Pearls Amidst Discomfort

At the risk of no one reading beyond the second sentence, I have intriguing news for you. Your desire to be “comfortable” may hold you back from personal growth. Ouch. Keep reading.

Researchers Kaitlin Woolley (Marketing Professor, Cornell University) and Ayelet Fishbach (Managerial Psychology Professor, University of Chicago) engaged 2100 individuals in experiments of personal growth. Their “growth” topics included improv classes, journaling about emotions, COVID-19 learning, gun violence, and political opposition among folks.

While addressing their assigned topic, some individuals were instructed that their goal was to “feel uncomfortable” (perhaps awkward, nervous, anxious, or even upset). Furthermore, these participants were told to push past their comfort zone and embrace uncomfortable feelings as a signal that the activity was “working.” The control group received no instructions other than to focus on learning about their topic.

Fascinating results included that those told to accept discomfort were the more engaged participants! They displayed more motivation and believed they achieved more in their learning. They took in information from news sources that they would not otherwise read (either the New York Times or Fox News). Improv participants took more risks in performing on stage, while those in the journaling topic wrote more emotional diary entries.

Woolley and Fishbach concluded, “People should seek the discomfort inherent in growth as a sign of progress instead of avoiding it.” After years as a family therapist in private practice, I can vouch for hard-won benefits of working through discomfort – from giving birth to coping with grieving.

Consider research results on expressive writing with 50 senior engineers (average age of 52) who were laid off from a large computer company with no forewarning. Most had worked for their company for 30 years. Months later when the engineers had not found new employment, they were feeling bitter. Of those who were asked to write their deepest thoughts and emotions (for 30 minutes a day for 5 consecutive days) about being laid off , 27% of them landed new jobs within 3 months!

Less than 5 % of those in no-writing or time-management control groups found a job. And guess what…all participants went on the same number of job interviews!

Engineers’ emotional writing made a difference in addressing underlying hostility toward their former employer. As additional benefits, psychologist James Pennebaker and colleagues found that mindful writing had positive health effects; fewer stress-related visits to a physician, improved immune system functioning, reduced blood pressure, improved lung and liver functioning, fewer days spent in a hospital, improved mood, and a feeling of greater psychological wellbeing were results of the engineers’ heart-felt writing.

Remember that pearls are born from dubious details: an irritant– even a contrary food particle–becomes trapped in the parent mollusk’s shell. Irritation is apparent everywhere in our culture today. Our task is to name our discomfort and grow from it. Changes in life are fertilizer for new dreams.

Pearls of Peace (PoP) Quiz

163. What irritates you today?

164. How might you grow from any discomfort in your life?   

By Janis Johnston

Janis Clark Johnston, Ed.D., has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. She has worked with children, families, and groups (ages 3-83) with presenting issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and relationship concerns. She initially worked as a school psychologist in public schools and was awarded School Psychology Practitioner of the Year for Region 1 in Illinois for her innovative work. She was a supervising psychologist at a mental health center, an employee-assistance therapist and a trainer for agencies prior to having a family therapy private practice. Recipient of the 2011 Founder’s Award for her dedication to the parenting education of Parenthesis Family Center (now called New Moms), and the 2002 Community Spirit Award from Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence shelter and education center, Johnston is an active participant in numerous volunteer activities supporting children and families in her community. A frequent presenter at national psychology and educational conferences, Johnston has published journal articles, book chapters, and two books -- It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Parent Development (2013, hardback; 2019, paperback) and Midlife Maze: A Map to Recovery and Rediscovery after Loss (2017, hardback; 2019, paperback). In addition to augmenting and supporting personal growth in families, Johnston is a Master Gardener and loves nurturing growth in the plants in her yard.


  1. Totally identify with discomfort being helpful to growth and engagement from my experience with retirement. After 18 months of study on molecular biology, travel, fun local culture and grandparenting, I jumped into advocacy on nuclear disarmament which involved lobbying and meetings which were uncomfortable. (And now being on a board.)


  2. Thank you for naming and sharing your discomfort. This is not easy territory. Some days the discomfort in life mounts up and you need to regroup. I have found that “retirement” works best when I can “rewire” both my personality and skillset. It is a work in progress every blooming day.

    I applaud your efforts to search for purpose and meaning. What could be more meaningful than working toward a safe planet?


  3. Jan, I find your words today greatly supportive and resonating down to those deep places inside me. Here’s what got touch in me:

    As my husband was reading a book about Poland, where my ancestors came from, he shared what I did know about the Nazis exterminating about 3 million Jews in Poland; but now he was teaching me to my amazement the Nazis also exterminated about 2,500 million non Jewish Poles (my group) in concentration camps, believing they too ethnically had to be totally cleansed out along with the Jews. This was part of the Nazi 25 year plan that included building over 100 more extermination camps in Poland. Hearing this, I wondered about my Polish relatives left behind, so I search for my family surnames on an Internet site having all Nazi records. To my shock I not only found my family names, but they were from the same location as my ancestors. I discovered 21 people, some women and children, with my family name, same area, who died in concentration camps. I found another 7 and then another 5 and so on. I found relatives who were part of the millions of non Jewish Polish people in work camps. I learned non Jewish Polish children, who looked Arian, were stolen and taken to Germany (no differently than what Russia is doing with Ukraine children now), along with women taken for German solders to impregnate to replace future dead solders. I always have had great compassion for any ethnic group experiencing discrimination and killing, but now understood for the first time that my relatives and I had been a part of one too. I was shocked. I was in pain. I shared this with my extended non Polish family, who often stresses peace and love, but likes to avoid discomfort by detouring from negative topics. I never heard from them. I honestly didn’t expect this on such a profound topic, so I wrote them explaining their silence left me feeling deeply hurt and invisible to them.

    Here are several words my wonderful husband, Wood Weller, wrote to his siblings in response to their silence and seeking comfort, ” When good people share the tragedies and the victories, the world is better and understanding grows outward.”

    Then he said, “The manure of human suffering (and we all know there is a shit-ton going on ) gets created (necessarily or unnecessarily) and we come into contact with it as part of a shared humanity; and sometimes we are able to Love it away and sometimes not. Sometimes we just can hold each other, in the manure, and hope it will somehow become fertilizer for a better world to come. Since we don’t know from what ‘quarter’ it may come, we can only live boldly and love fiercely, while doing our best to shovel the shit encountered !”

    What more can I say? He said it so well! So I won the lottery having my ancestors immigrate here, and I have an extraordinary husband who is fully committed to loving and growing together in the most meaningful ways ever. We make a lot of fertilizer!
    Melanie Weller


  4. Your comments are poignant about your Polish relatives (and their Jewish neighbors) who were not only in discomfort, but in terror for their very survival. The inhumanity of people often stems from unprocessed fears. I am deeply saddened to hear your ancestor Holocaust legacy. Yes, all of us must embrace changes as fertilizer for new dreams.


  5. Yep, this rings true.

    An encouragement to practice my ukulele, go to that lecture, take the class I’ve been thinking about.

    Thanks, Jan!



Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: