I have a pretty decent tolerance for discomfort in relationships. In my role as Director of Training & Advocacy at Pathways Vermont, I talk often with staff about the importance of tolerating and even embracing discomfort in relationships with service recipients. After all, discomfort is frequently a precursor to learning, growth, and transformation. And I’ve seen the harm that can be done when people in positions of power struggle to tolerate discomfort in relationships – I’ve seen discomfort become fear, seen that fear then lead to control.
To illustrate the importance of tolerating discomfort, here’s a story about my relationship with a Pathways service recipient:
When I was a service coordinator on one of our ACT teams, I supported a Housing First program participant who used self-harm, cutting in particular. One afternoon, we were on a hike (we often went for walks during our time together, Vermont weather permitting) and he told me he’d recently cut using an X-Acto knife. We talked about how he used self-harm as a strategy when his distress became overwhelming (in this case, his feelings about an anniversary related to a significant traumatic experience). He reflected that the cutting was a tool he used to make his distress feel more manageable. I validated his experience and conveyed my appreciation that he had a tool that worked for him. I spoke about my own history of getting tattoos during times of intense distress, how the process of being tattooed reminded me that pain and distress can be transformative.
He noted that the wound from the cut was long and somewhat deep. My authentic response at that moment was concern that his wound may become infected if not cared for properly; I asked if I could share my concerns with him and he consented. He said that he did not want to have an infected wound. I asked if I could look at the wound with him (he was wearing long sleeves that day and his forearm, where he’d cut, was covered). He consented and lifted his sleeve to show me his wound which, as he’d described, was long and somewhat deep. Together we talked about options for wound care and bandaging. I also offered that, on our way back to his house, we could stop by the store for wound care supplies, though he said didn’t need that support. We continued our hike and conversation for another hour or so, during which we explored the meaning of the distress he was experiencing and talked about various other unrelated topics.
I believe this experience highlights the values and importance of our relationship-first practice: I trusted him as the expert of his own experience. I acknowledged and validated that he used self-harm as a survival strategy. I shared some about my own experiences with navigating distress. With his consent, I voiced my own concerns about wound care and together we had a mutual conversation wherein I offered support that he declined. I did not try to problem solve nor change or control his experience. My approach was to show up authentically, center our relationship, and, above all, trust him as the expert of his own experience and trust his capacity to know and meet his own needs.
This experience changed my life. My connection with this service recipient changed my life. Together we practiced vulnerability and talked about some of our deepest pains. We talked about our needs, we made meaning together, we trusted each other, and we co-created a relationship that became a transformative space. This was all possible because we tolerated discomfort and focused on the relationship first.
The way I show up to my relationships at Pathways Vermont is deeply informed by my own personal healing and transformation. I haven’t always had a tolerance for discomfort within myself or in my relationships. Like many people, I grew up in a family impacted by various types of intergenerational trauma. My family’s experiences include domestic violence, alcoholism, fatphobia, sanism, and suicide. In addition to being impacted by these experiences, I also experienced homophobia, transphobia, and bullying.
I believe my parents and grandparents endeavored to do their best with the relationship skills they were taught and yet the impacts of trauma manifested in various ways in my family’s relationships with me:
I wasn’t taught how to make or negotiate boundaries, how to understand my experience – my emotions, my thoughts, my beliefs, my physical body – as separate and individual from the experiences of others. I wasn’t taught this because my parents and grandparents weren’t taught this.
I wasn’t taught how to directly articulate my needs or expectations. My family learned to communicate their needs and expectations through passive aggression, by making demands, by indirectly expressing discomfort and disappointment without revealing the source, by suppressing their feelings until an inevitable explosion.
I was taught to make myself responsible for the emotional wellbeing of others. If the adults around me experienced discomfort and stress, it was upon me to problem solve, to set aside my own needs and feelings to tend to theirs. If something I did upset a family member, I learned to fear the loss of connection unless I did everything I could to appease them.
I was taught to intuit and anticipate the needs of others. I was taught from a young age to perceive subtle changes in tone of voice and mannerisms and adjust accordingly. I wasn’t taught to believe that the adults around me could directly articulate their feelings and needs to those around them.
This all means that – in addition to being taught to feel responsible for the discomfort of others – I was taught to make others responsible for my own discomfort by seeking control, ascribing meaning to and labeling the experiences of others, denying the truth of others, and looking to others to change (instead of acknowledging that I might have some changing to do as well). It feels incredibly vulnerable to admit this publicly and yet I trust that I’m not alone in having learned some of these dynamics.
These learned relationship dynamics resulted in a lot of pain, disappointment, and resentment for me. I wanted so badly to feel connected to myself and experience connection with others, though so frequently I felt disconnected from myself and experienced disconnect within my relationships. Sometimes I felt helpless, hopeless, trapped, and unable to change, to imagine doing anything differently.
Through my work, relationships, and therapy, I learned that feeling stuck in unsustainable patterns is quite common among folks who’ve experienced trauma. I came to understand these learned dynamics – of feeling responsible for the discomfort of others while simultaneously making others responsible for my own discomfort – as a trauma response. As a child I felt responsible for the needs of others while my own needs frequently went unacknowledged and unmet. I developed into an adult who interpreted any and all discomfort as a threat to connection, safety, and my wellbeing. So I began to make resolving discomfort the focus of many of my relationships, which makes a lot of sense: connection, safety, and wellbeing are important and I was doing what I thought I needed to do to feel secure in myself and my relationships – though, truth be told, I never really gained that security through those dynamics.
For quite some time, I struggled to move beyond the aforementioned dynamics because I’d internalized a belief that I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it (another trauma response, natch). I didn’t know how to focus on the relationship first and trust that encountering discomfort is part of the process of being in relationships with others. Though I’ve realized over the last decade or so (I’m currently 36) that a learned relationship dynamic can actually be unlearned – people can, in fact, learn how to do something different. Which brings me to our Relationship-First Practice at Pathways Vermont.
I want to keep thinking about discomfort and power:
What I know from my work in social services is that when people are in positions of power – a service provider for example, it can be easy to slip into unsustainable relationship dynamics, to experience discomfort with someone else’s emotions, beliefs, choices, or boundaries and make solving that discomfort the focus of the relationship.
Here’s an example: when a person says they’re considering suicide and a service provider responds by immediately involving crisis/emergency services or saying something like “you have to tell me you’re not going to kill yourself before we part ways today,” that service provider is essentially communicating, “I’m uncomfortable with your pain and I need you to change.” This may not be the intended message and yet impact matters more than intention: a person has conveyed deep pain and the response has been an attempt to shift the pain and/or control the outcome. What’s lost here is the actual relationship between service provider and service recipient, the human in human services.
So what do we do with all of this? How do we move through discomfort and focus on the relationship first?
I think there’s some key components to increasing one’s tolerance for discomfort:
Center humanity and strength. Trust that each person is their own expert and able to navigate their experiences and distress. Learning how to ask for what you need and negotiate getting your needs met is an ongoing journey for many of us. Be patient with yourself and others. Believe that I, you, we can do hard things. We all do hard things every single day.
Be authentic. Talk about your needs. Directly articulate your feelings. Be vulnerable and share your understanding of yourself, of your discomfort, of the relationship, of the world.
Collaborate. Co-create a relationship that works for each of you. Share power and decision-making. Negotiate boundaries.
Be humble. Honor autonomy and choice. Relieve yourself of believing that you have to have all the answers.
Foster curiosity and hope. Be willing to investigate your own discomfort and the narratives you’ve learned to tell yourself. See relationships as spaces to explore meaning-making and transformation.
I’ve had many opportunities to sit with my own discomfort in my relationships at Pathways, with my partners, with family, with friends, and with community members. The opportunities truly never cease (to live is to feel discomfort, I think) and yet my understanding of discomfort has drastically changed. My partner and I often talk about discomfort as information. When we’re experiencing discomfort – concern, conflict, disconnect, disagreement, misunderstanding – we see that as a challenging though instructive moment, an opportunity to check in with ourselves about the meaning we’re making and hone in on what each of us needs in the moment, an opportunity to learn, to grow, to transform.
I’m a work in progress and I probably always will be. Maybe you feel similarly. Let’s embrace discomfort together and, relationship by relationship, maybe we can change the world.