potential throughout your working life.  Change is pain and discomfort and it’s inevitable if you want to progress and push yourself to the next level.

To do it safely, take your strengths with you, create your own stretch opportunities and keep a check on whether you’re experiencing helpful stretch or painful pressure.

If you’d like even more on this topic, check out Season 9, episode 11 on how to develop a growth a mindset.  I believe you’ll be glad you did. Till next time, stay strong.