Uneasy, awkward, disquieting… while there are plenty of definitions and synonyms for “uncomfortable” there isn’t really a hard line of what’s uncomfortable vs what is painful, especially when you’re talking about emotional responses. For every person this varies, but the one constant I could find — in the research and in personal discussions — is that being uncomfortable isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In the Summer 2018 Harvard Journal of Bioethics, Elizabeth Siliski, the issue editor, wrote about the power of embracing discomfort. Quote:
Dr. Henry Knowles Beecher was a physician at Mass General in the 1960s who is credited as one of the founders of the field of bioethics. His investigations helped develop national research standards. Beecher’s conscience warned him that there was something wrong going on in the research world. By embracing the uncomfortable feeling, he inspired change. Beecher’s recognition of morality required paying careful attention to and analysis of these uncomfortable feelings of conscience. By methodically analyzing ethical discrepancies in practice, Beecher did empirical research that focused attention on the ethics of clinical research. Publication of his findings led to change. His empirical work demanded change.
It’s more than just historical experience, however, that tells us exploring or embracing uncomfortable feelings could be a good thing. As Luvvie Ajayi (Loo-vee Ay-Jay-E), who calls herself a professional troublemaker, put it in her TEDWomen talk in 2017, quote:
People and systems count on our silence to keep us exactly where we are. Now, being the domino sometimes comes down to being exactly who you are. So, I’ve been a shady somebody since I was three. When it’s time to say these hard things, I ask myself three things. One: Did you mean it? Two: Can you defend it? Three: Did you say it with love? If the answer is yes to all three, I say it and let the chips fall. That’s important. That checkpoint with myself always tells me, “Yes, you’re supposed to do this.” Telling the truth — telling thoughtful truths — should not be a revolutionary act. Speaking truths to power should not be sacrificial, but they are. But I think if more of us chose to do this for the greater good, we’d be in better spaces than we are right now.
So that feeling of being not quite comfortable or disquieted where you are may be an indication of not something to avoid, but something to lean in to.