Tolerance of Distressful Emotions

In Ritual Humanism® when we refer to Tolerance, we’re not talking about tolerating people or places that are different from us. The tolerance we are talking about is the tolerance of distressful emotions.

Negative and painful emotions are a part of life. There is no way to avoid them. They are useful in warning us that something is wrong. If we avoid them, we could be missing important messages about our wellbeing.

If we wish to live a reasonably happy and successful life, we need to learn to tolerate distressful or negative emotions.

I must admit that spending the day writing is my way of coping with some distressful emotions. You see, my 15 year old Pomeranian died just a few days ago. Loss is the most distressful trigger for me, and the attending emotions are the feelings I work on the hardest to tolerate.

Writing this is a way for me to feel the sadness and yet not wallow in it. At the same time I am tempering my feelings, I’m able to get something productive done. That is our goal - not to do away with negative emotions, but to learn ways to feel them and get on with our lives.

This is Merriam-Webster’s full definition of distress:

1 a:  seizure and detention of the goods of another as pledge or to obtain satisfaction of a claim by the sale of the goods seized
   b:  something that is distrained

2 a:  pain or suffering affecting the body, a bodily part, or the mind: trouble (gastric distress)
   b:  a painful situation :  misfortune

3:    a state of danger or desperate need (a ship in distress)

What we are discussing here is uncomfortable or distressful emotions. Almost everyone has emotions that they find uncomfortable. I say almost because there are people who don’t feel uncomfortable even with what most people would find difficult to tolerate. That is a problem that I have not experienced nor have I researched it, so I won’t be discussing that here. Leave it to say; not feeling uncomfortable can be as hazardous as feeling too upset in that we would not take measures to change situations that are dangerous and need to be changed.

There are three groups of emotions that can cause enough distress that they cause long-term problems if not dealt with in a healthy way. They are Sadness, Anger, and Fear. I could write all day just on the names of the emotions in each of these categories. Let me name just a few.

Sadness includes pain, despair, guilt, shame, depression, grief, and misery. They include the physical feelings of low energy, fatigue, and heaviness as well as the more aroused reactions of intense crying, restlessness, and the urge to run away.

Anger includes disgust, jealousy, rage, hatred, and fury. These are among the most distressing of the anger group. Some people become distressed over more mild emotions such as frustration and irritation. The physical feelings are tension, increased heart rate, increased breathing, sweating, feeling warm and agitated.

Fear includes nervousness, anxiety, dread, fear, panic, terror, and others. The physical reactions are similar to anger. In fact, some psychologists, myself included, believe it is the source of anger. Every angry person I know is really a fearful person at heart. Again, some people are distressed over even mild forms of fear. I, for example, react strongly to even a startle. It sometimes takes me several minutes to recover. Yet I love to watch horror movies. This shows that it isn’t the fear itself that causes the distress, but our interpretation of it. If we believe that the emotion is bad, and not to be tolerated, we will struggle and try to avoid it all the more.

For some people, all negative emotions are distressing. They seem to have a heightened sensitivity to discomfort. Before I learned to tolerate the fear I feel when startled, it used to erupt into a big burst of anger at whoever caused the sudden shock.

The paradox is that the more we fight or avoid an emotion, the stronger the distress becomes. Most times the only way to avoid the long-term negative effects of an emotion is to experience it.

Use this checklist to see if you are more sensitive than the average person.
Check all the statements that apply to you.

Sensitivity to Distressful Emotions Checklist

  Being upset is unbearable to me.
  When I’m upset about something it is all I can think about.
  I can’t stand feeling upset.
  My feelings of emotional pain sometimes completely take over.
  There is nothing worse that being upset over something.
  I don’t see to tolerate trouble as well as most people.
  I would do anything to avoid being upset.
  Being upset is always a major ordeal for me.
  I am ashamed when I feel upset.
  When I am distressed I must fix it right away.
  Feelings of distress are not acceptable.

(Members can go to the Members' PDFs page for a PDF version of this Sensitivity to Distressful Emotions Checklist.)

If you find yourself agreeing with more than a couple of the above statements,
you may be one of the more sensitive people.

Psychologists believe that there are two sources of sensitivity to negative emotions. The first is biological. Some people are just born that way. That doesn’t mean that you can’t learn ways to tolerate these emotions. You just have to work at it. Trust me, it can be done, and it is worth it!

The other source is environmental. Maybe you grew up among people who didn’t validate your emotions. They told you that you were always overreacting and shouldn’t feel what you were feeling. Perhaps you were even punished for feeling fear or sadness.

Perhaps your caregivers never taught you ways to tolerate emotionally uncomfortable feelings, or worse, you may have been taught destructive ways to cope.

Many of the ways to cope cause more problems than they solve.

Avoiding: Trying to avoid any situation, scenario, place, person, or activity that you know is likely to bring on a negative emotion.

Reassurance seeking: This is when you excessively seek reassurance from other people. It temporarily brings you comfort but the effect is short-lived and you have to be reassured over and over until people avoid you for fear they will have to constantly shore you up.

Checking:  Repeatedly checking your body for symptoms or checking your environment repeatedly for safety. It can also be over-preparing for things like work or social events. Checking behaviors include constantly straightening things or overly questioning or consulting other people’s opinions to calm yourself, as in reassurance seeking. The problem is these things only work short term and you must repeat them ad nauseam.

Pushing Away:  Another destructive coping mechanism involves trying to push away the distress rather than sitting with the emotion and feeling what needs to be felt. Trying to distract yourself from the slightest hint of emotion such as counting or repeating positive statements is a problem because you can’t keep it up for very long. The emotions eventually pop back out and smack you in the face like a beach ball that you are trying to hold under water.

Numbing and Withdrawing: These are common ways to try to distract yourself from those negative emotions. Alcohol, drugs, binge eating, excessive sleep, sex, or TV are all ways of avoiding. You can probably come up with some ideas of your own.

Self-Harm: Many people use physically harmful forms of avoidance rather than allowing our emotions to run their natural course. Scratching, picking, biting, punching, hair pulling, head banging, cutting, or burning yourself are all example of this method of self-harm.

The problem with each of these coping methods is that they only work in the short term. They may seem like a good idea at the time because they do work temporarily. The long-term effects are destructive because:

  • The method itself causes problems in your life.
  • Distressful emotions can worsen because you are trying to avoid a feeling that needs to be felt.
  • By continuing to use these short-term strategies, you never learn productive ways to deal with painful emotions.
  • You never just sit with an emotion to see if you actually can tolerate it. You may find that fighting the discomfort is only making it worse and that going through the emotion isn’t as distressful as you have feared it would be.

The good news is that anyone can learn methods of tolerating distress. No matter what causes your sensitivity, no matter which emotions cause distress, no matter how destructive your avoidance methods are, you can learn to use helpful, healthy ways of coping. This doesn’t mean that you will like being sad or become numb to fear and anxiety.

It is almost impossible to get rid of emotional discomfort. It is a part of life, just like birth and death. We all need to learn to live with those emotions without letting the fear of them limit our lives. If you stick with Ritual Humanism®, you will learn to tolerate emotions and let them pass naturally so that the they can do what they are intended to do.

Our next page details the Ten Signs and Symptoms of Distressing Emotions.