Discomfort is Your Dearest Ally
But the hardest to befriend.
Americans aren’t very good at being uncomfortable.
In fact, it seems like we’ll do just about anything to avoid it. (And I’m sure folks in other countries struggle too, but can we really argue that America is having a crisis right now?) Investigating our feelings, being present while someone else expresses an intense emotion, having difficult conversations, making phone calls — being deeply uncomfortable without panicking just isn’t in our collective wheelhouse. And it’s not just a “youth” thing, or a millenial thing; older generations have just as much trouble but in different ways, if the unkind things I hear mumbled loud enough for cashiers to hear in long lines at the Post Office (or the bank, or pretty much anywhere else) are any indication.
To be sure, there are many forms of discomfort that arise from mental health challenges like anxiety and PTSD, and still more forms of executive dysfunction that are often mistaken for avoidance (or laziness) in depression and neurodivergence. I’m not talking about these, although it’s certainly possible for any of us with mental health challenges to work on building our tolerance to discomfort.
The kind of discomfort I’m really talking about is the day-to-day kind, the setting-boundaries kind, the kind that bubbles up when our feelings or someone else’s feelings are suddenly larger and more present than we anticipated. A shining example is our struggle to manage our feelings when we talk about -isms. White people discussing racism, or men discussing sexism? There’s a reason that those discourses need to include conversations around white fragility and fragile masculinity, because we truly don’t know how to sit with the discomfort in the realization that 1) we’ve been trained to be entitled and 2) that our entitlement has contributed to irreparable harm. So we make excuses, we shove off accountability, we call people “snowflakes.”
Sometimes, it’s less about the discomfort of realizing we’re complicit in harm than in the discomfort of realizing that if the structures that give us a way to understand our lives and our place in the world — like racial hierarchies, a strict gender binary, and the idea that “working hard” is how you get “rich” — are challenged and dismantled, we’ll have no idea who we are, or how we fit. We won’t know how to navigate the world if what we understand to be true — deeply, inherently true — is challenged. We can’t handle more than one truth at a time. So instead, we elect a government that will reinforce hierarchies, because that feels safer to the inner child that never grew up past the age of authority. We build walls, and we hold innocent people hostage to do it.
The same is true for many of us when a friend is going through a difficult time. I see lots of memes passed around, particularly in the winter time, that ask friends with depression to “reach out” for help, as if that’s not exactly one of the deepest challenges depression gives us. We regularly put the onus on the person having the challenge to do the work of getting help, instead of responding reflexively of our own accord. Then, what happens when folks with depression do reach out? Are we capable of holding the terrible beast of depression with them, or do we awkwardly sit by, not knowing what to say or do, wasting the risk that they took in asking in the first place? Do we minimize their experiences because the discomfort of sitting with those feelings and experiences is too great for us to manage?
Because that’s often what happens when someone who is struggling does reach out. They’re met with that intolerable discomfort, and then they have to either put their emotions away or turn around and comfort us, so that our discomfort doesn’t take command of the room. This is a major reason why some folks never reach out in the first place: we realize that other people can’t manage it, but we internalize it to believe that we’re the burdens, not that their inability to manage their own discomfort is the real issue.
Our inability to manage discomfort is making us more isolated.
For many of us, especially women, we’re not taught how to build healthy boundaries, so our discomfort gets bulldozed by a society hellbent on ignoring our needs and the kind of labor that goes into being a woman. If we ask for what we need, we’re often given a litany of labels that many of us will do anything to avoid — like “needy” (as though anyone doesn’t have needs), or “bitch” (because society seems to think women shouldn’t have any boundaries at all). If we say, “What you’re doing is making me uncomfortable” to a man, we risk receiving a righteous tantrum, or worse, actual physical threats.
And this isn’t because men are inherently anymore dangerous or stupid or unkind than any other gender: it’s because men haven’t been socialized to tolerate their own discomfort in thousands of years. The discomfort of rejection, the discomfort of being challenged, the discomfort of being told “no” — these are discomforts that men are only now being expected to answer for in adult ways across Western society. It’s not going well, but I have hope.
Likewise, we white folks haven’t had to tolerate racial discomfort. Our ancestors manufactured a society that places whiteness at the top of the hierarchy, and we’ve done it so smoothly and effectively that we really believe that a single black president in 300 years is enough to dust our hands of the threat of racism. We believe in “niceness,” in “separate but equal,” in “colorblindness,” because these are ways to resist the discomfort of the toll that white supremacy has actually taken.
The tolerance of discomfort thrives in either-or thinking: all good or all bad, this or that, he said, she said, no room for middle ground. This is the kind of thinking that toddlers are capable of and as children age, they’re able (with the right modeling) to tolerate the fact that different truths exist at the same time. They’re able to develop an ability to manage the discomfort of gray areas, and from there, build an ability to morally determine what’s right or wrong. In America, we like to divide ourselves amongst political lines and be told what the wrong side is doing wrong, rather than investigating for ourselves or utilizing empathy to see that humans are humans are humans. We let racism inform our understanding of what groups with differently-colored skin want or don’t want, as if they are not the very same as ourselves. You see, it’s too uncomfortable to imagine that folks coming across our border may be seeking refuge; it’s easier to imagine that an absurdly inefficient governmental system of access is the simple, easy fix to immigration. We convince ourselves that “they” have different needs and aspirations than we do, that they want to cheat and steal by the nature of where they come from or what they look like. So we therefore can put aside that icky empathy thing causing the dissonance and discomfort, and feel satisfied that there’s a system in place to manage human suffering. We wash our hands of it.
America is a nation of emotional toddlers. And one needs to look no further than our president to see so.
My suspicion is that this is also the reason that many of my fellow white New Agers move from spiritual trend to spiritual trend, thirsty for the thing that will give their lives the exact stability and meaning they’re hoping for. Yoga one day, Buddhism the next, shamanic drumming the third. The intolerable discomfort of aditting on a visceral level that we as white people have no culture and therefore no inherent spiritual meaning is one serious ouch. It’s a well of untapped grief, generations old. It’s also really hard to make meaning and sense of a world in utter chaos, to make sense of the kinds of suffering we see caused by uncontrolled corporate greed and expansion, not only upon people but upon the environment. So we scrabble for Truth, here, there, everywhere. We find it impossible to sit in the discomfort of reality.
Why It Matters
Let me be clear: the goal isn’t to enjoy discomfort. Some people have a higher tolerance for pyschological discomfort, but overall, it’s not necessarily a healthy thing to enjoy the kind of tension that comes with crossed boundaries or other challenges in communication, at least when mutual consent has not been secured.
The goal is to be present with it enough not to immediately go into avoidance mode, to develop patience with the feeling, and to stay aware of our bodies and thoughts so that we can keep communicating during the discomfort. This skill will serve us in every imaginable way: when a loved ones needs to share difficult information, when we’re confronted with having hurt someone, while we’re negotiating higher pay, when we’re learning a new lover, when we need to say “no,” and certainly, this skill is critical for anyone doing spiritual work, or social equity work.
Do a self evaluation: how do you feel when someone tells you that something you’ve done hurt them? Do you shut down, give a robotic apology and move on? Do you deny it outright, or try to find a reason that the other person is just as at fault? Can you tell someone asking a favor “no,” simply because you don’t feel like doing the thing they’re asking? How does it feel to ask for help?
Making an ally out of discomfort is a critical component to having healthy boundaries for two reasons: we need to be able to know our “no,” and we need to be able to hear other people’s “no”s. Stretching into discomfort is also a critical component to receptive listening and integrating information, like that asked of any ally/accomplice when expected to acknowledge or address their privilege.
Where to Start
We are always capable of learning new emotional skills and changing ingrained behavioral patterns. It’s not easy or quick, but it’s totally possible. In the mental health sphere, this particular skill might be called “distress tolerance,” or one’s ability to manage one’s discomfort or stress. Our distress tolerances, like almost all of our emotional skills, are a combination of nature and nurture: we are born with certain predispositions, and those are shaped by our environment as we develop throughout childhood.
Mindfulness is the key skill to develop to increase our ability to tolerate distress or discomfort. There are a wide variety of mindfulness techniques and you have to try a few different ones to see which ones works best for you. Learning to be present in the moment allows us to become aware of, and accepting of, whatever current state we happen to be in. Learning to be mindful — while we’re disappointed, tired, angry, excited, and anxious, not just while we’re feeling good or mellow — tells us information about where the discomfort shows up in our bodies. Learning to be mindful also allows our minds to recognize that discomfort is not life-threatening, and will end shortly, rather then letting our brains send us 10-alarm “get out of here or we’ll die of awkwardness” signals.
Once we can be present in the discomfort, letting it fill the empty space around us, we can work with it. We can take charge of our responses to and thoughts about it. We can come to the table, so to speak, rather than turning away from it. We can learn to approach a multitude of communication challenges with a renewed sense of willingness and confidence. We can receive constructive criticism and build far better boundaries.
The good news — the very, very good news — is that once it becomes muscle memory, tolerating discomfort gets easier and easier. All it takes is a little commitment to building new habits, and practice.
For me, this work around discomfort and boundaries is critical work for the spiritual community. Whether we identify as witch, shaman, volva, or any other kind of healer or teacher, we owe it to those in our communities to be able to tolerate the discomfort of intense emotions, experiences, and belief systems.
We owe it to our communities to do the hard psychological work of learning about our own painful places so that we do not project them onto others — or take on someone else’s emotional baggage. If you identify as an empath, work around boundaries and discomfort is non-negotiable in order to avoid incurring or delivering unecessary harm.
- Please do not try to treat your own mental illness or self-diagnose: find a therapist (a psychologist, counselor, or clinical social worker) that you jive with and do that work in the safety of the therapeutic relationship. Don’t ever settle for a shit therapist, either; keep looking until you find the right one.
- I always recommend trying therapy (and not giving up on therapists until you find a good match) but there are plenty of great free resources online for mindfulness and distress tolerance. Many will be under the umbrella of “Dialectical Behavioral Therapy,” as this style of therapy focuses on increasing distress tolerance and therefore emotional resilience for people who struggle with boundaries.
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