When I lost my job during the pandemic, I realized the worst part about the situation wasn’t the redundancy. It wasn’t that I’d traded saving for a mortgage for pandemic unemployment payments, or the exhaustion of years of burnout.
It was the feeling that I couldn’t succeed at the job I’d thought was my dream one.
The parting gift from my job as a magazine editor, along with a slew of tax forms, was a feeling of being less than. Yes, my role was challenging and there is a lot of normalized dysfunction in the fashion industry — low pay, extreme workloads, long working hours — but others seemed to handle it better than me. Why were other people able to suck it up when I wasn’t?
It didn’t help that my social feeds were flooded with motivational posts advising me to “feel the fear and do it anyway” or insisting that “you don’t grow when you’re comfortable,” alongside daily reminders that “if you’re not nervous, you’re doing it wrong.”
Striving for a better self can be a good thing, in your career or any other area of life. My issue is with social media’s commodification of nervous fear as an essential ingredient for success. There’s stepping out of your comfort zone and then there’s firing yourself like a human cannonball into the flames of high anxiety. Before my layoff, I was doing the latter on a daily basis. And I think many of us can’t see the difference between the two.
Emma, a 25-year-old marketing professional, admits she has been misled by this “feel the fear and do it anyway” culture. “I’ve pushed myself into unknown territory, whether it’s volunteering for a project where I have zero knowledge of the topic or starting a new role and having to push through an incredible amount of fear because I thought that’s just how you get ahead,” she says. At one point, sucking up the fear meant staying too long in a toxic work environment that triggered bouts of depression and a loss of self-confidence. “In hindsight, this fear was often my gut telling me something wasn’t right,” she says.
A few months after my layoff, a conversation with a wise friend shed new light on the situation. “Stepping out of your comfort zone is only healthy when you have the tools to do so,” she said. Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi christened this “flow,” a success strategy often used by sporting legends and political leaders. Flow state (sometimes referred to as being in the zone) occurs when you tackle challenges that you perceive to be just the right amount of stretch for your skill set. In a flow state, you are deeply absorbed by your task and you might find that hours speed by without you noticing. You feel satisfied with your work and are your most productive. Flow is running a 5K race for the first time after completing Couch to 5K; feeling the fear and doing it anyway is running a half-marathon with no training.
With that in mind, the comfort zone — a state where you feel in control of your environment and you experience low levels of stress and anxiety — will differ for each of us. Genetically, our nervous systems have different capacities. That’s why for some people a bungee jump is ample stimulation, while for others it’s like a trip to the library. Everyone has their own version of too much.
According to experts, the claims of these motivational posts have been misconstrued. Flow might produce our best work but the surge of adrenaline caused by entering stressful situations allows you to become faster, more alert, and focused. You’ll perform better — momentarily. “The feel the fear and do it anyway theory originates from the fact that, at some level, we do operate better under stress,” says Anna Nauka, a counseling psychologist at Silver Lining. These short-term improvements make us more attractive to an employer. Being in a heightened state translates to someone who is responsive, always on, and works well under pressure. In the long term, however, this can lead to anxiety and chronic stress.
When we step out of our comfort zone, just like animals in nature, we’re surviving a perceived threat. This stress response is designed to be fleeting, to help us when we’re under pressure, not to be a default way of living — or working. “Physiologically, these constant levels of stress put a strain on your body. You might feel overwhelmed or exhausted and inevitably your focus will wane. With time, it’s something that can run you down,” says Nauka. This is not thriving, and it is it — as Instagram would have you believe — a prerequisite for growth. “By contrast, it’s only when we come back to safety that our nervous systems have the best capacity to explore our environment and we are able to grow,” says Nauka. The message? Don’t feel bad if you’re not living your life on the edge.
As for the “do something each day that scares you” school of thought? In somatic experiencing therapy, stepping to the edge of your comfort zone and coming back to safety is what expands your nervous system’s capacity to do things that are potentially scary in a controlled way. Crucially, it’s a chipping-away method — not a diving-headfirst-into-the-unknown method — that gradually builds confidence. “The emphasis is on the edge of discomfort,” Nauka notes.
Is the comfort zone so bad anyway? Au contraire. “[When you’re in your comfort zone], you’re more resourceful and detail-focused,” says Nauka, which bodes well for creative thinking. It’s better for teamwork, too; you’re more equipped to listen to and understand your colleagues.
Persevering with something to the point where it’s destructive speaks to our aversion to failure. Acknowledging that something isn’t for you isn’t quite as palatable as defying the odds to achieve your goals. But why does everything have to be an inspirational moment? So! Much! Main! Character! Energy! Instead, what if we normalized recognizing when a job no longer meets our needs or isn’t as integral to our sense of self as we once thought? No amount of pushing past the comfortable can repair a toxic workplace, temper an unpredictable boss, or lessen an unrealistic workload.
If I could give my past self some advice — three years and one burnout later — it would be to tune into my needs and find a role that fulfills them rather than putting all my energy into thriving (read: surviving) in the so-called position of my dreams. To feel okay with the fact that my version of too much can differ from that of my peers. It’s not picture-perfect but it’s far healthier.
My new motto? Feel the fear and actually listen to it. Instead of persevering or sucking it up for the sake of what social media peddles as success, honor what you’re experiencing and be true to your needs. That sounds like thriving to me.
by Sarah Macken