- How to figure out whether feeling uncomfortable is safe or not safe
- What to do when discomfort as a warning sign
- Ways to embrace healthy levels of discomfort
A lot of us experience discomfort and anxiety when it comes to difficult conversations. That’s important to name.
It’s also important to recognize that being willing to feel uncomfortable for the sake of building relationships is an incredibly useful skill to develop.
When we are willing to embrace a little discomfort for each other, we make space for healthy conflict and disagreement in our community. We make space for conflict transformation.
A wise professor at my alma mater used to say, “If you’re not awkward, you’re not growing.” Discomfort can be a sign that we are doing something right. Discomfort can be a sign of cognitive dissonance, meaning that we gain information that messes with our structure of meaning and creates tension within us. This tension might not feel great, but it is often the sign of an expanding heart and mind.
Discomfort can be a sign that we are doing something right.
If we are willing to feel uncomfortable, even just a little, we get to practice new and better skills of listening and speaking. We get to learn and stretch.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we put ourselves in unsafe situations or give up our voice. Boundaries are still important. But it can be hard to know where the boundaries should be.
Sometimes the act of talking about tough things just gets us physically worked up, and it feels like unsafety. For example, let’s say someone at work always bullies me whenever I talked about the environment. Talking about this particular issue always causes nasty run-ins. Later on, when I talk to a different person about the environment, it’s likely that my fight-or-flight response might kick in because I associate the topic with hostility and therefore, panic. However, in this case, I am aware enough to understand that this is not my coworker I am speaking with; this is a totally different person and a different situation. The sense of agitation I feel is real, but is it something I need to act on?
So the challenge is not “how can I stop feeling uncomfortable,” but, “what’s the source of the discomfort I feel and what information is my mindbody giving me? Do I need to set a boundary to protect myself, or can I sit with this?”
3 Questions to ask yourself when you feel uncomfortable
Discomfort isn’t itself a category of emotion; it can be tied to a lot of different factors. Sometimes it can be hard to figure out if feeling uncomfortable is just plain old awkwardness and being new at something, or whether it’s actually a warning sign we should heed.
Here are three questions to ask yourself when you feel uncomfortable in difficult conversations.
1. Am I safe or in danger?
First ask yourself, “Am I safe or in danger?” Sometimes we feel like we are unsafe, physically or emotionally, and we might start to feel like we are losing control.
There are two reasons for feeling unsafe during a difficult conversation: we feel unsafe and are NOT safe, or we feel unsafe but actually ARE safe.
In both cases, our “self-protection system” (our fight or flight response) might kick in. Each of us has a self-protection system that gives us important information about our surroundings. While it’s important to listen to those signals, we don’t always have to respond to them.
Like in the example above, where a coworker was bullying me, I feel afraid and worked up any time that particular topic of conversation arises. But in this case, I understand on a deeper level that I don’t need to fight or flee, I’m not in actual danger.
The rule of thumb is not what anyone else is doing, but how in-control of ourselves we feel:
Sometimes, we ARE safe, but our self-protection system starts to misfire. We feel that prickly feeling of getting worked up. While we actually aren’t in any danger in the present situation, we feel like we are based on past experiences. There are times when we feel an urge to throw our fists up or run away, especially if we have experienced trauma in the past. However, if we understand on a deeper level that we are still firmly in control of our mindbody, if we are in a rational enough state to understand our self-protection system might be giving faulty threat signals, then the level of discomfort we feel is actually okay. We might try some internal grounding exercises to bring ourselves back to a state of calm. We will tell ourselves things like, “I’m ok. I’m safe. I’m the only person who has control of me. Take a breath.” This can help us come back to the reality of the situation: this doesn’t feel great, but I’m not in harm’s way.
Other times, if we are NOT safe, we might feel a trauma reaction begin—that sickening bubble of panic, rational or irrational, as if we are spiraling out of control—it’s time to take care of ourselves. If we feel we are losing our center and we can’t talk ourselves down, whether we understand why our mindbody is reacting this way or not, it’s time to step back. Sometimes the person we are talking to is actually a dangerous person for us to be around; other times our bodies are just taking over and working in overdrive to protect us based on past traumas but it’s inhibiting our ability to interact with others. We don’t have to understand the difference in the moment; all we have to know is that if we feel like we are losing control of ourselves, the healthiest thing to do is step back and set a boundary. It’s perfectly okay to say “I am feeling overwhelmed and I need to take a break,” or “I’ve reached my limit for how much I can engage this. Let’s plan to revisit in the future.”
Bottom line: as long as you are certain you are still in control, that no one can make you feel a certain way or believe a certain thing against your will, it’s okay to sit with the discomfort you experience.
2. Am I being stretched or threatened?
Assuming we are safe, the second question we can ask is: “Am I being stretched or threatened?”
Being stretched by entertaining new ideas, cultures, or beliefs that we don’t agree with is an awesome endeavor. It’s one of the best things about engaging in difficult conversations. As long as no one is controlling us or forcing us to change our beliefs, there is generally no harm in just weighing an unfamiliar idea and testing its merits. While no one should advocate emotional danger, consider that conversations can become much more fruitful when we are willing to let ourselves stretch. It might feel awkward, but stretching is good for our ideas and relationships.
However, if foul play might be at work—if domination is at work and you are under emotional, spiritual, or physical threat, for example, someone is trying to control, abuse, or manipulate you—the discomfort you feel may be your self-protection system trying to protect you. In this case, walk away. Establish boundaries and measures of precaution, and safeguard yourself and anyone else who may be negatively affected by this person. You don’t have to cut them out of your life except in extreme cases, but you can step back and make a strategy for how to engage them in a way that doesn’t put your health at risk. Helping professionals, like therapists, mediators, chaplains, and clergy, are important resources for these situations.
3. Am I challenging in healthy ways, or am I trying to control someone?
Finally, ask yourself, “Am I engaging the other person in healthy ways, or am I using domination?” It’s great to share your beliefs, values, and ideas with conviction, articulating your position to the best of your ability. This might involve challenging deeply-held assumptions and opinions that you don’t agree with.
However, it’s easy to cross a line from sharing to pushing, seeking control others or force them to agree with us. In this case, our conversation partner will probably start to send us signs, verbally and/or non-verbally, that they don’t appreciate it. The discomfort we feel here is probably our internal monitor trying to tell us to back off, take a breather, revisit our emotional regulation, and look at ways we can better share power. Giving people space and freedom to make up their own minds is healthier for both of you and healthier for the relationship. It also increases the chances that they will listen to your perspective, because they don’t have to spend time and energy being afraid of their boundaries being ignored.
Summary: Use caution, but feeling uncomfortable can be healthy
Why would we choose to sit with the awkwardness of feeling uncomfortable?
Because some of the most amazing opportunities for building relationships, learning something new, engage deep questions, and strengthening community happen when we feel uncomfortable. Within the bounds of safety, we might choose to let discomfort have a place because we don’t want to miss these moments.
Remember that no one can make you believe or feel a certain way. Practice wisdom in knowing how to take care of yourself, but know that you have the capacity to engage hard and awkward things.
In fact, you might be better at it than you think.
This article is adapted from Brave Talk: Building Resilient Relationships in the Face of Conflict by Melody Stanford Martin, to be published by Broadleaf Books July 2020.