Discomfort as a sign of personal growth

The process of personal growth is often accompanied by the experience of discomfort. This is because it usually means stepping outside of our comfort zone. For example, when we learn a new skill, it can feel uncomfortable because it is unfamiliar and we may make mistakes. So discomfort is often a natural part of learning and growing. We can tend to see it as a necessary evil that comes with learning. It can also lead us to learn and grow but prefer to get out of the way.

Discomfort as a sign of growth

But what if we not only tolerated this discomfort, but actively sought it out? It turns out that instead of being a stumbling block, it can be a powerful signal of personal growth. Actively seeking out discomfort can help us recognize that we are stepping outside our comfort zone. That is the area where real growth takes place. This recognition can motivate us to persevere, even when things get tough.

Research: Embracing Discomfort

Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach recently explored this striking approach to personal growth (Woolley & Fishbach, 2023). They asked whether actively seeking discomfort can serve as a sign of growth. And if you see it as a sign of growth, does your motivation increase? To answer this question, they conducted a series of experiments. In five experiments with a total of 2,163 participants, they studied different areas of personal growth.
  • Experiment 1: This experiment took place in an improv club called “The Second City”. The students participating in these improv classes were instructed to feel uncomfortable and awkward. The idea behind this was that these uncomfortable feelings could be seen as a sign of progress. These instructions were compared to typical instructions or instructions to feel their skills develop. The findings showed that the students who were instructed to seek discomfort participated more actively in the exercises than those who received the other instructions.
  • Experiment 2: Participants were asked to write about an emotional experience. Some participants were instructed to seek discomfort, while others were simply instructed to write. The results showed that those who sought it out were more motivated to write again. They also felt that they had better achieved their goal of emotional processing.
  • Experiment 3: This experiment tested people's willingness to receive news of a health crisis and opposing political views. The findings showed that people seeking discomfort were more receptive to this type of news than people simply seeking to learn.
  • Experiment 4: This experiment tested the effect of discomfort seeking on learning about conflicting political opinions. People who sought it appeared more motivated to learn about these opinions, whether or not they were instructed to reinterpret the discomfort as a sign of progression.
  • Experiment 5: The fifth experiment examined the effect of discomfort seeking on the willingness to learn information about gun violence. The findings showed that the participants were more motivated to read about gun violence when they were instructed to look for it than when they didn't.

Findings: The Effects of Discomfort

Results showed that actively seeking discomfort as a sign of self-growth motivated engagement and increased sense of goal achievement compared to standard instructions. It is important to emphasize that these effects were only observed in areas of personal growth that directly cause discomfort.

Conclusion and Relevance of the Research

This research offers a new perspective on the role of discomfort in personal growth and motivation. It suggests that we can use discomfort, rather than something to be avoided, as a powerful tool to drive personal growth. These findings have important implications for how we approach personal growth, both on an individual and institutional level. By learning to see discomfort as a sign of progress, we can increase our motivation and improve our ability to grow.