16 Days of Activism: Get comfortable being uncomfortable

December 8, 2020

Day 14 of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence

By Jade Lane, WHGNE Regional Gender Equity Coordinator

I’m stating the obvious here but my gosh, 2020 has been one heck of a year.  

Between the Black Summer bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic and a US election that’s been divisive and chaotic at best, it’s no wonder we’re feeling tired. And scared. And disconnected. And utterly checked-out.  

And I get it. I really do.  

The problem with this, of course, is that apathy is an emotion reserved only for the privileged among us. Decision paralysis, indifference, overwhelm; these are luxuries afforded to those of us who think we have nothing to lose if things don’t change. And yet, there’s a glitch in our thinking.  

We have so much to lose.  

If we remain indifferent to domestic and family violence, we lose one woman a week at the hands of a current or former partner. 

If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the long road to justice and reconciliation, we lose the wisdom and rich spiritual tapestry of Australia’s Aboriginal people, the oldest living culture on the planet. 

And, if we continue to be overcome with paralysis when it’s time to make bold decisions about political leadership in this country, we put at stake the rich biodiversity of our planet, we miss out on the strength, resilience and dynamism that diversity brings to our communities, and we leave women behind. 

I’d like to think that for most of us this ‘tuning out’ isn’t the result of apathetic torpor over some of the most pressing social issues of a generation but rather, a nifty defense mechanism employed to protect us from feeling that god-awful thing we love to avoid – our own discomfort. 

Why does social justice work make us uncomfortable? 

Conversations about social justice have been thrust back into the spotlight because of the numerous inequities made visible by the COVID-19 pandemic and worldwide protesting of racial injustice, the climate emergency and the regulation of women’s reproductive autonomy by people who look like this.  

This has renewed opportunities for us to come together to engage in critical conversation about what shape our society might take. Indeed, we don’t have to go far on the internet to find a cacophony of voices debating justice and equity as they relate to race, class and gender. And while these discussions support us to develop complex analyses of the current political climate, they fail to uncover our own role in the social issues we so fervently debate.  

Herein lies our discomfort.  

Grappling with critical understandings of race, class, and gender requires that we apply an intersectional lens to our own thinking, forcing us to confront aspects of our identity that lead us to challenging new insights. Applying the same intersectional lens to the world we inhabit will uncover something else – that the personal is politicised in the way inequities are embedded in and reinforced by the structures and systems that govern our public lives.

When we begin to examine our power and privilege, we quickly learn we don’t have to personally engage in oppression to benefit from it.  

If we own a smartphone, a diamond ring, or Adidas clothing; if our ideas are heard in a meeting and we can walk home alone at night without fear; if we have access to secure housing, reproductive autonomy and (obviously) if we’re white – then social justice work requires us to confront the reality that we’re benefiting from the oppression of others. 

For many, this discovery is deeply uncomfortable. There are very few of us who find pleasure in uncovering our own role in the perpetuating systems of social inequity, but it’s a hard truth we must be brave enough to face if we’re going to engage in transformational change.  

So next time you feel resistant, or defensive, or just plain uncomfortable, I encourage you to stay there.  

Discomfort is central to social justice work.  

We need to grab a hold of it and use it as a torch to light the way toward learning, catharsis and collective healing.  

How can we stay present with discomfort? 

Once we’ve grappled with the deeply unsettling realisation that each of us is, in some way, complicit in the oppression of others, we can roll up our sleeves and get to work. We know we’re going to experience discomfort and we’re ready to welcome it as central to our efforts.  

So, what should we do when it arises? 

It helps to understand that, most often, our discomfort is underpinned by fear. And fear is a key driver of prejudice and social fracture. So, if discomfort makes us fearful and fear drives prejudice then it follows that oppression and social injustice thrive on our fear-based reactions. Our aversion to sitting with our own discomfort reinforces the oppressive force of the systems in which we’re enmeshed. Knowing this, it’s my personal view that welcoming our discomfort with open arms is a radical act.  

Welcoming our discomfort requires us to create space for ourselves and for others to safely explore the feelings of stress, confusion, and pain that can arise as a result of social justice work. We live and breathe the very systems and structures we seek to transform, so a purely rational approach to social justice work is doomed to fail. We must be truly willing to tap into our own emotional landscapes if we’re going to transform the world around us – they are one and the same. 

Here are four ways to stay present with discomfort: 

  • Check your privilege
  • The foundation of all social justice work (and also just, you know, being a decent human) is understanding our own privilege To be a true ally, we need to be able to name and call out the ways our privilege harms others every single day 

    Take the time to interrogate your lived experience and think critically about the way you’ve been socialised. It might make you uncomfortable to identify the many ways you’re privileged but with privilege comes power and therefore, a unique opportunity to affect change from the top. 

    Use the Identity Wheel to understand your social location. How much power do you hold? How much space do you take up? Are you entitled to all the privilege you have? Chances are, the answers to these questions will be unflattering, but critical self-reflection and personal insight are central to being a respectful and productive ally.  

    Use this less-than-comfortable knowledge for good.  

  • Get comfortable being uncomfortable

  • Learning how to sit with discomfort begins by normalising it. Conversations about race, class and gender are inherently uncomfortable and it’s ok to feel challenged, defensive and down-right yucky. It’s what we do with those feelings that counts and, if we’re serious about social justice, shutting down or tuning out is not an option.  

    Questions of oppression and injustice have no clear answers. We live in a world shaded in grey and sometimes, when we come up against challenges, there is no one perfect answer – complexities abound. It’s important to remember that if we’re having these conversations with curiosity and attentiveness, and we’re really listening to the lived experience of others, we’re already doing the work 

    And, if we’re moving towards our discomfort instead of pushing it away, we’re already disrupting the systems of power that hold us at odds with each other.  

  • Practice self-care

  • In the context of social justice work, self-care is more than just a bubble bath; it’s a radical act of political resistance 

    Self-care is a wellness buzzword these days but when we’re engaged in social justice work, it’s more important than ever. In a system that rewards exploitation, dominance and hyper-individualism, stopping to dance and tapping into the vulnerability of our personal relationships is a revolutionary commitment to change and belonging.    

    Creating time to rest doesn’t just renew our energy to challenge oppression and disrupt inequities, it reignites joy and renews the spark that keeps us in the fight. Our love, our pleasure and our heartache; these are the things that hold us together in the human experience. 

    It’s also worth noting here that self-care should move you in the direction of growth and growth comes from being challenged – so binging Netflix or eating your bodyweight in guacamole doesn’t always count (but you do you). Showing up for the uncomfortable conversations and challenging moments in life propel us toward growth, learning and deepened practice. This, too, is self-care.  


    Where do we go from here? 

    We need everyone to challenge the status quo if we’re going to build a more radically inclusive, just and equitable world. We need to create space for brave leadership, creativity, and collective action that values all voices. And we need to be willing to listen to these voices – women and gender diverse people who are transforming the landscape of political action and reinventing the feminist movement, black activists and artists and educators, young entrepreneurs who offer us a vision for the future that priorities local and circular economies and opens opportunities for collective wealth, and the true allies among us who are willing to confront their privilege and use it to amplify our voices.  

    So next time you feel yourself getting prickly and defensive, ask yourself: if I’m not uncomfortable, am I really doing the work? 

    We need to remember that social justice must mean justice for all.