We all have our comfort zone, where we feel safe and fulfilled, relying on our experience and expertise. However, there’s another zone, the zone of learning, which is new, different, and can be both exciting and daunting. This is where the magic happens.

So, what keeps us within our comfort zone instead of venturing into the unknown? In her book “The Dance of Fear,” Dr. Harriet Lerner explains that it’s not fear itself that hinders us from taking brave actions in our daily lives. It’s our tendency to avoid discomfort and seek comfort. By avoiding situations that evoke fear or difficult emotions, we may feel less vulnerable in the short run, but we never truly overcome our fear.

This barrier can be attributed to our primitive “survivour brain,” which includes the brain stem and the fight-or-flight response. Originally designed to ensure our survival, this brain mechanism keeps us safe. Recognising this from a neuropsychological perspective and examining our upbringing, beliefs, and experiences allows us to challenge and redefine the stories we tell ourselves.

To bridge the gap created by our internal survival mechanism, here are three quick tips:

  1. Notice and name it: Recognise your inner critic without delving into its origin. Simply acknowledging its presence is a powerful first step.
  2. Acknowledge its purpose: Understand that the inner critic emerges to keep you safe from perceived danger. Taking the heat out of it reduces negative energy.
  3. Embrace the liberating truth: Shift your perspective by transforming the situation into an opportunity for growth. Embrace the discomfort that comes with the unknown, as it indicates stepping outside your comfort zone.

If you want to feel secure

Do what you already know how to do.

But if you want to grow…

Go to the cutting edge of your competence,

Which means a temporary loss of security.

So, whenever you don’t quite know

What you are doing


That you are growing…

Viscott, 2003

Limiting the impact of your inner critic

You might have had a really important presentation to deliver at work in front of key senior stakeholders, and you worked really hard for it, but realised you’d made a mistake with the figures on the final slide and had a few tough questions to answer in the room. You’re inner critic might be saying: “I can’t believe I made such a obvious mistake in that presentation. I always mess things up. I’m such a failure. Everyone must think I’m incompetent”.

We can’t always stop these thoughts completely but we can limit the negative impact they have on us, and here are 5 powerful questions that could help you create space and distance from your inner critic.

  1. Is this helping me?
  2. Is this thought helpful?
  3. What evidence do I have that provides a different perspective?
  4. What would be a more helpful viewpoint?
  5. How can I create distance between this viewpoint and my true self?

Once you accept the discomfort and enter the learning zone, you may encounter unhelpful mindsets. A fixed mindset assumes that abilities and intelligence are fixed, while a growth mindset holds that skills and intelligence can evolve through persistence and hard work.

A fixed mindset may lead you to avoid challenges to avoid embarrassment, while a growth mindset enables you to embrace challenges and prioritise learning and growth over anxieties of judgment.

If you lean towards a fixed mindset, consider these tips to cultivate a growth mindset:

  1. Learning hurts, so focus on the “why” behind your actions.
  2. Emphasise learning over mistakes and encourage open discussions about them. Remember, it’s all part of the journey.
  3. Aim for progress, not perfection. Value the process and personal growth over an unattainable ideal.
  4. Combine growth mindset with your strengths. Stretching your areas of strength allows for risk-taking, new behaviours, and the development of new habits.

Final thoughts

To actively challenge yourself, create a weekly discomfort list. Identify the things you’re avoiding due to the discomfort associated with stepping outside your comfort zone. Seek out uncomfortable situations as an opportunity to flex your growth mindset muscles and spur personal growth.

So, when was the last time you did something that scared you? Are you actively avoiding discomfort, being pushed by others, or seeking out these challenges? Embrace the discomfort, and make it a habit to confront something scary or uncomfortable on a weekly basis. Grab a pen and paper, take a minute, and create your discomfort list of actions you haven’t pursued due to fear of stepping outside your comfort zone.