Friday, 19 October 2012

I'm not comfortable

I love playing with words.  I love themes and narratives, stories and ideas.  I love to talk.  But for some reason the words “I’m not comfortable with…” have not often passed my lips. 

Recently a friend, observing me in a stressful situation, asked “but why didn’t you speak up and say I’m not comfortable...”.  I surprised myself by replying “I think they are words I should have used many times in my life… but haven’t”.  And no sooner were the words out I started to wonder why.

I am not shy.  On the whole I identify and express my feelings without difficulty.  On the whole I assert myself - oftentimes well, appropriately; sometimes, if feeling vulnerable or uptight, too brusquely.  That failing aside, could my failure to reach for this helpful sentence be a focus issue?  Or am I down-playing my right to feel comfortable the majority of the time?

Upon reflection I recalled a friend who came from London to visit me in Tuscany.  She witnessed a scene where someone insulted me, in a back-handed, jealous kind of way.  I wasn’t sure if the jibe was deliberately unkind or accidentally insensitive, so I responded to the put-down with a flippant retort and brushed it off; as if he hadn’t hit his mark.  When he left the room, my girlfriend said “why did you laugh then... his comment was horrible, didn’t it hurt you?”.  Knowing it had she added “I sometimes think you are too resilient.  You absorb a lot, laugh things off, and people don’t know how they’ve affected you.” 

I wondered if it was embarrassment which had silenced me?  Or surprise?  But her comments rang true so I filed them.  In the intervening years, however, I was never quite able to rationalise the gap between ‘my coping ability’, what she called ‘my resilience’, and my lack of a poker face.  I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, yet I am socially confident and good at rolling with the punches.  In a variety of situations I can absorb quite a lot of difficulty, challenge, before noticing it’s taking a toll.  So it took a while before I came to wonder: at what point would a discomfort such as that become evident to others?  Or, more importantly, become evident to myself?  For it followed that if I didn’t sufficiently register an uncomfortable situation, then how could I speak up or act to modify my circumstances? 

Obviously one can’t get obsessed about every single uncomfortable moment or experience, or you’d quickly become neurotic and tedious.  Yet what I completely missed in my analysis until more recently, is that even if one doesn’t wish to react to or change an uncomfortable situation - presumably because in isolation the incident is manageable or for a period of time unavoidable - that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid to register the event in one’s mind - to ‘clock it’ as we’d say in the theatre - so the contributing elements don’t risk building up and potentially catching you unawares.    

For if you ignore repeated discomfort, unreasonable discomfort… getting on as I tend to do, keeping busy… then the build-up can sneak up on you.  And your reaction to that pressure or discomfort, if and when it comes, risks appearing out of alignment, out of proportion, with the final provocation.

My friend in Tuscany had warned me “it’s all very well to roll with things, take a lot on the chin, but the problem is if you later lose your temper they won’t understand where it’s come from”.   

Yet only lately have I brought a few threads together to see that, in this regard, I have failed to protect myself many times over the course of my life.  I let things go a long way before I tend to register or object to an uncomfortable situation.  Or I speak about a discomfort, a concern, presuming the talking is the remedy and not actually doing something about it.  If the circumstances are accumulatively aggravating, neither approach does me any favours.

There must be a balance of course.  Many years ago I was playing golf with my brother and a friend.  After a time it began to pour with rain, and the build up of water on the green was such that it was impossible to putt.  I looked up from my tenth attempt to get the silly white ball in the hole to find my brother and his friend smirking.  “What are you smiling at?” I asked.  He replied “we can’t believe you’re still playing.  We’ve been waiting for you to complain or yell stop for ages”.  “Really, isn’t this what you do?” I asked stoically.  “Are you kidding?  Our girlfriends would have quit an hour ago.  They’d have hid under a tree and insisted we bring the car around to pick them up”.   It was an eye-opener that, by comparison, they found me less fussy, ready to ‘muck in’, and somewhere along the line I became aware that was typical of my style. 

In all likelihood I am more sensitive about a different range of things, but generally speaking I’m not precious.  With four brothers I’m used to being teased.  I am stimulated by challenge.  I can absorb a lot before being weighed down. 

But when the next important occasion arises, before I am taken advantage of, or before pressures unreasonably mount, I am going to learn to say “I’m not comfortable with…...”.  I am going to address the risk before I end up suffering.  I am going to do a better job of protecting myself. 

Because I’ve learnt the hard way that if you don’t, there are too many people who will abuse your ability to absorb, to think the best of people, to give, to be flexible, to work hard.  It may not be intentional or malicious but the effects can be just as debilitating.  And I owe it to myself to be comfortable when it’s in my power to do so.

Generally, I think, we expect or accept this more from men – albeit with different language.  No doubt there will be a cost for this kind of assertion, for some baulk at the honesty or self-possession of a woman.  But one would hope this is a gentler path to tread than one where you’re left so uncomfortable that you can’t cope.  Or when you find yourself in a situation where it’s too late to turn things around and are left simply with loss. 

So, if you’ve been like me, try it on for size.  “Excuse me, but I’m not comfortable with…” 
“I’m sorry, but I’m not comfortable with this situation and would like to do something to change it…” 
Next time it matters, throw it out there.  And don't be fobbed off.  Good luck.