Okay, I’m going to say this right up front: Not all discomfort is worth putting up with.
Sinking stomach; sweaty palms; hot cheeks; the hair prickling on the back of your neck. The anger you feel after someone cuts you off in traffic or the quickened pace of your heartbeat when you walk home alone at night. These feelings are your body’s way of telling you to be on alert. In certain circumstances, such as unsafe situations, it’s super important (and potentially life-saving) to listen and respond to these signals.
However, a lot of the time uncomfortable feelings stem from emotional triggers that belie deeper, entrenched patterns. Committing to the process of learning how to tolerate these uncomfortable feelings can give you an opportunity to unpack those deeper patterns. Getting to know what your discomfort is trying to tell you can reduce the risk that you’ll repeat behaviors and ways of thinking that keep you feeling stuck and frustrated. It can also help you develop deeper, more meaningful relationships, feel more confident and grounded in your decisions, and even lessen these uncomfortable feelings in the long run.
Why does this matter?
Because Black Lives Matter.
Whoaaa, okay, wait a second- Maybe you’re thinking, how did this get political all of a sudden? And how is this relevant?
Let’s talk about racism. My first experience with being “accidentally racist” was when I was in fourth grade. Our class watched “To Kill a Mockingbird” and a White classmate repeated the n-word after a character in the film had said it. I then repeated what he had said. Of course, the teacher only heard me, and I was the one who got in trouble. “Wha!! Not fair! He said it first- and I don’t even know what it means!” cried my little fourth grade brain. My teacher turned off the movie and shouted at me in front of the whole class. I felt humiliated. She didn’t really teach me directly about the dehumanizing legacy and impact of racism. I learned that saying the n-word would get me into major trouble, but I really didn’t understand why.
Now, I don’t think being “accidentally” racist gets anyone off the hook. Marginalized folks don’t owe me anything to placate my embarrassment when I let my unconscious White supremacy show. Likewise, there is also no reason for me to crumble when I get called out. Like all of us, I am a piece of a larger system that privileges White male able bodies over (and at the expense of) everyone else. While this is not my fault, I am responsible for the ways I benefit from it. And yes, I’m still responsible for my ignorance.
So what does this have to do with getting uncomfortable? Well, have you ever been afraid that what you have said is racist? Sexist? Ableist? Offensive in any way? You know that feeling you get when you speak without thinking and someone kinda takes it the wrong way? Maybe your stomach drops, your face gets red, you can’t think clearly. You feel the need to fight, flee, freeze, or appease the other person just to make that feeling go away. Or maybe you didn’t even say or do anything– maybe a judgmental thought just flashed through your mind. Maybe someone told you “Hey what you said is kinda racist” and you felt shocked, because you work so hard to follow all the rules and not “be racist” so it’s impossible and they’re just being sensitive.
Maybe you’ve said, “Oh! I didn’t mean it like that!”
And you know what? You probably really didn’t mean it like that. It probably never crossed your mind that you might be perpetuating something culturally entrenched. But the truth is, this country was built on the backs of Black and Brown people for centuries. And today, the prison system is a system of labor that disproportionally impacts Black lives, police violence is targeted toward Black folks more than White folks, schools are not equally funded and resourced, and implicit bias is blindly accepted as part of the “order of things.”
You are not personally responsible for the actions of your ancestors. But you do have a responsibility to clean up their messes. You are not personally responsible for creating systems of racism and oppression, but you participate in this system no matter how much you wish otherwise.
So this is where we get to start the process of learning to tolerate discomfort. How do we do that?
Step 1: Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling.
Don’t try and push it away. Whatever it is you’re feeling, feel it. It might be scary or uncomfortable. You might feel angry. You might feel overwhelmed and sad. You know what? Oppression is fucking frustrating and upsetting. It makes sense that you would feel these things.
Here is a meditation I like to use with clients when they are feeling overwhelmed:
Repeat 10 times:
“Even though I feel (ashamed, sad, scared, overwhelmed, no good, like I might have racist thoughts, etc), I fully and completely love and accept myself.”
It might feel really silly to say this the first 50 times. But in the process of saying it to yourself, you give yourself permission to be silly, and to remind yourself that it is okay and necessary to have feelings, these feelings are meaningful, and they eventually will pass and you are going to be okay enough again to continue to work on it.
Step 2: Talk to someone.
One of the things that systemic oppression reeeally doesn’t want you to do is to talk about it. In fact, it would rather you look away at that shiny object over there. Squirrel!!
But looking at it and talking about it even when it hurts- even if you think you might be racist, even if you think you might be sexist or homophobic or afraid in some way of the “other” (or even of a group you identify with- that’s called internalized oppression), talk about it. Because really, why wouldn’t you be racist or sexist or classist or whatever in a system that is basically set up to condition all of us to be those very things? That doesn’t mean you agree with it or consent to it, and it doesn’t mean you don’t work to change it in yourself and in the world. In talking about it, you might actually discover that other people feel similarly and are willing to be vulnerable with you.
One caveat: If you are in the dominant group, don’t talk to folks from non-dominant groups about how much you hate your privilege or how guilty you feel. Some examples: Don’t talk to People of Color about your racism, or women about your sexism, or trans* folks about your gender stereotypes unless you identify in these specific groups. Marginalized folks aren’t there to make you feel better about your inner struggle, and would probably rather talk to you about sports or food or Taylor Swift.
Step 3: Understand your own intersecting oppressions, privileges, and vulnerabilities.
Queer. White. Poor. Mental illness. Able-bodied. Chemical sensitivities. Domestic violence. Educated. These descriptors could all live within the same person. Some of these are privileges in our culture, and some are not. We all have intersecting privileges and oppressions, and being “one-down” in one area does not erase being “one-up” in another. Get to know where you feel limited and where you have privilege, and notice how these parts of yourself show up in relationships with others and inside yourself.
Step 4: Remind yourself that you are a product of an oppressive society.
What I really mean by this is have compassion for yourself. If you are feeling ashamed, guilty, stuck, upset, frustrated, embarrassed, angry, or just like you want to forget you even started thinking about all this stuff, take a deep breath, and offer yourself gratitude for doing the work of recognizing something that desperately wants to remain buried. We are not supposed to be talking about this, but it’s the only way we can begin to humanize ourselves. Speaking as a White person to White folk: We are the ones who benefit from this system that dehumanizes anyone who is not deemed to be in the ruling class. In doing so, we dehumanize ourselves. Bringing compassion to the struggle can help remind you that you are human, with flaws, joys, and problems, and so is everyone else on the planet.
You cannot give water from an empty well, so make a habit of focusing on self-care and self-kindness. Take naps. Get back rubs, if that’s your thing. Talk to friends about topics other than race and oppression. Go for hikes or get outside in whatever way works for your body. Let someone else cook for you. Watch movies and read books. Snuggle with animals. Set aside a time each day to focus on you. You are the only tool you have to work with, so make sure to take very good care of yourself.
It really is possible- and, I’d argue, necessary- to learn to get used to being uncomfortable. You’re not alone in this journey. If you’re a White person looking for deeper community and more support around learning how to talk about oppression, here are a few options: