Is it ok to make people feel uncomfortable? 

This post has been inspired by two very different sources – but they have come together to form a post and a message that I would like to share. One about speaking our truth and being ok with making people feel uncomfortable. Read on to find out why I think the answer to the question, “is it ok to make people feel uncomfortable?” is yes, and why I think we should be actively seeking to do so.

Recently I picked up a copy of DIVA magazine, something I read occasionally when the mood takes me or I spot someone on the cover I particularly have an interest in. On this occasion, Lea DeLaria, an openly gay actress, comedian and Jazz musician most well-known for her role in Orange Is The New Black, was featured on the cover. A quote from her interview read ‘If I offended you, you needed it’. Lea explained that whenever she caused offence, for simply being who she was, she was able to recognise that it had nothing to do with her and everything to do with the person who was offended. This gave me a whole new insight into taking offence. She was happy to cause offence in order to highlight the judgemental, ill-informed and at times downright discriminatory views some individuals had. She knew that if people took offence with her, it was down to their internal beliefs, and nothing to do with her.

Moving on to inspiration number two. A few months ago I was kindly invited to sit on a panel discussing Postgraduate Mental Health. I joined two members of staff from the University Mental Health and Well-being team and another student who coordinates a group called Student Minds here at my university.

We invited questions from the audience and eventually got onto the topic of talking openly about our Mental Health experiences. A young woman from Spain talked about cultural differences in discussing Mental Health. How here in England greeting a colleague in the staff kitchen with ‘Hi, how are you?’ is simply that, a greeting. Whereas in Spain, this individual explained, it was a genuine enquiry as to someone’s wellbeing. Here, in England, she finds it difficult to be truthful because she can tell that her honesty can sometimes make the other person feel uncomfortable.

This discussion really sparked a lot of energy and fire in me. It made me feel angry that she should feel this way, guilty and afraid of being honest and sharing something that was real and genuine for her. But it also made me feel clearer about a lot of things, including my vision for this blog and my work overall. I found myself thinking – and saying ‘damn right, make people feel uncomfortable’. Especially when it comes to Mental Health. If we are willing to talk about our experiences, part of our responsibility is to make others uncomfortable, to help them question their own beliefs and stance due to their discomfort.

Now, I’d like to clarify that I’m not talking about exacerbating someone’s Mental Health difficulties. Nor am I advocating being hurtful or unkind.

I’m talking about being honest, speaking our truth and in doing so knowing two things:

1. It is not our business or our fault if we make others feel uncomfortable due to their own misguided thoughts, beliefs or judgements. That is on them. And it’s up to them to figure out whatever has got them triggered.

2. By making people uncomfortable and welcoming this discomfort in our conversations, by giving people space to untangle their misconceptions in an accepting and loving way – we can create real change. We can allow a huge amount of understanding and education to take place.

But what this requires is brave individuals to be comfortable with making other people uncomfortable and then being with their discomfort in a way that allows discussion and invites insight.

For me personally I do this in a few areas including Mental Health – particularly in academia, work/life balance, the L in LGBT and my own spirituality – all areas where I sometimes meet resistance.

For others it might be talking about their family situation, being childless by choice or otherwise, experiencing illness, experiencing abuse, sexuality, gender, medication, religion, race, the list is endless.

Real change always begins with someone being made to feel uncomfortable. Think of real, significant historical change. Think of the resistance that comes from people feeling uncomfortable with what they are seeing or experiencing. Instead of pushing back, what if we invited that discomfort and resistance to the table? What if we encouraged people to talk, in respectful ways about their views and opened up a dialogue where people are free to explore their beliefs and given the opportunity to change their mind, without judgement.

What if we could let people be honest, knowing that our discomfort comes from us, not them.

In doing so we could allow people to truly own their experiences and stories.

We could give people the freedom to completely be themselves.

Until next time 🙂

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