Insights
April 15, 2024

Embrace Discomfort to Fuel Your Learning and Personal Growth


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Did you know that discomfort can supercharge your learning and development? In this article, we look at why it benefits us to step outside our comfort zones, take on challenges and push our boundaries. We also provide a list of straightforward steps you can take to open your mind to exploring the unknown and unfamiliar.

Human beings tend to seek comfort, stability and familiarity. It’s natural and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. After all, who wants to feel uncomfortable and awkward? Life is already challenging enough when we have to get our work done, keep the bosses happy, provide for our families, pay the bills, finish the chores, find time for ourselves… on it goes. 

But, if you aim to be more, to be a better version of yourself, then you need to learn, grow, try new things and challenge yourself. And all of that means stepping out of your comfort zone. When aspiring for personal growth, you should not only expect and tolerate discomfort; research has found that you should actively seek it out

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

According to recent research, individuals who embraced discomfort rather than avoided it were more motivated and engaged when it came to their self-growth and personal development.
According to recent research, individuals who embraced discomfort rather than avoided it were more motivated and engaged when it came to their self-growth and personal development.

According to research published in 2022 by Ayelet Fishbach, professor of behavioural science and marketing, and Kaitlin Woolley, associate professor of marketing, growth occurs when individuals actively seek discomfort. Over a series of five experiments involving 2,163 American adults, it was found that when people sought to feel discomfort, they were more focused and persistent in learning, more motivated and more receptive to opposing ideas. The experiments included improvisation classes, writing about difficult emotional issues, learning about the COVID-19 pandemic through potentially upsetting information and learning about gun violence. 

The theory holds in many areas of life. To grow is to push past your limits. It means putting up with short-term “pain” to achieve long-term gains. If you want your muscles to get bigger, you work them beyond their current capacity until they have tiny injuries or tears. As most of us know, that will probably leave us sore and uncomfortable for a few days. But when your body repairs that damage, it builds those muscles to be bigger and stronger so that they can withstand those same pressures that previously damaged them. The same goes for runners and swimmers who push themselves to go faster and further.

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Similarly, in intellectual or emotional realms, discomfort can signal areas where we need to expand our understanding, confront biases, develop new skills or reevaluate our perspectives. Willingly moving outside your norm and putting yourself in discomfort forces you to challenge your limitations and forge new paths forward. 

Grab the bull by the horns

When you train yourself to get used to discomfort, you are building your confidence, resilience and adaptability at the same time. It is nice to stay in a place where we feel secure and in control but it is seldom transformative. We are hardwired to stay safe, but we will not expand our horizons and go past our thresholds. To do that, we need to overcome our fears. And we sure do have a lot of them: fear of failure, rejection, humiliation, uncertainty, vulnerability, embarrassment, punishment, bruising our ego… the list goes on. Don’t let fear and discomfort hold you back. Think about how fearlessly some children learn: they fall lots of times from climbing trees, riding bicycles and trying roller skates. Make no mistake, you will fail when you try something new. But learning from failure and the discomfort of failure is part of the process.

Children often try new things fearlessly and without embarrassment. Rekindle your curiosity and set aside your doubts
Children often try new things fearlessly and without embarrassment. Rekindle your curiosity and set aside your doubts

The more you choose discomfort and face your fears head-on, the easier (and more comfortable!) it will get, because you will eventually become desensitised to it. That would be the signal that it’s time to up your discomfort or try something new. 

Jump in the deep end

Our friend, let’s call her Hannah, had been taking dance classes for over four years. She enjoyed her weekly classes and formed a bond with her fellow students. Classes were a safe space to learn, make mistakes and ask for additional instruction.

Lately, however, Hannah had been feeling wistful after watching people at dance clubs or on the dance floor during parties and social events. They seemed to be able to dance impromptu with anyone and to any music. Everyone looked like they were having a great time and knew what they were doing. She wanted that for herself but felt she wasn’t good enough. She was afraid she would make a fool of herself and was not confident in her abilities.

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We all have fears and perceived limits; it takes courage and willingness to accept discomfort to push through.
We all have fears and perceived limits; it takes courage and willingness to accept discomfort to push through.

Hannah had mentioned this to her longtime instructor several times and revealed how extremely nervous she was about stepping onto an unfamiliar and very public dance floor. The reply was always the same: you have the basics, now you have to get out there and just do it. Not once, not twice, but as many times as it takes. It will feel uncomfortable, even nerve-wracking. She might quite literally step on many toes, but as her instructor said, just apologise and dance on. It will get better, there will be a big boost to her learning and she will grow in confidence. Her other option was to sign up for exams and force herself to pick up the pace through another route. But both involved unfamiliar challenges and moving beyond the lines she had drawn for herself. 

Face your fears head-on

Growth and learning don’t always have to be painful or uncomfortable. Yes, it is possible to learn without discomfort, but if you want to turbocharge your personal growth, it seems that discomfort is the way to go. Jumping into the deep end or pressuring yourself accelerates your rate of pick-up. Whether that is dancing, speaking a new language, or one of the top fears of the developed world: public speaking, challenging yourself before you feel ready is the quickest way to learn.

Many experienced performers and artists still feel nervous and get butterfies in the stomach before their show. But they use that discomfort to sharpen their focus and help them perform better.
Many experienced performers and artists still feel nervous and get butterflies in their stomachs before their show. But they use that discomfort to sharpen their focus and help them perform better.

Don’t wait until you’re perfectly ready before you make a move. Chances are you will never feel ready enough. But it’s that very feeling of nervousness, awkwardness and discomfort that will push you and motivate you to grow and learn better. 

For starters, try these simple ways to shake yourself out of your comfort zone:

  1. Try new foods, cuisines or restaurants. 
  2. Ride a roller coaster or a ride you wouldn’t normally get on.
  3. Take classes in subjects that are completely new to you.
  4. Join and participate in social groups or interest groups beyond your usual circle.
  5. Read books, articles or content outside your areas of interest.
  6. Travel to places you have never been using an unconventional mode of transportation.
  7. Explore the other side of polarizing issues such as the gender debate, not eating meat, climate change, immigration, religion and others.
  8. Attempt different games, puzzles and quizzes.
  9. Experiment with something people say you would never go for (but keep it safe and legal!)
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Keep in mind that putting yourself in uncomfortable situations does not mean putting yourself in harm’s way or making others uncomfortable. If you feel extreme distress or paralysing fear, stop immediately as there may be underlying issues that need to be addressed. 

Discomfort: just another step in your journey of growth

Embracing discomfort is not easy, but it will accelerate learning and growth, and lead you on a path of self-discovery. So go on and try it. Sign up for a marathon, climb that mountain, register for that exam, and make that difficult conversation. Experience the nervousness that comes with stepping out onto a stage or submitting your paper for evaluation. Expose yourself to the awkwardness of making cold calls or initiating conversations in a different language. Feel the sting of embarrassment by admitting your mistakes and failures and apologising for them. Push your limits and don’t give up when it gets uncomfortable because that is the whole point.

Those feelings of discomfort, awkwardness, and embarrassment won't ruin or break you. And you know what they say about what doesn't kill you...
Those feelings of discomfort, awkwardness, and embarrassment won’t ruin or break you. And you know what they say about what doesn’t kill you…

As qualified psychologists and coaches, we know how to channel discomfort into personal growth, and have guided many clients through their journey of self-betterment. Personal coaching can help you broaden your horizons and realise your potential. Talk to us today.

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