The importance of discomfort for character growth

Mrs Jody Forbes, School Psychologist and Student Counselling Coordinator

The responsibility of growing adults is not for the fainthearted. While there will be times of pure joy, there also promises to be moments of sheer terror or despair. Nonetheless, it is a responsibility that our School embraces steadfastly, for we know that to be a successful adult one must be rich in both knowledge and character. Developing and educating girls so that they contribute to their world with wisdom, imagination and integrity is a challenging task. Furthermore, while the environment and opportunities may be ripe with promoting them, these values cannot simply be handed over to a teenager by a parent or teacher. Nor can they be gained without experiencing some discomfort. As with most worthy gains, wisdom, imagination and integrity can only be attained alongside patience, courage and frustration. Increasingly, however, the ability to endure discomfort seems to be waning. The impact this may have on the character development of our future adults raises concern. As educators and parents, we must encourage our Grammar girls to step outside of their comfort zones. For it is only by doing this, and developing her capacity to tolerate discomfort, that a girl will be able to develop her wisdom, imagination and integrity.

This process proves challenging for our current Grammar girls as they are expected to navigate character formation while embedded in an atmosphere of instant gratification. Technology provides just about anything an adolescent girl could desire instantly and effortlessly, whether it be information, entertainment or connection. The minute a teenage girl is bored she is able to be entertained at the touch of a button. When feeling insecure or lonely, she can post a selfie to Instagram and be immediately lavished in compliments from her peers. While the benefits of this seem obvious, we must remain cognisant of the drawbacks of the ‘instant gratification generation’. Instant gratification can rob a girl of the opportunity to experience unpleasant, but nonetheless important emotions, such as boredom, confusion or impatience. If boredom or loneliness can be alleviated immediately, then it is not surprising that a girl expects frustration, anxiety and sadness to be assuaged just as quickly. Yet these emotions are a part of normal human existence. In fact, two-thirds of the six classic human emotions recognised by experts (happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger and disgust), are unpleasant or negative (Ekman, Friesen, & Ellsworth, 1972). Thus, negative feelings are not only vital to character formation but are impossible to avoid.

The ‘Kardashian effect’— the notion that recognition and success can be earned instantly and effortlessly — is increasingly promoted by technology and popular culture. While wisdom was once patiently sought by spending hours trawling through the pages of an encyclopaedia, a recent study of over six million internet users reported that two seconds was the maximum length of time people were willing to wait for a video to load (Krishnan & Sitaraman, 2012). Thus, adolescents can start to believe that wisdom and accomplishment should come quickly and with minimal effort. Moreover, given the advances of the twenty-first century, many argue that patience is no longer a virtue, but avoiding impatience can have deleterious effects on a girls’ capacity to achieve. In reality, success is rarely gained without experiencing a wide array of unpleasant feelings, including impatience, frustration and confusion. In fact, substantial research supports this and demonstrates that in regards to success, it is not enough to be smart or talented. Psychology Professor, Angela Duckworth, champions the development of ‘grit’, which she explains is the capacity to identify a goal and steadfastly work towards it with persistence and tenacity. Duckworth’s research has shown that grit, rather than talent or ability, predicts achievement (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews & Kelly, 2007). So how do we assist the adolescents of the instant gratification generation to navigate the juxtaposition of instant gratification and grit? Duckworth (2014) advises parents and educators that:

Children need to be taught to appreciate that they’re supposed to suffer when working hard on a challenge that exceeds their skill. They’re supposed to feel confused. Frustration is probably a sign that they’re on the right track and need to gut it out through the natural human aversion to mental effort and feeling overwhelmed so they can evolve.

Grammar girls are taught about persistence and mindset from their arrival in Year 7. So too are students given permission to make mistakes and fail. By removing the expectation of perfection, we encourage girls to take risks in their learning, for we know that this is the pathway to developing wisdom. Exceptional learning has never been defined as high achievement, rather it is the capacity to engage in the (mostly) messy wrestle between not knowing and knowing; to doggedly keep at it, whether you are the teacher or the student, while exploring multiple pathways to obtaining understanding. For a girl to engage in exceptional learning she will need to possess the capacity to endure fear and uncertainty and she must not dread mistakes or disappointment. While it can be very hard for a teacher or parent to witness a girl struggle, it is important that we avoid rescuing her. In some situations, it is very easy and tempting to remove the stressor facing a student or readily offer a solution. However, we must resist this as it is important for students to struggle, feel fearful, bear making a mistake or feel disappointed. We also need to remind girls that this struggle is normal and important and not to be avoided. For once they start to avoid the discomfort associated with learning, the learning stops.

Instant gratification also inhibits the development of integrity. When a person can’t tolerate a difficult feeling then they have a tendency to go to great lengths to avoid it. How can one develop integrity if they cannot tolerate fear or awkwardness? Acting with integrity involves living with honesty and fairness. It can require courage as often one has to go against the grain and make the right choice, rather than the popular one. Whilst intellectually many of our girls understand integrity, emotionally they are often unable to bear the fear or awkwardness felt when engaging with it. In fact, awkwardness seems to have become like kryptonite for the adolescent girl. I have heard hundreds of girls say they couldn’t possibly speak to a teacher, confront a peer, or share feelings with their parent as it would be ‘too awkward’. ‘So what?’ I usually reply. ‘Awkwardness is a feeling, it’s normal and it won’t last’. The irony is that like anxiety, awkwardness is usually only reduced once it is accepted, tolerated and enacted upon. Rather than seeking emotional instant gratification by avoiding awkwardness, girls need to be encouraged to accept this discomfort as normal. Here, parents can provide assistance by normalising their daughter’s feelings and encouraging them to acknowledge, label and work alongside discomfort, rather than trying to escape it.

In their book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener (2014) suggest that guilt, self-doubt and anxiety are all beneficial to becoming a better person. They advise we learn to accept and sit with dark emotions as the tendency to seek comfort and avoid discomfort can leave us psychologically weak. Now this is not to suggest that all feelings must be accepted and tolerated. In situations of mental illness such as depression or panic, further assistance and input is required. However, we do need to rid adolescents of the notion that life is supposed to be about always feeling good. Situations where a student acts in poor judgement often provokes rich learning experiences. It can be necessary for a teacher or parent to go through the motions of being ‘bad cop’, to create an opportunity for a girl to feel anxious and stew in her guilt or remorse, in order to come out of that a better version of herself. These are often challenging times, not just for the student, but also her parent. Being too quick to rescue, defend or deflect in this situation can mean missing a wonderful opportunity for character growth. It can help to remember the pivotal moments of our own adolescence and how some of the most difficult times, the biggest mistakes and major trouble at home or at school, were often the greatest moments of our moral development.

What does not help our Grammar girls is when we as parents or educators, are also not able to bear unpleasant feelings ourselves. We are all tempted by instant gratification and avoidance of distress and we can be too quick to defend, rescue or comfort our girls. While teaching adolescent girls how to feel discomfort, perhaps we first need to teach it to ourselves. Watching our child struggle, face the natural consequence of her behaviour, or miss out on something can be incredibly hard. However, we must remember that together we are growing adults and we want these adults to be rich in character and intellect. As we lay the foundation for our Grammar girls to become Grammar women, who contribute to their world with wisdom, integrity and imagination, we must develop our own capacity to bear discomfort. For this will enable us to allow and encourage our girls of the instant gratification generation, to experience rich moments of learning, no matter how hard it is for us to witness.


Duckworth, A. (2014) in Del Giudice, M. (2014) Grit Trumps Talent and IQ: A Story Every Parent (and Educator) Should Read. National Geographic. Retrieved 26th June 2017, from

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  92: 6, 1087–1101

Ekman, P, Friesen, W, & Ellsworth. P. (1972). Emotion in the human face: Guidelines for research and an integration of findings. New York: Pergamon Press.

Kashdan, T., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self- not just your “good” self- drives success and fulfilment. New York: Hudson Street Press:

Krishnan, S., & Sitaraman, R (2012) Video Stream Quality Impacts Viewer Behavior: Inferring Causality using Quasi-Experimental Designs. Proceedings of the ACM Internet Measurement Conference (IMC), Boston, MA, Nov 2012. Retrieved 26th June 2017, from