I like to picture my comfort zone as an island surrounded by dark, mysterious waters.

I’m happy when I’m on dry land and I get more and more anxious the further I venture from shore. Like those ancient maps that put the simple label, “there be dragons” in the uncharted regions, you choose to go there at your own peril.

What does the map of your island look like?

The advice we’re given about this little piece of emotional real estate we each occupy, though, is contradictory and conflicting.

On the one hand, we’re encouraged to “stretch” it or “step outside” of it on the way to personal and professional growth. Stepping outside my comfort zone sounds both dangerous and exciting. Kind of like a scientist in Antarctica, bundling up in a survival suit to venture out from her tiny, well-insulated hut in search of evidence for the origins of the solar system. 

On the other hand, when life gets stressful, we’re told to “go to our happy place,” which you can think of as the exact center of your comfort island, as far from the edges as it’s possible to get.

I know people who live on islands that are perfectly circular, completely surrounded by a sturdy, concrete seawall. They know everything they care to know about anything and they’ve set well-defined limits on what they accept into their lives. Anything outside that perimeter is unknown, unfriendly and unwelcome.

The people I find most interesting occupy comfort islands that have bays and coves and deep indentations where the sea reaches far inland in some areas of its coastline. They also have long peninsulas that jut way out into the water in others. Some days, when the tide is high, there are low lying areas where the sea has moved in and made their island smaller. Other times some volcanic eruption or moving tectonic plate has revealed a new piece of dry land that they can now explore.

Each jutting peninsula and indented cove represents an aspect of our lives. Is your career a long peninsula, stretching way out into the sea? Or is it a sheltered beach, protected from the slightest wave? What about your finances, your health, your spiritual growth or your relationships?

Of course your island is continually changing shape. When you were six you were afraid of the dark and the bogeyman who lived under your bed. That bay was filled in long ago. Your island grows with every accomplishment and success you achieve.

A traumatic or painful event, though, can cause an entire peninsula to sink below the waves, leaving you anxious and afraid in areas where you were once completely at ease.

We all have some aspects of our lives in which we feel comfortable stretching, extending and exploring. We also have those other elements that we carefully shelter, timid and cautious about trying anything remotely unfamiliar.

While it’s tempting to simply accept the shape of our island as it is, the more intimately you know every inch of your comfort zone, the more you get to choose what shape you’d like it to be. When you discover and map the edges, you get to decide your priorities for expansion.

Since all growth happens at the perimeter of our comfort zones, it’s also useful to know what that growth feels like. If the waters off the coast of Cape Relationships are deep, stepping a toe over the line will immediately feel very scary. If, however, Financial Cove is fairly shallow, testing unfamiliar waters will be gradual, allowing you to get used to the growth at a comfortable pace.

Knowing your own coastline lets you decide when and how you launch expansion projects. As much as possible, tackle the challenging ones in times when you’re feeling strong and none of your other coves or bays are under siege from bad weather.

A steadily expanding comfort zone allows you to dream more, try more and achieve more. Begin by exploring and mapping the Coast of You and then purposely set out to expand it. But always know that you can take shelter in the middle of the island when a storm blows through.