Why We Stay in our Comfort Zones 

Most people dislike (despise?) stepping out of their comfort zone. Our brains, approximately 40,000 years old, divide stimuli into “safe” and “unsafe”. Anything real or perceived can immediately trigger us, because our brains (often irrationally) interpret input as protecting or endangering our very existence. Staying in our Comfort Zone in the model above is therefore interpreted as our key to survival.

The SCARF Model is an excellent model to understand the most common threats we unknowingly experience and create for others. When our brain perceives any threat (which can be as subtle as when someone asks “Why did you….”), it sends warning messages to our bodies (such as difficulty breathing, sweaty palms, stomach butterflies, red face, etc.), reminding us to immediately return to safety. (For a brief overview of the brain science that drives our reactions, click here).

While physical sensations take over, Vicious Voices in our head also get louder, especially the bigger the (perceived) threat. We hear the Itty Bitty Sh**ty Committee and often feel like an Imposter, which then starts the spiral of self-doubt. Listening to the Vicious Voices’ stories (which feel like truth, in the moment) often catalyzes us back to safety because our survival, career and/or well-being feel like they are in danger.  

Common Challenges for High Performing Leaders 

In our BOLD research data, 51% of women leaders feel self-doubt or question their abilities, 54% feel anxiety doing things out of their comfort zone, and yet, 70% have stepped out of their comfort zones anyway (in spite of how they felt). However, there is a toll that is taken for stepping out that is not obvious to others.

In the model above, leaders step into the Learning or Stretch Zone when they calculate the risk to be low. This Zone requires 10% more courage, because it is not completely comfortable, yet taking action is not perceived as life, career or relationship-ending. There are many situations where leaders are slightly uncomfortable, and they act anyway: volunteering for new projects or roles, making presentations to new audiences, introducing new ideas or data that others don’t agree with, etc. 

The Breakthrough Zone requires shifting our mindset in order to take action. When leaders feel stuck, they are still in their comfort zone avoiding, procrastinating or ruminating about what they “should” be doing differently. They often feel shame because they know what they need to do to become BOLD and high performing, and yet, they are not. Common situations leaders often avoid are: 

  • Providing feedback (the word alone is terrifying to many) 
  • Practicing straight talk (making clear, bold requests)
  • Dealing with conflict (especially interpersonal issues)
  • Speaking up (challenging, disagreeing, particularly with leaders who are more senior)  

Engaging in these situations requires leaders to create a Breakthrough in order to productively engage, in spite of the overwhelming brain and body messages to run the other way. 

The overarching fear of engaging in one of these ‘unsafe’ areas is the (often irrational) fear that we might enter the Danger Zone, which could end everything. If I do this, I might lose the job, relationship, client, etc. It could be a career- or life-limiting move. In a flash, we experience the “Chain of Pain,” and the fear overwhelms us. 

How to Own Your Zone

1. Connect to Your Purpose. The brain “hack” to quiet the chaos starts with getting clear on your Why. What is the payoff for creating the breakthrough, for you, the relationship, the company? Explore the cost of avoiding. If there is little cost, it won’t motivate you to take the leap. The bigger the cost (or benefit), the more likely you are to overcome the Voices and fear. The discomfort of the current situation has to be greater than the pain of changing. 

2. Manage Your Mindset. Your mind will do everything it can to take you out of the game. It will justify, explain, rationalize, and warn you not to step out. The more clear you are about the story you are telling yourself, the more able you will be to shift it. You may need a Coach (peer, executive, anyone with other perspective) to disrupt your thinking, see the situation differently and identify clear, tangible actions. BOLD leaders ask for help, early and often.

3. Practice Courage. Look for ways to test your assumptions. If you need to practice making bold requests, pick someone you feel safe with, or pick a request that will allow you to create a win. Action creates momentum; seek opportunities to practice courage. High performing leaders are not fearless, they feel fear and do it anyway, seeking support and connection with trusted people along the way. 

Real Leaders: Peeking Behind the Curtain 

Every leader has areas that make him/her uncomfortable; what is easy for some is different than others. The key is to identify what represents a breakthrough for each of us. The following examples are all leaders who asked for coaching and “owned their zone.” 

The leader who:

  • Was nervous to speak at Town Halls in front of hundreds of associates in another language. When she did, she received incredible positive feedback and thank you’s. She learned that the more courageous and “perfectly imperfect” she is, the more able she is to be an inspiring role model in the organization. She now speaks regularly in multiple languages at Town Halls and is focused on sharing versus worrying about appearing imperfect. 
  • Had a senior peer make disparaging comments that made her feel unsafe to speak in their leadership team meetings. Her courageous follow up and feedback with him resulted in building deeper trust than it had ever been. He proactively continued to ask for feedback, which helped him grow to be a more effective ally and leader.
  • Had a poor relationship with an important peer. She followed up and had multiple hard conversations, eventually repairing trust. Soon after, she got a much bigger role that required full collaboration and partnership with her peers to be successful.
  • Was not pushing back and engaging in full partnership with the CEO. By providing direct feedback, she called his attention to an impact he was having with no intention to do so. At first, he didn’t listen and was unreceptive. She stayed in the conversation calmly and stood her ground. Eventually, he heard her and the trust and partnership between them greatly increased.
  • Never thought she could speak to hundreds of leaders, write content that would inspire others or conduct BOLD leadership in a virtual environment. With enough coaching and courage, she made it happen. 🙂     

Ask Yourself

  • When you are experiencing fear, what is your body’s physical response?
  • What areas do you feel comfortable and step out of your comfort zone anyway, and what areas does your discomfort have you avoid? 
  • What is one area that would positively impact you, your team and/or the business if you were to step out of your comfort zone? What would a breakthrough look like? Whom would you involve to help you prepare or to celebrate with afterwards? 

Please feel free to reach out to me and my team if you’d like to connect about how to apply these ideas, to help members on your team navigate these conversations, or to discuss the biggest current challenges you are facing today.

Wishing you good mental, physical, emotional and social health.

Remember to find resources to inspire you here.

Yours in practice,



If you are interested in exploring how to unlock the potential of yourself, your team or the women in your organization, contact us for a complimentary discovery conversation.