Embracing discomfort, rather than avoiding it, can help us work towards our personal goals

By Matthew Warren

In order to develop new skills or grow as a person, you often have to get out of your comfort zone. Say you want to become a better public speaker: you will have to get up and practice speaking in front of others, and that will likely feel awkward and uncomfortable at first.

This can create barriers to personal growth, because those feelings of discomfort that you experience will come well before you will notice any improvement in your skills. As a result, you might feel that the negative emotional experience is not worth it, and give up on your goal.

But what if we reframe our attitude towards discomfort, seeing it as a sign of progress and something to strive for rather than avoid? A new paper in Psychological Science suggests that this way of thinking can motivate people to work towards their goals.

In the first study, Kaitlin Woolley from Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago recruited 557 adults enrolled in beginner-level improvisation workshops. Participants took part in an improv exercise called “Give Focus”. This involves one member of the group moving around the room however they wish while the others are frozen in place; at some point the free-moving improviser chooses to pass the “focus” on to another member of the group, who then takes over.

Before the exercise began, half of the participants were told that the goal was “to feel awkward and uncomfortable”, and that these feelings were a sign that the exercise was working. Control participants were simply given the normal instructions for the exercise, without any mention of discomfort. The researchers took video recordings of the improvisations, which were later rated for both persistence (how long participants took the spotlight before passing it on to another member of the group) and risk-taking (how much they pushed the boundaries or went out a limb during their improvisation).

The team found that participants who had been told to pursue feelings of awkwardness spent more time improvising and showed more risk-taking, which the authors interpret as showing that they were more motivated during the task. These participants also were more likely to believe that they had achieved their personal goals during the exercise.

Further online experiments suggested that seeking out feelings of discomfort can motivate people in a range of other situations too. In one study, participants took part in a writing exercise that they were told could help them work though an important emotional issue. Some were told that the goal of the exercise was to feel awkward and uncomfortable, and that these feelings were a sign that the task was working. After finishing the task, these participants were more likely to believe that the exercise had helped them to grow emotionally and develop coping skills, and were more motivated to repeat it in the future, compared to a control group.  

In other studies, participants were similarly encouraged to feel upset or uncomfortable while reading about Covid-19, gun violence, or the views of an opposing political party. These participants were more motivated to learn about these topics compared to control participants who did not seek out discomfort.

Overall, the results suggest that we should seek out the feelings of awkwardness or discomfort that are often associated with personal growth, and interpret them as signs of progress towards our goals. This can motivate us when faced with what we might otherwise simply see as negative emotional experiences.

It’s nice to see a paper that doesn’t just rely on online or lab-based studies, but includes a test of the intervention in the real world — in this case, in actual improvisation workshops. But it would be interesting to know whether embracing discomfort has long-lasting effects on motivation too, beyond a single point in time. Is someone actually more likely to persist with their goal of being a better public speaker if they embrace feelings of discomfort? Only longer-term studies will be able to tell.

Motivating Personal Growth by Seeking Discomfort

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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