The art of discomfort :
part 1: observing the unfamiliar.
~ alyse tunnell ~
[Image Description: Red dresses hanging on black metal stands are placed throughout the courtyard of a modern building made of beige stone and a walkway of gray stones and green pine trees.] Jaime Black, Red Dress Project, 2010. Site-Specific Installations. “An Aesthetic Response To The More Than 1000 Missing And Murdered Aboriginal Women In Canada.” http://www.redressproject.org/
Due to the mass discomfort we’ve been experiencing these last few months, I want to offer you a series of discussions about how art can guide us through the realm of the uncomfortable. This first article discusses how art can help us become aware of ideas, issues, and images that we are uncomfortable with. The second article will talk about how we can use art as a guide to reflect on our discomfort. And, the third article addresses how art can help to bring about change in our lives and communities.
Before we get into that, let first take a moment to think about what discomfort is. Discomfort is an umbrella term to describe a variety of feelings and sensations that diminish one’s comfort. Everything from embarrassment, anger, sadness, and disgust to nausea, tiredness, hunger, and even itchiness. Discomfort is a sort of warning from our brain there is something we need to be aware of. These warning can be anything from a need that needs to be met (ex. hunger pangs are a sign to eat) or a physical threat (ex. shaky feeling that often comes after a close call with injury), or the potential of a social threat like being abandoned (ex. the pit in your stomach that forms when you need to confront a loved one). These and myriad other situations can send us reeling into discomfort. However, since our brains are wired to prioritize immediate physical threats over abstract ones, we often over or underestimate the actual threat level of a situation. We are more likely to have a visceral reaction to immediate perceived danger (ex. seeing someone who we perceive as foreign or witnessing a violent act in our neighbourhood) as compared to abstract threats (ex. the global climate crisis or poverty), which in their abstraction can feel less threatening. It is important to note that what triggers our discomfort is entirely subjective. Because our sense of discomfort is informed by our experiences of the world— including our relationships with family and friends, institutions, and educational systems—we all find different things uncomfortable.
Part of the reason that discomfort is so subjective is that we tend to perceive new things, people, and ideas as having a foreign-ness, which can make us uncomfortable due to our unfamiliarity. Any new experience can have a certain level of threat since we don’t know what to expect, or what boundaries we will need in place to be safe. These foreign experiences can be internal (ex. exploring a new idea or desire), or external (ex. meeting people outside of our community). When we experience discomfort around something (especially a new thing!) often the most helpful thing we can do is observe our own discomfort and become more familiar with whatever it is that is making us uncomfortable. Because our threat response isn’t necessarily in line with the reality of the situation, reflecting on where our perception of threat is coming from can help us disengage it.
However, most of us are not taught how to process grief, anger, disgust, hopelessness, or other uncomfortable feelings in an intentional way. Instead, we tend to learn to push discomfort away through distraction, denial, and other forms of avoidance. But avoiding discomfort doesn’t help us deal with it. The more we avoid discomfort the more it builds up over time, and then we feel less capable of tolerating when it arises in our lives. But avoiding discomfort is a futile pursuit: discomfort is an inevitable part of life. No matter how hard we try to bury it within ourselves, it will persist. Living and relating to other humans is often uncomfortable and to deny discomfort is to deny a large portion of our human experience. Ultimately, being out of touch with our discomfort causes us to make decisions based on avoidance instead of making choices from a place of agency and authority. Cultivating self-awareness about our discomfort empowers us to make more informed decisions for ourselves.
Before I outline some ways that you can productively invite discomfort into your own life, I want to point out that learning to process discomfort is not yet part of traditional education. Culturally, we don’t have any standard practices, other than therapy, where we are explicitly taught how to sit in those darker feelings. It honestly shocks me how little emotional education exists in schools. Some of us might have learned something about these difficult feelings from spiritual leaders, but in many religious traditions, discomfort is used as a tool for punishment and it’s associated with suffering. Even though religions offer us ways to cope with discomfort, they often demonize feelings like anger, grief, jealousy, desire, encouraging further avoidance on our part. Maybe some of us were lucky and had a compassionate guidance counsellor, coach, or family member to help witness and process those difficult feelings. Some of us have had the social and financial privilege of a well-suited therapist, but so many people do not have access to professional therapy or find it overly institutionalized, prescriptive, or otherwise unsustainable.
In my own life, despite being in a lot of pain and discomfort as a child, I don’t recall my parents, teachers, doctors, or any other adults ever having conversations with me about my feelings. Instead of having a mentor to guide me through the bouts of deep sadness, sharp pain, fizzing anger, and buzzing anxiety that made up much of my youth, I internalized the message that these feelings were weaknesses to be hidden. I learned to think that the way I felt was inappropriate and harmful to others. I realized that my feelings were, in some way, contagious and that unless I hid my discomfort it would radiate through the rest of the family. As much as my parents tried to comfort me in those times, I think that their discomfort about my pain outweighed any consolation they could offer. I suspect that the adults in my life were not equipped to hold the emotional space I need because they were never taught to hold that space for themselves.
All of this to say, our culture does not offer sufficient emotional education, especially around discomfort. This lack of cultural knowledge around how to process discomfort intentionally leaves us woefully ill-prepared to deal with the discomforts of living, of which there are many. Whether we like it or not, discomfort is an inevitable part of life. So to deal with reality and embrace change, we need to be able to witness and understand our own pain, hesitance, and fear. I am writing this article because I want to encourage folks to invite some discomfort into their lives, especially through art.
It has taken me years to unlearn the patterns of repression that kept me out of touch with my anger, grief, shame, and existential pain. I have had the privilege of working with a few therapists and emotional guides over the years, but most of the deep work I have explored on my own with the help of podcasts, research, and art. In both making my own art and consuming art made by others I have been able to explore all sorts of feelings about myself and about the world. Art has helped me to gain new perspectives, engage with my discomfort, and project myself into an imagined future. By entering into the realm of art we can choose to surround ourselves with new, and dissident perspectives. Where we are lacking insight art can give us a starting point.
[Image Description: Oval portrait of a black man wearing black jeans and a white top, overtop there is a silver plate mail armour chest piece with a standing lion insignia. The man is holding a silver and gold sword. The background is black with a repeating pattern of brightly coloured purple and pink flowers with green foliage.] Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Llewellyn Doris, 2019, Oil on linen. View Instagram Here
So, here are a few ways art can help us observe, witness, and diffuse discomfort:
* * * In this list, I have chosen to include art that represents identities that are often left out of or misrepresented in the media. I made this choice because we are more likely to be unfamiliar and uncomfortable with these sorts of narratives. It is important to work on unlearning culturally entrenched narratives about marginalized groups (including the ones we belong to!) by looking for art that is self-representational as opposed to being informed by outsider opinions. The sources here are made by marginalized people who express their own lived experience. * * *
(1) Art allows us to step outside of our everyday perspective.
Because the art we engage with is meant to be observed, contemplated, discussed, it tends to encourage these actions. If we see something like a can of soup represented in a gallery, we think about it differently than we would if we saw that same can on the street. Art is imbued with this extraordinary-ness, we expect it to captivate us and consequently, we give it special attention. As with therapy, art invites us to go beyond our everyday perspective and into a specialized space of observation and intentional interaction where we can engage with evocative subjects.
(2) Art can inspire a sense of play.
Play is an important part of creativity, problem-solving and self-expression for children and adults. Both making and engaging with art can inspire a sense of play. When we are playing and curious, we are more likely to try new things and be engaged openly with our surroundings. Play can help us let go of the discomfort we are feeling, however, discomfort can also cause us to disengage from play. One of the best ways to reduce discomfort is through engagement and good play is pure engagement.
(3)Art invites us to engage with unfamiliar things in a safe way.
As individuals, our scope of understanding is always limited by our lived-experience. But, art and storytelling can help us gain insight into experiences outside of our own. In the age of the internet, we have unprecedented access to diverse voices. There’s no shortage of projects that express aspects of what it feels like to live in a different body.
(4) Art gives us a starting point for portrayals of diverse experiences.
If you don’t have access to people who are racialized, queer, (dis)abled, or otherwise outside of the mainstream in your surroundings, art can provide a window into other worlds. Art can be a way for us to educate ourselves about experiences, issues, and ideas that are outside of our purview. Though, if you are consuming art to understand a certain perspective, it is important to make sure that the author of the work has some experience with it (ex. many movies are made by white and cis folks about BIPOC and trans folks, with varying degrees of insight into their communities).
Films & Documentaries: Moonlight, Crip Camp, Disclosure (all on Netflix!), Carnage (CARNAGE: Swallowing the Past).
(5) Observing how artists + storytellers express discomfort give us models for self-expression.
When we feel out of touch with our own feelings, it can be helpful to see other people process their own. Many of us experience internalized homophobia, racism, ableism, transphobia and the like, so it can be incredibly helpful and healing to witness other people from our communities process their trauma. In my own life, podcasts have been particularly helpful in learning how to process and witness my own feelings about ableism and feeling flawed because of my disability. When we get stuck in these feelings, it helps to look to how others have traversed similar territory.
(6) When we search out art we are creating a mental space of curiosity and openness.
When you are searching out art, whether its movies, podcasts, imagery online or art objects in a gallery, we go into these experiences looking to expand ourselves in some way, to see something beyond ourselves. If we are looking to learn, it is important to approach art with an open mind and not to expect it to validate your viewpoint; if anything, we should search out art that challenges what we think about the world. Because art is a place we visit, we can give special attention and curiosity to what we see when we go looking for it.
(7) Art can help educate us about other people’s discomfort.
It can be difficult to understand how people experience daily identity-related struggles. By showing us what discriminatory behaviour looks like, art can help us recognize racism, transphobia, sexism, and other forms of discrimination when we see them in the world. Art can help educate us about what it feels like to be discriminated against. By witnessing these things through art we become more aware of the nuanced differences that inform our everyday lives.
(8) Art can help us imagine beyond the present.
Artists and storytellers have been helping us imagine potential futures for centuries, from early Modern imaginings of utopia to George Orwell’s dystopian vision in 1984. It can be challenging to imagine a world vastly different than our own, but many artists and authors, as well as academics, have poured their time and imagination into how life could be different—for better and for worse. Art can help us step into another world and compare it with what is in front of us. Shows like Star Trek, helped a generation to imagine how our futures could be more inclusive. Metaphors and examples, even fictitious ones, help us put the present into perspective.
When defensiveness rears: It is natural for us to have visceral responses when our ideas about the world are threatened. Often we are taught that getting something wrong or holding a misconception is a failure on our part or that it means there is something wrong with us. However, getting things wrong is a part of learning; what failure actually requires is reflection. It is important to make space for reflection and to include what we are learning into how we live.
Notes on mindfulness//awareness // observational practices: For people with trauma (which is many of us!), starting an awareness-building practice can bring up strong and uncomfortable emotions and sensations in us that can be unexpected. If you are having severe reactions or are being triggered by art or everyday life, I would advise you to find a trauma-informed specialist to help you work through and understand your reactions. More info about feeling triggered can be found in this helpful article: What Does It Mean to Be 'Triggered?'. You may also find it useful to check out this series about how to find a trauma-informed therapist: Therapy With a Real Trauma Therapist: Part One.
Now that we have covered observation, I encourage you to invite something extraordinary into your life! If it makes you feel uncomfortable, you might be adventuring into uncharted territory—so, go forth with an open mind! I will talk about more ways to engage in intentional discomfort with art in my next two articles. Part 2 will discuss the feelings that art can evoke in us and our body’s relationship to aesthetic judgements.
With all this in mind, I encourage you to seek out art that you are attracted to, whether that is movies, podcasts, visual art, literature, performance art, drag or any other form!
I am working on creating audio files for my articles, you can expect a spoken version soon!
If you found this article more or less readable than uniform black and white text, feel free to comment on this survey! Alyse would love to hear your thoughts.
Alyse Tunnell is an accessibility advocate and writer currently working as a freelance content creator and accessibility consultant. Recently, Alyse was awarded a spot in the Art Volt’s Mentorship program & Momus’ Emerging Critic Residency. As a (dis)abled, neurodiverse, queer /genderqueer, anti-racist, anti-colonial, settler creator, Alyse strives to build intersectional frameworks of compassion for marginalized folks of all sorts. Together with her creative partner Cherie Pyne, Alyse is building Criptopia, a media organization based around expanding accessibility politics. Alyse graduated from the Art History program at Concordia University in Spring 2020 and continues to reside in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal, Quebec. (She//They)
If you have feedback, questions, or want to learn more about criptopia, email Alyse at firstname.lastname@example.org