The Merit of Discomfort
Avoiding The Topic
I have been experiencing a lot of discomfort this month. Enough that I have found myself scrambling to tackle this article after weeks of avoidance. In fact, this is the third version of it, which in itself is something for me to ponder, and at minimum, I can say that I’m likely overthinking it.
As some of you know, I am not a fan of experiencing discomfort. And let me be clear, when I talk about discomfort, I am not talking about the trauma that comes from being oppressed, marginalized or abused, or even the discomfort or agony of physical pain. This author is no victim and there is nothing virtuous about me tackling this topic.
The events of the world have brought up a lot of discomfort for many of us lately, especially those like me who have white privilege. When George Floyd was killed, it catalyzed discussions about systemic racism (emphasis on systemic) and, like many people, I stopped to take a pause to start analyzing my role in the subjugation of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC).
For me, this has involved a deep dive into looking critically at my thought process and my past and present behaviours with a purchase of Layla Saad’s book, Me and White Supremacy, which is guiding this process. The book is a 28-day antiracism challenge, structured with chapters and reflective journalling prompts.
And I’m not going to be writing here about what I am learning because I don’t want to alter my approach to the journalling—I don’t want to self-examine for an audience. This work is personal and must be internalized. And, if you are thinking about undertaking this too, you have a right to your own experience and reflection—I wouldn’t want to influence yours with my experience.
So what is this article about?
I want to talk about discomfort in general and why it’s a good thing. I have wrestled internally with this—should I limit this discussion of discomfort to anti-racism work or talk about the broader benefits of discomfort? I decided on the latter because I am a student of antiracism, not an educator. If there are implications for antiracism work, I will leave that up to you to decide.
I emphasized above that I’m not talking about the emotional discomfort that comes from oppression, trauma or illness, but rather emotional discomfort that arises, for a myriad of reasons, but often when:
- We have hurt others
- We feel hurt or defensive
- We react with anger (external) or shame (internal)
- We have messed up
- We are experiencing consequences for our actions or have been called out for our actions
- We are facing parts of ourselves that we would rather not look at
Building Motivation and Purpose
Many of us—particularly those of us that have privilege, choice and options—would prefer to avoid discomfort. Why allow oneself to feel deliberately uncomfortable?
Bear with me….let’s look at some possible benefits for those of us that have the luxury of getting voluntarily uncomfortable.
We Learn Something
When discomfort arises, this is an opportunity to get curious. While it has taken me a long time to accept, because I still am partially in love with the idea of ease, I have become convinced that discomfort is an essential part of learning. If we do not encounter resistance, what will we learn? Since when does learning come easy?
We Become Better Listeners
Listening is underrated. When we get uncomfortable it’s common to become defensive and, instead of listening, we may withdraw within to think of what we are going to say next or react impulsively, often out of anger.
Instead, our discomfort can be a prompting to listen more deeply to what is being said. And if it hurts, is there truth in what is being said? Is there something that needs to be acknowledged? I am a big fan of using the Gottman Method in my work with couples. In it, psychologists John and Julie Gottman recommend taking responsibility as an antidote to defensiveness—a step that can make a big difference in our relationships.
We De-Centre Ourselves
Some of you know that I did not have a good childhood. And while it wasn’t all bad, there was a lot of pain, as well as consequences that I continue to deal with today. Many of us have trauma. Many of us have pain. Some of it is resolved, some of it is not. When we feel hurt or misunderstood, our first instinct can be to go back to this place. And when we’re triggered, we can really go back there.
But there may be another option: when we feel the emotional sting, can we feel it, recognize that we are triggered and take a step back? The more we understand our own pain, the more we can distinguish it from others’. If we’re stepping back to get perspective—and this often takes significant practice— there will also be a chance that we can see beyond the personal interactions to the larger issues at play.
We Take Personal Responsibility
Sometimes in the course of noticing and attending to our emotional discomfort, we recognize that there is more going on inside than we feel equipped to handle alone. Emotional pain can be a powerful catalyst for reaching out. Human beings are social beings and we all benefit from support. This then prompts the question, “What do I need to do to help myself with my pain?” For some, it’s counselling, others will seek out support from family (biological or found families), friends, or spiritual communities. Self care can have a significant role to play as well.
Taking charge of our wellbeing also has the potential to be there for others in ways that we could not have been before. When we are not consumed by our own pain, we have more to offer others.
We Listen To Our Bodies
I come from a long tradition of overriding my body’s signals. Over many years I learned to ignore what they were telling me and I have found myself in situations that could have been avoided if I had. In my journey with anxiety, over time, I have learned to hone in to body symptoms to help me understand just how anxious I am. And for me personally, it’s pretty fascinating stuff. Tension in my chest is pretty standard for me when my typical anxiety is presenting; sciatica and numbness in my face is not.
For me, it often works best when I focus on a combination of prevention and early intervention. Next time your body is giving you signals, I encourage you draw your attention to those places of discomfort and get familiar with them. Then, what are they trying to say? For example, if your heart is racing, you may want to slow down. If you feel sluggish, you may want to mobilize and get out for a walk. And, if you are truly concerned, please check out your concerns with a medical professional.
Antidote to Complacency
Without discomfort, there would be no motivation for change. Complacency is the enemy of change. Accepting discomfort as good, necessary and expected can be liberating and has helped me take the focus off of making myself feel better and instead toward things that are more actionable. And I’m going to make mistakes along the way, but if my discomfort can be the agent that catalyzes change, it has the potential to make change continuous and not a one-time event.
And I will admit, there is self-centredness inherent in this article. This is based on the notion that many of us won’t pursue personal growth and change unless we think it’s worth it for us. And that it itself is a privileged position. Many others don’t have this choice—systemic inequities keep the focus on survival, not personal growth.
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