Making Space for Discomfort: Feel it to Heal it

“Emotional pain cannot kill you, but running from it can. Allow. Embrace. Let yourself feel. Let yourself heal.” ~Vironika Tugaleva


Human beings avoid discomfort, because, well, it is uncomfortable. We don’t like to feel sick or sad or confused or scared or in pain. This is a normal part of being human AND we need to increase our capacity to be able to sit with discomfort as part of our individual and collective healing. We can’t heal our wounds or show up in a helpful way in the world if we can’t handle the discomfort of feeling sad or angry or sitting in the truth of the ways we have been oppressed and the ways we harm others.

In order to be able to be able to stay with this discomfort we need a few tools- because this shit ain’t easy and we have been taught in implicit and explicit ways to avoid discomfort at all costs. One of the foundational aspects of Hakomi is working to build our muscles of being present to our experience- whatever that is.

First, we need mindfulness. Mindfulness is choosing to be attuned to the present moment without judgement. In Hakomi we use mindfulness to notice what we habitually do to escape feeling uncomfortable; maybe we engage our thinking brain to distract ourselves or blame others or collapse or want to reach for something that will numb the discomfort. We learn to watch and to understand that there is an essential part of us that is observing this experience. In cultivating this observer state through mindfulness we can get just enough distance from the experience to watch it and learn from it. Something quite transformative can happen in that space. When we give up the energy toward resisting the discomfort we often experience a great deal of relief. “Oh, yes, anger is here.” “Ah, I feel guilty.” Buddhism explains that suffering is pain + resistance. When we acknowledge the truth of our situation and accept our feelings, curiosity can come on board which creates so much more space. Spaciousness is healing in itself. This is similar to trying to mentally escape from a physical pain. When we bring mindful acceptance toward that physical pain, there is some relief, some space and a shift can occur.

We also need somatic resourcing tools. These can help us build our capacity to STAY WITH the discomfort. These are simple activities that bring our awareness into our bodies and our senses. Resmaa Menakem in his groundbreaking book, My Grandmother’s Hands, offers several of these practices for the purpose of helping us stay present and heal racialized trauma. Humming, mindful belly-rubbing, rubbing lotion into our hands, tapping our bodies, really feeling our feet on the ground, or the support of the chair we are sitting in as well as noticing what we taste, smell, see, hear and feel in the present moment. To resource ourselves we often focus on the aspects of our sense experiences that are nourishing or neutral. This helps us re-balance and connect with our inner resiliency and capacity to stay with what is hard.

We also need self-compassion. Self-compassion is being with ourselves IN THE MIDST OF OUR PAIN WITHOUT TRYING TO GET OUT OF IT. Being able to find and feel self-compassion changes lives; it certainly changed mine. This one took me many years to remember (we all showed up on this planet filled with it), and it can be to learn but I know we all can eventually. Self-compassion says, “Oh, honey, this is so hard. You are hurting right now. I am with you inside of this hurt.” Self-compassion might gently hold your face or your heart. Self-compassion soothes AND allows us to keep doing the hard work of staying with discomfort. Self-compassion reminds us that we are not alone and many others have been in the same pain we are in now.

From this place of compassionate and resourced acceptance of our present reality- even when it is uncomfortable- we can learn, we can heal and we can grow. This is true for our individual healing as well as our cultural healing. There are many extremely difficult aspects of our collective experience that are genuinely uncomfortable to deal with. If you are white, you know it is uncomfortable to learn about how much damage has been done and continues to be done to people of color by white people. It is even more uncomfortable to see the ways you (and I) are complicit or actively engaging in damage to other humans and our precious planet. This is hard stuff, my friends, and very uncomfortable. And we must engage in these personal and collective experiences. We must feel it to heal it. And to feel it we have to be able to stay with it long enough to feel the feelings- the pain, the sadness, the overwhelm, the confusion, the anger, and more.

What would it be like to say, “wow, I feel really sad and guilty right now” and not make yourself wrong or bad or try to fight it but just accept that you are feeling how you are feeling and even notice specifically how that experience shows up in your body. “Oh, really tight in my chest and a murky, queasy feeling in my stomach that’s sort of dark purple and burbling.” We can notice what we try to do to escape the discomfort and we can develop body-based practices, including somatic practices and embodied self-compassion to expand our capacity to sit with these experiences. If this sounds impossible, Hakomi or other supported somatic practices can help you do this.

The experience of white fragility is a cultural expression of an inability for white folks to sit with discomfort, specifically around race. This is a complicated topic, but at it’s core, people in white bodies often don’t have the tools or capacity to sit with the pain and reality of this type of distress and yet, if we are to really heal deep racial wounding, we must learn how to. Stay tuned for more on this in future posts.

This work is at the heart of what I support people to do- for ourselves and for our communities- to learn to sit with discomfort. To feel so we can heal. May it be so.

“There is a way out of this mess, and it requires each of us to begin with our own body. You and your body are important parts of the solution.”- Resmaa Menakem

For more resources, check out the RAIN practice adapted by Ruth King, Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

rachael koeson