1.4 - Developing our Emotional Capacity - Valuing and Tolerating Discomfort

1.4 – Developing our Emotional Capacity – Valuing and Tolerating Discomfort (50 minutes)

Materials needed: Ice cubes, towels, White Supremacy Culture by Tema Okun handout, half sheets of paper, markers or pens, tape, butcher paper with “Discomfort is good because…” written on it

Purpose of piece: To experience mild discomfort in order to reflect on how we can value and tolerate the discomfort that comes with engaging in race and racial justice work.

Facilitator’s Note: Be aware that this activity may be difficult for someone with sensory sensitivity or other physical reactions. Consider checking in with the group before proceeding to give participants a chance to opt out, as needed.

Say to group: This activity invites us to sit with some mild discomfort. For the next few minutes, you are going to hold a single ice cube in your hand. During the activity, keep the ice cube in the same hand. This is a silent activity, and you are asked to stay seated, and remain silent until the time is up. While we each sit with our ice cube, just focus on the experience, how it feels, and what thoughts arise for you. (5 minutes)

Facilitator’s Note: Participants will likely begin doing things to relieve their discomfort, like moving the ice around in their hand, looking for something to catch the water drops, etc. Gently remind them to stay seated, try not to adjust themselves too much, and just notice their experience.

After 5 minutes, let participants drop the rest of the ice cube into a cup. Provide paper or cloth towels to dry hands and floor.

Large group debrief: (10 minutes)

  1. How did it feel to hold the ice? What thoughts came up?
  2. How did the experience shift as the minutes passed?
  3. How can this experience be like engaging with conversations and actions around race and racial justice?

Facilitator’s Note: Some ideas to draw out include:

  1. Initially it might have felt really cold and uncomfortable, yet after a while the hand becomes numb and it’s easier to hold the ice (we get used to it).
  2. There might have been some discomfort allowing the water to drip and get things wet (it is messy).
  3. What does spirituality say about discomfort? Are there any lessons in our spirituality that teach us how to tolerate discomfort? How can these lessons be turned toward racial justice?

The big ideas for the large group debrief are:

  1. The more we engage with the discomfort, the better able we’ll be to tolerate it.
  2. The more we let go of control and investment in avoiding making a mess, the better we’ll tolerate it as well.

Say to group: What we’re going to do now is take this experience and use it to consider the various ways our own reactions to situations are shaped by cultural norms that taught us specific ways of being, many of which do not help us tolerate race conversations.

Distribute the White Supremacist Culture handout. Invite participants to first scan the headings of the white cultural norms listed. Ask participants to select three or four of them that stand out to them. Specifically ask them to select those that might relate to our ability to value discomfort. Give participants about 5 minutes to review the handout. (5 minutes)

Invite a quick pair share to discuss initial reactions to the handout and how it relates to our ability to tolerate discomfort. (5 minutes)

Large group discussion: (15 minutes)

  1. How are these cultural norms related to our ability (or inability) to tolerate discomfort?
  2. What might be required to create new cultural norms that allow for human imperfection, value the growth that comes from discomfort, and tolerate conflict?

Facilitator’s Note: Some primary issues to draw out are the way perfectionism and racial innocence play a role. When we sense that we won’t measure up, fear gets in the way. We don’t want to be rejected, don’t want to make a mistake. We want to be seen as good, decent people (for white people, racially innocent). We also often value individualism, don’t want to feel forced to do something we don’t want to do, and resist being identified with a larger group.

Say to group: The final step in this exploration is considering how our orientation toward spirituality or personal growth might support our ability to tolerate discomfort. If we can begin to articulate the value of engaging with the discomfort, and better tolerate it ourselves, then we might be able to help encourage others to tolerate the discomfort along with us.

Distribute half sheets of colored paper and markers or pens. Ask participants to write down a statement on each sheet that makes a connection between personal growth/spiritual development, tolerating discomfort, and a racial justice issue. For example, why is it important? What benefits come of it? What in our practice supports tolerating discomfort? For faith-based groups: What spiritual or theological resources support it? (Each participant can have as many sheets as desired.) (5 minutes)

Facilitator’s Note: If some participants struggle with this activity, a few ideas for connections include the following:

  1. If we run away from the discomfort, then it stops us from learning other people’s stories, which keeps us racially disconnected.
  2. Moving into uncomfortable situations helps us take risks to engage with others, which helps us build relationships across difference.
  3. Leaning into the discomfort is what allows us to reduce ego defensiveness and pay attention to each other’s experiences.
  4. This is what allows us to expand our understanding, and live into heart-centered spiritual principles.
  5. The discomfort pushes us to create an intimacy with ourselves, which in turn is what allows us to experience intimacy with another.
  6. Staying in the discomfort is akin to pushing back against white supremacy culture (perfectionism) into the soul work that takes us deeper into the mud (ground) of the world.

Each participant can be asked to read the statements aloud and tape them to a wall under a butcher paper sign that says, “Discomfort is valuable because…” (5 minutes)

Wrap Up: Our ability to articulate the value of discomfort (and tolerate it ourselves) is essential if we are going to encourage others to engage in racial justice efforts with us. Important to recognize is that doing so requires pushing against a culture that conditions us to reject the value of discomfort. Deciding to value it may require some personal, spiritual growth.