A Psychologist Suggests 2 Steps You Can Take To Boost Self-Growth

Are you struggling to find your next level? Here are two ways to make the process easier.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 29, 2023

A new study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology highlights one type of intervention that can push us outside of our comfort zone and foster positive personality change and self-growth.

"I have always been fascinated by the question of how people change," says Dr. Pninit Russo-Netzer, the lead author of the study. "I'm especially intrigued by the gap I often witness in my research and practice between intention and action when it comes to making life changes."

To better understand the barriers people face when attempting to make positive life changes, and how to overcome come them, Dr. Russo-Netzer and her team designed a novel intervention, called a 'behavioral stretch intervention,' that encouraged people to take up activities that were previously outside of their comfort zone.

Participants in their study were randomly assigned to either (1) engage in an activity outside of their comfort zone over the course of a two-week period or (2) to simply keep a record of their regular daily activities (control condition).

The researchers measured how much self-rated growth people experienced over the test period. They found that engaging in activities at the edge of one's comfort zone boosted the life satisfaction of people who had relatively low life satisfaction. 

Moreover, the most significant benefits achieved during the intervention were seen from those who stepped outside of their comfort zone to assist others – engaging in activities like volunteering at a school to help students with hearing loss, donating their hair to people undergoing cancer treatment, or applying to provide foster care.

Part of the reason why the intervention was successful, according to Russo-Netzer, has to do with the fact that participants were allowed to decide for themselves which 'stretch' activity they pursued.

"A key component of our intervention is that people choose their out-of-comfort zone activity for themselves," says Russo-Netzer. "This gives them agency, it fosters the intrinsic motivation that comes with personal choice, and it stretches them psychologically while protecting their feelings of comfort and safety."

For anyone struggling to find their way out of their comfort zone, the researchers have the following pieces of advice to ease the process.

#1. Be self-aware

Write down all the activities you want to attempt that are different from what you usually do. This will help you become more aware of your own specific range of comfort and learning zones.

For instance, these could be things you've been meaning to do for a while but haven't had a chance to, like taking on a new challenge or doing something that goes against your nature, character, or self-perception. These could be things you do alone or with others. They could be big or small challenges.

Next, turn your ideas into actionable steps. Set up a specified time for one of these activities and record your results.

#1. Experiment with an open mind

By remaining open and responsive, we become willing to experiment and 'play' with our aversion to risk and uncertainty.

Curiosity, engagement, and vigor may be fostered by reframing the experience as a chance to discover something new about ourselves.

We can train our 'growth muscle' to expand our 'comfort zone' through regular exposure to new experiences. Ask yourself questions like: 

  • What does it mean to surprise yourself? 
  • When was the last time you did something for the first time? 

"It may mean trying out a new hobby, experimenting with a new taste, smiling or giving a compliment to a stranger on the street, or even behaving like a tourist in your own neighborhood," says Russo-Netzer.

A full interview with Dr. Pninit Russo-Netzer discussing her new research can be found here: A psychologist explains why 'stretch interventions' might be the key to self-growth