Since we were little we have been taught to avoid situations that cause discomfort. We flee from them like the plague. As a result, experiential avoidance sets in. We become allergic to all those situations that generate unpleasant sensations. However, this “situational hedonism” has an adverse effect: avoiding experiences that we find unpleasant or make us feel uncomfortable can create barriers to our personal growth.
Discomfort as a growth engine
A new study by psychologists at Cornell and Chicago universities revealed that thinking about discomfort as a condition linked to growth or learning can actually motivate us to work harder to achieve our goals.
These researchers recruited more than 2,100 adults enrolled in beginner-level improv workshops and designed different experiments. In one of them, the participants carried out an improvisation exercise called “Give Focus” in which one member of the group moved around the room while the others remained “frozen”, until he decided to transfer his role to another person.
Before starting the exercise, half of the participants were told that the goal was to “feel uncomfortable” and that this feeling was a sign that the exercise was working. Control group participants were simply given the normal instructions for performing the exercise, with no mention of discomfort.
The researchers recorded the exercise to analyze how long people were engaged in the task and the level of risk they were taking. They found that participants who were told to look for feelings of discomfort spent more time improvising and took more risks, suggesting they were more motivated. These people were also more likely to believe that they had achieved their personal goals during the exercise.
In another experiment, people were asked to complete a writing exercise that could help them solve a major emotional problem. Psychologists told some participants that the goal of the task was to feel awkward and uncomfortable, and that those feelings were a sign that the task was working.
After completing the task, these participants were more likely to believe that the exercise had helped them grow emotionally and develop their coping skills, and were more motivated to repeat it in the future, compared to a control group.
Lastly, these researchers also encouraged people to feel uncomfortable while reading information about covid-19, gun violence, or opinions from an opposing political party. Interestingly, those participants were more interested in learning more about those topics, compared to those who avoided the discomfort.
Reinterpreting the feeling of discomfort
In general, the results of psychological research suggest that seeking out feelings of discomfort can also motivate us in a wide variety of situations. Therefore, we should not shy away from situations that generate feelings of discomfort, especially when they can help us grow or solve a problem.
As a rule, much of growth occurs when we step out of our emotional comfort zone. Outside of that space we often have to deal with sensations that we normally classify as “unpleasant” caused by uncertainty, fear or eustress.
If we want to become a good speaker, for example, we have to practice and speak in front of others, something that will probably make us uncomfortable at first. If we want to learn to surf, we will first have to overcome initial insecurity and discomfort. However, if we throw in the towel too soon, we may also be giving up on growth and learning. Rejecting the negative emotional experience often leads us to give up on our goal.
However, everything changes when we rethink our attitude towards that discomfort and start to see it as a sign of progress. Discomfort can be associated with development, so instead of running away from it, we can reinterpret it as a sign that we are getting closer to our goals.
That new perspective may be enough to help us deal with those feelings that we normally try to avoid and stay focused on our goal, instead of seeing them only as negative emotional experiences.
Woolley, K. et. Al. (2022) Motivating Personal Growth by Seeking Discomfort. Psychological Science; 33(4): 10.1177.