Nothing kills a dinner party quite like telling people what I do for a living. Dementia, carers, and suicide are not exactly the stuff of light-hearted conversations over cocktails. They are difficult, messy, emotional, and often controversial.
My job as a researcher is to make sense of the emotions, to bring order to the messiness, and offer insight into the controversy. As a researcher I’m trained to analyse, categorise, and classify, and to write concise narratives that show a logical, linear progression of ideas and experiences. But life isn’t logical. Or linear. Or easy to categorise. Life is confusing, organic, and determined to defy categorisation.
So I (and my dinner party companions) must learn to ‘sit with the discomfort’. I first heard this nifty little phrase in a presentation by Susan Beaton at a conference on suicide prevention. Beaton was talking about how clinicians use risk assessment tools to avoid actually engaging with people who are feeling suicidal. Because real engagement – really listening, really connecting with someone else’s pain – is exceedingly uncomfortable. Her thesis was that if clinicians were able to sit with their own discomfort, they might actually be able to do meaningful suicide prevention.
As a researcher who was, at that time, wading through hours of interview recordings in which dementia family carers talked about thoughts of suicide, this was a revelation. I realised that in order to do justice to these stories in my work, I first had to learn to sit with my own discomfort. More recently I’ve been able to extend this concept to my writing – learning to sit with the discomfort that comes from not writing a nice linear journal article with clear conclusions, but instead writing an article that reflects the reality of my participants’ lives and is okay with a conclusion that effectively says “I don’t know what this means”.
But sitting with the discomfort isn’t just about suicide research and prevention. It can be useful in so many other research contexts and in daily life. Sitting with the discomfort is at the core of the contemporary mindfulness movement (including Acceptance & Commitment Therapy) and vipassana meditation; Toni Bernhard has written beautifully about its importance for people with chronic conditions & their carers; and much of Brene Brown’s great work also embraces this approach.
So the next time you encounter mess, pain, or controversy in your research (or your life), ask yourself: Why is this making me uncomfortable? Can I sit with it for just a little bit longer? Can I observe it without trying to fix it or run away from it? Can I find a way to talk or write about this that honours the messiness and confusion? And, as with all things, remember moderation is the key. Because sometimes not sitting with the discomfort is okay too.