The famous Chicago improvisational club The Second City is known for launching the careers of Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, and Steve Carell. It also offers classes for the rest of us. In my first class there, I participated in a “Give Focus” group exercise. One person had to move around the room in some interesting ways—maybe dancing, hopping, or acting—while the rest of the group was frozen in place. At any point, the person could “pass the focus” to someone else, who would then entertain the frozen crowd before passing the focus again, until everyone got their turn.
This exercise is designed to build confidence and performance skills. Yet, I mainly felt embarrassed and uncomfortable. As is often the case when that happens, I wanted that discomfort to end. What I didn’t realize was that feeling uncomfortable was a sign that the exercise was working, and that if I actively sought that uncomfortable feeling—rather than trying to avoid it—I would’ve learned more.
Kaitlin Woolley and I recently investigated the effect of seeking and embracing discomfort in improvisation, as well as in other areas of personal growth. Those we invited to seek discomfort achieved more: they took more risks in improvisation classes, engaged more in an expressive writing exercise, and when facing new and uncomfortable information, they opened themselves to it.
What I didn’t realize was that feeling uncomfortable was a sign that the exercise was working, and that if I actively sought that uncomfortable feeling—rather than trying to avoid it—I would’ve learned more.
Discomfort often serves as a signal to stop whatever you’re doing. When you experience physical pain, you stop exercising. When you feel emotional pain, you withdraw from the experience. Because we have this intuitive response, discomfort is often a bad sign for self-growth.
However, discomfort is expected when taking on new challenges. Our research suggests that seeing discomfort as a sign of progress and actually seeking it out can boost your motivation in these situations. While a sharp physical pain is often a good reason to quit what you’re doing, a moderate muscle ache is a signal you’re getting in shape. Likewise, moderate emotional discomfort is a signal that you’re developing as a person, and it often happens before you can detect the benefits of self-growth.
We first tested this idea with our partners at The Second City training center. We asked hundreds of improv students to lean into discomfort when they participated in the “Give Focus” exercise. They were specifically invited to push past their comfort zone and put themselves in situations that make them feel awkward and uncomfortable. As a comparison, other improv students were invited to develop new skills and feel themselves improving. Yet a third group of students was told to merely see if the exercise was working.
Moderate emotional discomfort is a signal that you’re developing as a person, and it often happens before you can detect the benefits of self-growth.
When we analyzed the video recordings of students in each of these three groups, we found that those asked to seek discomfort inhabited the focus role longer and took more risks (as judged by raters who didn’t know which group people were in)—for example, by jumping around rather than walking normally—than those in the other two groups. Leaning into the awkwardness allowed them to engage and develop their skills.
Moving beyond improvisation, we next tested whether seeking discomfort would also help people to obtain the full benefits from expressive writing. The exercise of writing about important emotional issues in your life has long been associated with improved mental and even physical health. Yet doing it is uncomfortable for most. In our study, we asked some people to feel awkward and uncomfortable as they write, telling them that feeling uncomfortable was a sign that the writing task is working. Other people were only asked to write. We found that when people sought to feel uncomfortable, they reported growing emotionally, developing skills, and ultimately, they were more interested in repeating the writing task in the future.
Seeking discomfort also helped people open themselves to new information. Whether it was information about gun violence, the health crisis, or the viewpoints of those across the political divide, people who embraced discomfort were willing to engage with unwelcome information more. In our study, we invited self-identified Democrats to read articles from Fox News and self-identified Republicans to read articles from the New York Times. Both Democrats and Republicans whom we asked to adopt the goal of feeling uncomfortable were more motivated to read and were more receptive of the information they disagreed with than those who were merely invited to learn the information in the articles.
You might only learn to love your class, workout, or new job after trying it a few times. When people can positively spin otherwise negative cues—reappraise their discomfort as a sign of achievement—those cues become more motivating.
When seeking to feel discomfort, the people in our experiments reappraised those feelings as a positive cue—that is, as a sign of progress. As a result, they were more motivated to engage with the unwelcome information.
To motivate self-growth, whether in school, at the gym, or at your job, it’s best when you experience immediate gratification. If you loved an improv class, likely you’ll come back again. But the path to self-growth often involves short-term discomfort in the service of long-term gains. You might only learn to love your class, workout, or new job after trying it a few times. When people can positively spin otherwise negative cues—reappraise their discomfort as a sign of achievement—those cues become more motivating.
Taken cautiously, adopting a “no pain, no gain” mentality when you know something will make you feel awkward, sad, scared, or uncomfortable in the short-run can boost your motivation to stick with it until it feels right.