Currently reading: “Motivating personal growth by seeking discomfort” by Woolley & Fishbach (2022)

I really enjoyed reading the article “Motivating personal growth by seeking discomfort” by Woolley & Fishbach (2022). They investigate the discomfort, for example awkwardness, we often experience when engaging in activities of personal growth. This discomfort might lead us to not engage as much with an activity, or even avoid it, but what if we managed to reframe the feeling? They conduct five studies where participants actively try to experience discomfort in situations that could lead to personal growth (think acting classes to help with fear of public speaking), and where discomfort is interpreted as a sign that personal growth is happening, that they are making progress towards their goals. And they find that this increased engagement and motivation. This worked even when engaging in conversations with people on difficult topics: When instructed to feel discomfort rather than just to learn, people performed better.

I can very much relate to this article. For example, going to free diving training for the first time on my own, as a new beginner in a foreign country, where I’ll be in a pool wearing a swimsuit among divers wearing wetsuits is a situation that made me … let’s say, nervous. Or uncomfortable. But once I told myself that it is really only this once that I will feel this awkward, and that the next time I will know where the changing rooms are, and will be able to look back on all my experiences and how it really wasn’t so bad the first time, it became more of a fun challenge than a threat. Similarly, the first time I had to speak in front of a large group of people, using microphone and all, after a 2 year covid break, I knew that gaining that experience would make all subsequent public speaches easier. So to me, reading this article explained an observation I had just recently made myself. And I definitely talk myself into a “stress is enhancing” mindset before I have to “perform” (be it speak publicly, or play a concert), which is also mentioned as a technique that actually works.

But I talked about this paper with a colleague who could not relate at all, he says he never feels the discomfort in the first place. Lucky him, I guess? But still, I think this is a message that I will carry with me into my teaching. If you do feel discomfort, what if that’s a sign of growth and not a sign to stop?

Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2022). Motivating personal growth by seeking discomfort. Psychological science, 33(4), 510-523.

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