The Comfort Zone is Nice, But Nothing Ever Grows There

Imagine a friendly new couple moves into the house next door. As a neighborly gesture, you invite them over for a small “welcome party” with a few other couples… before learning that your new neighbors are white supremacists. Uncomfortable, right?

To be clear, you’re not a racist, and their beliefs disgust you. Isn’t that enough? I mean, you’re not confrontational and they are going to be your neighbors. Isn’t it enough that you quietly (silently) disagree? Isn’t it enough that you’re not a racist?

No.  Not being a racist is not good enough.

It’s uncomfortable to confront tough issues and have hard conversations. But until we learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable, the status quo wins and social change will have to wait another day.

Even if among our ingroup, we acknowledge that racism is wrong, it’s uncomfortable to stand up and advocate against policies and attitudes that ignore our own privilege and perpetuate inequality for others. Especially when it’s the neighbor next door, the man at church, the woman in your book club or the teacher at school who would much rather not think about all the ugliness and be grateful they aren’t the targets of prejudice, discrimination, and hate.

But, growth and evolution always come with discomfort – even when the change is necessary and expected outcome is welcome. Discomfort is directly proportional to personal growth.  And social change will never happen without personal growth.

The one thing you learn is when you can step out of your comfort zone and be uncomfortable, you see what you’re made of and who you are.

~Sue Bird

I’m not suggesting white people apologize for being white. We have not choice in being born white, just as others had no choice in being born black or brown. What I am suggesting is that we all have the choice to be part of a long-overdue change.

Ignoring people who normalize antagonistic behavior toward people of a particular race or class is not okay. Pretending people aren’t treated badly just because it happens outside the safety of your comfortable white bubble is wrong. Shaking your head at another social injustice as you wait for all of the commotion to die down so you can get back to your life is as harmful as the social injustice.

Not being racist is not enough if we are to evolve into a society that values all of us. Not being a bigot is not enough if we are to live meaningful lives grounded in convictions worth fighting for.  The time for passive observation is over.  It’s time for each of us to elevate our sense of agency, identify our own uncomfortable path of personal growth, and start to have the hard conversations with people in our own spheres of influence.

To share.

To listen.

To learn.

To grow.

How uncomfortable are you willing to get to stand up against racism, bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia, or any form of discrimination or prejudice?  Perhaps it’s time for all of us to get a little more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

If you want to live a meaningfully better life, you’re going to have to make the dangerous choice to dissent. A life lived meaningfully isn’t denominated by digital friends, designer logos, or wads of paper notes. It’s denominated by what you’ve lived, what it’s worth to you, and what that’s worth to humanity. The question you must answer isn’t how to get ahead. It’s how to go somewhere that matters.

~Umair Haque


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. The comfort zone is certainly a behavioral state in which we act in the absence of anxiety and therefore stress. Simplified so it might be something good. In fact, in the comfort zone whatever we are doing we make dictated by the habits and the usual thought patterns. The comfort zone kills growth and makes us slaves of our habits. The comfort zone limits our potential and if we want to improve on the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental strength we need to get out of it. It’s almost impossible to grow and learn as long as you remain locked up in the comfort zone. Especially in times of difficulty we must have the courage not to retreat into the comfort zone and go ahead.
    However, I would like to add an element of reflection.
    What is really useful is to stimulate us to continuously evaluate the functionality of our habits, knowing that we can define them as such if we act without difficulty and feeling at ease; evaluate the options and opportunities that are offered to us if we had to leave the comfort zone, choosing those that are most functional for us and those creating less discomfort in learning. This approach also helps us to avoid, or reduce, the chances of being manipulated through the concept and the idea of having to leave the comfort zone at all costs. And the ideal and hypothetical comfort zone even becomes a guiding and objective element of personal and professional development.

    • You make such great points, Aldo. Introspection and reflection are essential for any kind of growth. I think that when you say “evaluate the options and opportunities that are offered to us if we had to leave the comfort zone, choosing those that are most functional for us and those creating less discomfort in learning,” I translate to the more comfortable we get with being uncomfortable, the more we are able to embrace opportunities for growth. Thank you for sharing your insights. You’ve added a few nuggets that are sure to bounce around my head!

  2. Melissa – RE your response to Kimberly, “I think the key for me is learning how to have a conversation with him that is neither confrontational nor conciliatory to let him know where I am on that issue and that I find his viewpoint on race offensive,” yes!

    I was in a liquor store a while back buying a bottle of scotch for my father-in-law’s impending visit. On the shelf near the one I was seeking to buy were some single malts from Japan(!) I had heard that the Japanese were trying to get into the market. One of the varieties was priced at $700.

    $700! Who can afford that? I asked the owner.
    “I have Jewish people who come in for that,” he replied.
    I thought it odd that he would say that, not knowing that I’m Jewish, but also because he’s Indian and could have suffered intolerance at one point or another.

    But as I walked down the street muttering that I will never go back to buy from him – and I haven’t – I became increasingly angry at myself for not calling him on it right then. At the time he said it, I didn’t know how to be neither “confrontational nor conciliatory.” But I think I know what I would say now. Learning….

    • Jeff, I don’t know if I should admire your restraint or be grateful I don’t have it. This much I do know: (1) You’re a better man than I am. (2) I’m sorry you had to endure that kind of stupidity.

    • Mark – I have tended to be a processor. In the moments when I’ve spoken too quickly, sent the email reply too quickly, reacted too quickly, I’ve usually regretted it. Sometimes I remind myself of a V8 commercial where I slap myself in the forehead, but instead of thinking “I could have had a V8,” I slap myself in the forehead and think “….” In this case, I think I was a bit stunned that someone would be that overt. But in the end, how I felt about it was my own doing. I have to own that I walked out of that store and didn’t say anything.

    • Funny enough, Mark. I think the conversations you and I have had (those where we engage deeply from very different POVs) may be a good model for me moving forward. The problem is that not everyone is as open as you are to consider a different perspective. Perhaps, that is the positive ripple you and I can intentionally put out in the universe.

    • Jeff, I’m with Mark on the admiration for not calling out his stupidity. And, I’m with you about the learning part. I am, too, and there have been many times when I’ve been on the far ends of the spectrum: either saying nothing and walking away or saying exactly what I’m thinking without… um… polishing it for a more effective presentation. I’m really working on this thanks to Colin Smith’s listening lesson I was fortunate enough to participate in. I am practicing on Facebook (of all places) because I can take my time and really be thoughtful about a response that is neither confrontational or conciliatory. A work in progress…. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  3. As is so often the case, Melissa, principle is easier than practice. Leviticus teaches: You will surely rebuke your fellow and not bear sin on his account. That means you have to rebuke another as a “fellow,” assuming the best intentions and giving the benefit of the doubt. If you fail to do so, you “bear sin on his account.” But if you give rebuke in a way that incites anger or resentment, you also bear sin on his account.

    So what are we to do? Modern Torah authorities question whether it is even possible to give rebuke in this generation, when we are all so defensive and resistant to constructive criticism. They suggest that the first step is for us to be models of good character and develop trusting relationships from which we may then be able to offer correction.

    When we discussed your case in our groups, my suggestions was not met with enthusiasm. Let them come to your party and meet your friends. Start building a relationship. Once they become invested in you, they may become more willing to see things from your perspective and question their own.

    Further food for thought here:

    • Your suggestion is a good one, Yonason. So many times, the impulsive judgment wins and the meaningful dialogue is in the wind. If I’m honest, I’d have a hard time hosting a member of a hate group in my house. But, there is no conversation to be had if I’m not neighborly first. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this one! I really appreciate your insights.

  4. So, so, so good, Melissa! My stomach was in knots the entire time, which I think is an indication of how much work I need to do in this area. My question to YOU, is how would you handle the dinner party racist guests??? Because, truth be told, I have no idea how I would handle that situation as you painted it and the idea of it has my head spinning!

    • I don’t have the answer to that, Kimberly. Here’s what I’m grappling with today. My own neighbor, not a member of a hate group and no Confederate flag flying on the porch, makes a racist statement about a Hispanic landscaper. I like the neighbor. I abhor the statement he made about the landscaper. I have to live next to him and I want to get a long with my neighbors. Am I complicit in his racism if I ignore his statement and say nothing?

      I think the key for me is learning how to have a conversation with him that is neither confrontational nor conciliatory to let him know where I am on that issue and that I find his viewpoint on race offensive. That’s the uncomfortable conversation that NONE of us want to have with our neighbors or friends or family members. I think that is what we need to learn.