We all want to feel comfortable. Many of the actions we take every day are directly or indirectly designed to maintain our feelings of comfort, stability, control, or certainty. And yet, we are all faced with constant change. When the changes are big, we call them transitions.

Transitions can be tricky. On the one hand, we know they are important and lead to the next great thing, but on the other hand, we are forced to step out of our comfort zones to move through them. If maintaining comfort is the stronger pull, we can default into choices and decisions that do not lead us to authentic success but rather keep us mired in limiting conditions that erode our self-esteem.

There is an interesting connection between one’s comfort zone and one’s self-esteem. They expand (or don’t) in a synergistic dance—often quite unconsciously.

Let’s look at two contrasting examples.

Susan is a hard-working accountant who has always applied herself beyond anyone’s expectations. She works long hours and provides outstanding client service, but often ignores her own needs—including her desire for rich and rewarding family relationships. Her inability to spend time with her family makes her feel guilty, and although she knows she’s a high performer at work, her overall self-esteem is damaged by her feelings of inadequacy in her personal relationships. Susan is offered an economic incentive to retire early – at age 55 – which would allow her to spend unlimited time with her family and pursue some personal goals that she has ignored for many years.  Money is not an issue.  Paradoxically, although Susan does not need the money she will earn by continuing to work until age 60, she declines the early retirement option due to an overwhelming discomfort with the blank canvas in front of her. This decision amplifies her feelings of guilt and self-doubt, and she doubles down at work—defaulting back to her comfort zone.

Michael is widely known as one of the most successful partners at his law firm. He is a consummate rainmaker—a really great technical lawyer but also incredibly good at people and relationships. He has continually expanded his capacity in all areas of his life, investing in his physical health, his personal and professional relationships, and his knowledge and expertise. He exudes the quiet confidence of a person who is deeply grounded and generally optimistic. He has always walked his own path, often making choices that set him apart from his peers but have somehow managed to exceed expectations anyway. Michael is offered the opportunity to retire at age 55. Money is not an issue for him, so he decides to take the leap. Leaving his career is far out of his comfort zone, but having pushed the limits of comfort on a daily basis for most of his life, he is confident that he will land on his feet. This decision breeds even more confidence as he moves forward into new and exciting territory, sure of success and continued expansion.

Susan and Michael are both remarkable people, and neither is worthy of more praise than the other. But they provide contrasting examples of how the practice of pushing the boundaries of our comfort zones (or not) can create wonderful synergies of enhanced self-esteem (or default us into limited circumstances that diminish us in subtle but important ways).