Anticipatory Discomfort as a Roadblock for Social Justice

Anticipatory Discomfort as a Roadblock for Social Justice

By Ashley Myhre, M.A., LAMFT

Social justice starts with recognizing why social justice is important.  And understanding why it’s important is right in our wheelhouse as systemic thinkers and therapists.  Social Justice is defined as, “Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society” (Social justice, 2018).  Within the United States, presently and historically, wealth, opportunities, and privileges are not equitably distributed.

Wealth, opportunities, and privileges are inequitable, because our systems were set up to be inequitable.  As systemic therapists we know that a system is larger than the sum of its parts.  We, as individuals, didn’t create these inequitable systems.  They have been in place for a long time.  And the systems are bigger than any of our own individual actions.  That doesn’t mean that what we do individually has no consequences, though.  Going back to our cybernetic roots, the systems continue because there is not enough sustained and intentional positive feedback to dismantle the systems and allow them to find new points of homeostasis.

 In my conversations with colleagues, and particularly white colleagues, in Minnesota and across the country, the most frustrating hurdle I have faced in talking about concepts related to social justice, is people shutting down at the anticipation of feeling shame, guilt, or fear.   Just the thought of talking about things like racism; just the potential for maybe experiencing difficult feelings stops us before we even get started.  We expect the conversations will be hard and feel bad, and so we evade and derail them any way we can: by being silent, leaving the room, crying and making it all about our own guilt, avoiding certain people or events, becoming defensive, changing the topic, pretending to be “color blind,” getting angry, etc.  All because we feel (even if only subconsciously or physiologically) like we can’t handle some temporary experiences of fear, shame, and guilt.  And those temporary feelings are temporary.  What a small burden compared to the inequalities, oppression, prejudice, discrimination, and discomfort that people of color experience on a daily basis.

To continue with racism as an example, racism is a systemic problem.  Racism is not the same as prejudice and discrimination.  When I acknowledge that I am racist, because I benefit from the systemic privilege of my whiteness, that does not mean that I hold malice or prejudice in my heart, or intentionally discriminate against people of color.  I lose nothing by acknowledging that I have privilege because I am white, except for my own willful ignorance of that privilege and its consequences.  Reality doesn’t change if you ignore it and pretend it’s not true.  It’s just going to be even harder when you do eventually remove your blinders.  And racism could be replaced, in this example, with any systemic oppression, and it would still be true.  Heterosexuality is privileged.  Maleness is privileged.  Monogamy is privileged.  Wealth is privileged.  Christianity is privileged.  Cisgenderness is privileged.  The choice of whether or not to have awareness of these systems, and the choice of whether or not to engage in social justice, is relegated to the dominant, privileged groups.  Privilege comes with power.  And privilege comes with choice.

To make systemic change, we need to change ourselves.  We need to stop stopping before we even get started.  Calm yourself, soothe yourself, practice self-compassion.  Do what you need to do to push through.  To lean into the discomfort.  See your privilege, and use the power and choice that comes with it.  Because the reality is, if you’re choosing willful ignorance, if you’re choosing to ignore the inequalities in society, and your own experiences of privilege and oppression, you’re damaging all of us.  It’s time to disrupt the system.  A system that is socially unjust.  A system that causes harm.  Stop being a source of cybernetic negative feedback, and make some real change.  Because you’re not in the business of hurting people.


Social justice. (2018). In  Retrieved from

Originally published with edits by
Minnesota Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
(2018). MAMFT News, 36(4).