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Does Embracing Discomfort Help or Hurt Your Life?

Research shows why it can do either.

Key points

  • Accepting discomfort can be used as personal growth in two ways—to pursue something or let it go. Both are fueled by internal awareness.
  • One study found that people who view their discomfort as an "ally" experience an increase in motivation and risk-taking.
  • Some research indicates that optimistic people know when to turn away from a pursuit and not engage in it further.

When is it psychologically healthy to put yourself into uncomfortable, even risky situations, and when can it be harmful? How can you tell the difference? Some recent research provides new answers.

The first study, conducted jointly by Cornell and the University of Chicago and described by the British Psychological Society, looked at what often happens when people are faced with a challenge to try something new that they hope to become successful at. Often, one might fear an unsuccessful outcome, feel too awkward to try, or give up the attempt at the start. An example might be learning a new skill or knowledge set; a different language; or pursuing a possible new relationship with someone you’re interested in.

The researchers pointed out that feelings of discomfort or fear can become barriers to new growth and success. But such emotions necessarily have to exist before you can experience any progress or success. And that’s the point at which you might decide—or convince yourself—that it’s too much effort and just give up.

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

So this study explored the positive potential of embracing and accepting those disturbing, otherwise inhibiting emotions; “owning” them as part of the whole of your being—your full emotional reality. Then, rather than resigning to those inhibitions or fears as a necessary turn-off, if you view them as providing valuable motivation and energy you need to pursue your goal, what impact might that have?

The experiment tested this in an actual situation—giving people a task requiring new learning and then assessing the results. In essence, it found that when the subjects were encouraged to view their discomfort as an “ally,” their motivation actually increased. They showed more risk-taking, and they expressed the belief that they achieved more of their goals during the exercise. The study was published in Psychological Science.

The upshot, according to the researchers, is that pursuing feelings of discomfort can be a source of positive motivation—and in a range of situations. That is, if you can view discomfort as a sign of initial movement towards whatever you hope or desire to achieve, it can motivate you to act—rather than retreat from it and assume you’ve entered a dead-end street.

In my view, there’s a larger theme and implication of this study. It links with the other side of the question in the title of my essay: When might pursuing a seemingly difficult challenge harm more than help your life? First, the theme of “acceptance” regarding your emotional reality is a critical foundation for healing old conflicts and developing greater psychological health—whether with psychotherapy or through everyday life experience. But with perspective and judgment about a new situation or challenge you would like to take on, it’s important to distinguish when discomfort is worth using as motivation to pursue something, and when it's wiser to let just let it pass by.

When to Let It Go

Both are important; both are ways to interrupt your karma (whether thinking of your pattern in the traditional Buddhist sense or as a metaphor for a habitual path in your life). That is, embracing your emotional reality includes knowing when it’s not useful to keep trying in the same direction when you’ve made repeated efforts and pain keeps accumulating—rather than signs of progress, as in the above study.

Part of personal growth includes that broader, wiser perspective of “when to hold; when to fold.” There’s a story in which the Dalai Lama was approached by a person who asked for guidance about whether he should continue in his same line of work, which he found to be very frustrating and difficult. Reportedly, the Dalai Lama listened to him and replied that if he could say that less than 50 percent of his work was overall rewarding, it would probably be better to seek something else that would be more fulfilling. A practical answer.

Interestingly, that concurs in an unexpected way with another study; very different, in that it looked at how optimism might affect people’s responses to stressful situations and overall wellbeing as they become older. Published in the Journal of Gerontology, this Boston University study found that more optimistic people appear to limit, turn away from, or shift how they interpret and deal with situations of stress or negativity. As the lead author Lewina Lee described, the research indicates that more optimistic people know when to turn away; when it’s not worth it to engage further. They know how to avoid the kinds of experiences that generate negative energy, and therefore pursue greater well-being.

That finding links with the first study about pursuing an uncomfortable situation or challenge. That is, the other half of “acceptance” is the capacity to let go and not engage with a situation—or people—when you realize that not doing so is unproductive, insufficiently fulfilling, or simply negative to one’s spirit. They are two sides of the same coin of personal growth—both fueled by internal awareness and a wise understanding of yourself within the larger context of your life situation.

Copyright 2022 Douglas LaBier

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