This excerpt is adapted from The Brave Athlete by Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson. Their cutting-edge brain training guide solves the 13 most common mental conundrums athletes face in their everyday training and in races. With The Brave Athlete, you can solve these problems to become mentally strong and make your brain your most powerful asset.
The Psychology of Comfort Zones
We’ve all seen the motivational memes extolling the virtues of living outside some metaphysical comfort zone. I don’t know about you, but trite and dangerously vague advice to “do something daily that scares you” isn’t exactly a life lesson I’m keen to follow. Running across the road without looking scares me, as does diving into water without knowing how deep it is, but these are hardly inviting strategies to feel alive, let alone stay alive.
Nope, we feel scared for a reason, and that reason is D-A-N-G-E-R.
The problem is that your Chimp defines danger in quite a different way than your Professor brain (your frontal cortex, or the real you).
If you recall from Chapter 1 (“Hello, Brain!”), your Chimp brain runs on emotion alone and has been designed to keep you out of harm’s way or, if absolutely necessary, turn you into a fighting machine to make sure you still wake up tomorrow. When we know we will be physically and psychologically safe, scary can become exciting. Think roller coasters, haunted houses, and horror movies.
When a “normal” brain thinks about an intimidating situation, the primitive factions (limbic system) send strong chemical messages to the modern bits (your frontal cortex, or Professor brain) that try to convince it to join forces and keep you the hell away. Why? Because the Chimp brain thinks that [insert your own intimidating situation here] is nothing more than a cesspool of physical and psychological risk. Your Professor brain knows that death or physical harm is pretty unlikely (for example, athletes tend not to drown, have their organs explode, or lose limbs while racing), but it could be persuaded that psychological damage is a distinct possibility.
Three of the most feared psychological and emotional daggers that your Chimp brain is especially keen to avoid getting stabbed by are humiliation (Will I look stupid?), embarrassment (Am I doing it right?), and inadequacy (Am I good enough?). Of course, not all of us feel this way. You’ve only got to go to a karaoke bar or participatory theater or watch “Wheel of Fortune” to see that some people simply don’t give a shit about looking like an idiot. However, it’s a statistically solid bet to say that most of us don’t like the thought of being laughed at in public.
To avoid feeling embarrassed, humiliated, and inadequate, we create comfort zones.
A comfort zone is simply a psychological fence that we erect around ourselves to protect something that we feel vulnerable about. The psychological fence emerges as a behavioral habit—actions we take to avoid the confrontation. You probably experience a lukewarm version of this on a regular basis: procrastination. Staying inside the fence gives us a sense of security and comfort—a predictableness that is calming. Beyond the fence lies the unknown—which we assume is discomfort, fear, failure, and judgment. Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder that many people choose to avoid competing at all, or upgrading to a new performance category, trying a new distance, or entering a race they don’t feel fully prepared for.
Comfort zones are a normal adaptive response to keep the inner peace. We all do it. It’s as human as office gossip. Most comfort zones are very helpful; they materialize as habits or routines that take the thinking (and therefore stress) out of daily tasks. Usually we prefer to keep our underlying vulnerability very private, and for good reason. Admitting that we’re flawed and then showing the entire world what that flaw is scares the hell out of us.
But make no mistake about it, comfort zones are entirely imaginary. Like an emotional plaster cast for a leg that’s not broken.
They are made up by you, figments of your imagination—an imagination that has become hijacked by your Chimp brain and is motivated solely by keeping you alive, minimizing discomfort, increasing pleasure, and . . . drumroll . . . protecting your ego. And your brain has a Nobel Prize in protecting your ego and self-image—the perceptions you have about who you think you should be. Your Chimp brain will lie, cheat, and steal to keep up appearances. At least on the outside.
Many comfort zones are relatively trivial and easy to live with, such as continuing to swim on your own because the thought of joining a masters swim group fills you with fear about being too slow, not being able to do flip turns, only being able to do breaststroke, or simply being exposed as someone who clearly has no clue as to what’s actually going on. Some comfort zones are trivial and just plain funny—like the inability to take a dump in front of your spouse. Some comfort zones are tolerable but frustrating—like always having to wait for a shower until you get home from the gym because the thought of being naked in a YMCA locker room gives you the cold sweats. Some are mildly irritating—often to others too—like your tendency to avoid anything with the word “race” in it because the thought of head-to-head competition creates a cascade of anxiety about aggression, embarrassment, and failure. Perhaps your comfort zone stops you from pushing really hard in a race because of a fear of the pain, or of “blowing up.” Or worst of all, not finishing.
After all, if you lay it all out there and it’s still not enough, what does that say about you?
Other comfort zones are more sinister and a recipe for long-term misery, like avoiding long-term relationships for fear of being rejected, or staying in a job you hate because you don’t know what else you could do and you’ve got bills to pay.
Living in mental cruise control and making nothing but safe choices leads to boredom and complacency. A breakthrough in happiness, self-awareness, and mental toughness requires new experience.
Break out of your comfort zone this year. The Brave Athlete offers ground rules for making you more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. See what else is inside The Brave Athlete here.
The Brave Athlete solves the 13 most common mental conundrums athletes face in their everyday training and in races. Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson will help you take control of your brain so you can train harder, race faster, and better enjoy your sport.