Don’t Mistake Comfort for Safety

May 25, 2021 | All Blogs, Bias, Discomfort

Comfort is a tricky term in DEI work. We don’t simply mean feeling comfortable enough to speak openly and honestly about culture, values, and goals. When we talk about comfort, we’re really talking about a kind of resistance, because comfort means the security of what’s already known and familiar. Comfort is a place where change isn’t happening.

At Leverage to Lead, our work requires discomfort. We celebrate discomfort because it’s an indicator of growth. Discomfort means the process is working. We don’t say that lightly. We know confronting our unconscious biases and aligning our behaviors with our values is hard and vulnerable work, and that feeling discomfort in the process can be unsettling. 

And we also know that discomfort is safe to experience. 

Why We Refuse to Sit with Discomfort

A paradox in our culture is the belief that getting outside your comfort zone is a good thing, yet we all remain averse to discomfort. There are so many reasons we run from discomfort (or discharge it onto others). A lot of it has to do with how we’ve been socialized. 

Discomfort is rarely seen as acceptable. It’s taken as a sign of weakness or a lack of certainty. Without practice in holding space for our discomfort and getting curious about it, we never build up our tolerance and resilience. 

Often, in our bias toward action, we project discomfort as an external problem that can be solved. Consequently, if we haven’t experienced much discomfort before, we might not recognize it or know that, like all emotions, it will pass. In doing so, we can magnify the discomfort and mistake it for a lack of safety. This is problematic for many reasons, foremost that there are people in every workplace who experience a true lack of safety due to trauma, bias, marginalization, or disenfranchisement. 

But there’s more to the dangers of conflating safety and comfort.

Comfort is a White Supremacy Value

When we talk about preserving comfort, we really mean that of the white, dominant culture. Their comfort is what we are all socialized to monitor and ensure. People of color are made to feel safer when white people are at ease. When white people are uncomfortable, other groups can be in real danger. 

Historically, white discomfort has resulted in trying to weaponize the police, brutality by the police, vigilante policing of Black bodies, or perceiving threats where none actually exist. So people of color hide their differences—in appearance, speech, behavior, volume, hair—because encountering difference is guaranteed to cause discomfort. And when white discomfort is caused by our difference, we’re less safe. 

When diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work hits a point of discomfort, it’s an opportunity to help folks get curious about the feeling. We explore how diversity doesn’t eliminate discomfort. In fact, diversity calls for continuous connection and negotiating of differences and is supposed to feel uncomfortable. Just when it feels like DEI work is making things worse, we assure people that the work is helping increase our awareness of a problem so we can approach it fully and honestly. 

As Joy’s running coach often said, “No one has ever died of discomfort.” 

You Can’t Manage Other People’s Comfort

Keeping other people comfortable is a coping mechanism that may have served us at one point. Maybe your supervisor’s comfort made your job feel secure. Maybe your white coworkers’ comfort made it easier to navigate interactions. 

But the truth is that you cannot be responsible for or in control of anyone else’s comfort.

What you do to preserve someone else’s comfort may help things feel predictable (read: maintain the status quo), but it does not make you safe.

When a Black employee rushes to her supervisor’s defense against the discomfort with the term “white privilege,” it might seem like preserving comfort is in the interest of her own safety. But if her supervisor remains unable to acknowledge her privilege, how safe does that make any Black employee at that organization?

Aubrey offers a searingly personal account of trying to manage other people’s comfort: 

As a Black woman of size, I am used to altering my behaviors for other people’s comfort. I’ve straightened my hair, tried to take up as little space as possible, modulated my speech so it can never be misconstrued as harsh or angry. I’m always super funny and self-deprecating so no one will find me threatening. And still, I’ve had people listen to me speaking in my regular voice who have asked me to please stop yelling at them. No matter what I do, my very presence is taken as aggressive or hostile. And when I “succeeded” at preserving white people’s comfort, they tell me, “Oh, you’re different. It’s like you’re white!” My behaviors had caused me to become invisible. All the discomfort I put myself through for their comfort had made them stop seeing me.”

We could spend all our time managing people’s comfort and still come up short, losing in the meantime precious energy for creativity and innovation. We need to be clear about what we can control. It’s not our job to predict people’s reactions, manage their environments, or make them feel okay. 

We’re All Going to Be Uncomfortable Together

At Leverage to Lead, we follow Jennifer’s practice of refusing to be the only one who’s uncomfortable. We insist on sharing in discomfort and working through it together. 

So when we’re feeling the discomfort (and we do) of naming behaviors, asking hard questions or reflecting on harmful dynamics, we lean in. We name the discomfort and get curious about it, knowing that cognitive dissonance is not a sign of failing to meet outcomes, it is a completely normal outcome of building awareness. 

If your organization and leadership are ready to build the safe spaces your people need to lean into discomfort, contact anyone on our team today.

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