How often has someone told you, "You just need to do what scares you!" or "Get out of your comfort zone?" Yes and No.
Challenge inspires us and engages the most advanced part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex), which performs refined thinking. And it's part of human nature to expand, to reach for what was previously unattainable, and to conquer unchartered territory. The famed British explorer George Mallory, one of the first humans to climb above 8,000 meters on Mount Everest, summed this up perfectly when asked why he had such a need to climb the mountain. Without skipping a beat, he quipped, "Because it’s there."
But to the quicker, older, and more powerful primal fear centers of the brain which protect you from danger, doing what you fear is tantamount to jumping out of a plane with no parachute. This ancient part of your brain from before the hunter-gatherer days does not have the ability to tell the difference between life-threatening fear and fear of embarrassing yourself, for example. Only the conscious mind can decipher those differences. Therefore, its well-meaning but sometimes misguided efforts to keep you alive create fear, guilt, obstacles, even illness, and self-sabotage of all kinds.
That's not to say we shouldn’t do what scares us. We simply need to frame it differently. In other words, don't leave your comfort zone; just expand it.
Years ago, I was asked to coach the CFO of a fast-growing F500 firm. He was brilliant behind the scenes—thoughtful, strategic, and a good communicator—but often tanked in public situations, so he avoided them. After all, that's what CEOs are for. Right? But when a dire situation arose in his realm he needed to address it himself, in public. Hiding out was not an option. Everyone around him said he should just jump out of his comfort zone and do his job. He agreed.
The problem was that he repeated this mantra over and over again until he whipped himself into such a state of anxiety that he became physically ill. His talking points became muddy, and his presentation more rigid. That's when I was called.
As soon as I began working with him, I asked him to dispel this comfort zone notion. It was built on a house of cards, I argued. While prepping his first media appearance, he insisted that he felt paralyzed just thinking about the camera lens glaring at him with disdain. I asked him what point he needed to make and what the context was.
"This is something you talk about on a daily basis, and people get it. They understand and respect all of this information," I said. I saw his shoulders lower as he let out a deep breath—a good sign.
Over a period of about 30 minutes, I asked him a series of questions about all the times he recently conveyed these talk points, including where he was, who he was with, and why he had so much conviction in his message. Every time he answered a set of questions, I saw his facial muscles relax a bit more, his breathing become more even, and his eyes light up just a tiny bit.
Gradually his brain was beginning to associate positive memories with this upcoming appearance and thereby link it with the experience of being clear, confident, and focused. Not only that, but since he'd gotten positive results from these previous meetings, his brain started to link this upcoming series of media interviews with an expectation of positive outcomes. And, of course, we also practiced several times in front of a camera, so he could become familiar with the experience and learn new techniques.
So, what was once as far outside his comfort zone as Mount Everest was now within his reach. It wasn't that Mount Mount Everest had migrated to him. He had simply expanded his comfort zone, and he knew it. And, by the way, he nailed all his appearances.