Are you trying to rid yourself of uncomfortable emotions or feel controlled by your feelings? Maybe you want to cut anxiety out of your life or finally get over your grief. Perhaps you’re tired of the same old jealousy or fear that keeps holding you back. Learning to build your emotional tolerance could be your key to emotional freedom.
Imagine if you compassionately responded to your feelings in the moment rather than getting pent up, overwhelmed, or exploding. Imagine riding the waves of emotions without drowning or becoming disconnected. You could feel more present, less stressed, and more in tune with yourself. It’s a path toward living authentically. This blog is intended to help you build a practice of tolerating emotional distress of all kinds.
No one seeks out opportunities to feel emotional pain. Yet emotional distress is a universal part of life. We all will experience moments of hurt, anger, fear, jealousy, grief and anxiety. Most of us believe we cannot bear to feel the full depth of these feelings. This adds secondary suffering as we fear we cannot handle our own emotional pain.
Our natural discomfort with distressing feelings often results in efforts to avoid, numb, or deny these experiences. We tend to engage in unhealthy behaviors to accomplish this. We try to ignore the feelings, bottle them up, or numb them out with distractions, alcohol, shopping. Ironically, all of these efforts only serve to make the distressing feeling stick around longer. The unprocessed feeling is left to fester, like an infected wound with a useless bandage stuck on top so we don’t have to look at it but still have to feel it.
There are negative consequences of this distress avoidance. Over time, you may experience the physical symptoms of stress exhaustion: poor sleep, headaches, bodily pain, stomach upset, or fatigue. Bottled up feelings also can result in irritability and misdirecting emotions. We end up blowing up at small things, feeling irritable for no obvious reason, or taking it out on ourselves with a running dialog of negative self-talk. It’s an added layer of suffering.
Learning to tolerate emotional distress will allow you to acknowledge and hold space for your own emotional world without losing yourself. You allow yourself to be with rather than resist what you’re feeling.
Steps to Build Emotional Tolerance
Accept that all emotions have value.
At it’s core, emotional tolerance requires us to think differently about feelings than we may have before. We must learn to accept all feelings without judgement. So rather than identifying certain feelings as “right” or “good” while others are “wrong” or “bad,” we allow feelings to just be information. All humans have the capacity to feel the full range of emotions. And these emotions serve to help us understand and experience ourselves and our lives. Feelings rise from the meaning we give to our thoughts and experiences. While certain feelings may be more comfortable and pleasant, it is important to accept that all feelings are a valuable part of the fabric of being human.
Accurately identify your feelings.
Being with your feelings involves accurately recognizing your emotional state. Many people mislabel their feelings and thus manage them incorrectly. Perhaps you were raised in a family or culture where expressions of anger was unacceptable or showing sadness was discouraged. Maybe you were given clear messages early in life to “suck it up” and avoid ever expressing vulnerability. This can lead you to avoid or deny certain feelings. So you might say you’re stressed out rather than angry or tired rather than sad. See if you can recognize any stigma you may have developed about certain feelings as being unacceptable. Give yourself permission to experience the full range of feelings. Experiencing feelings is different than expressing them.
Practice sitting with your feeling.
Developing a practice of sitting with your feelings allows you to gradually develop your confidence in tolerating distress. Emotions naturally rise, fall, and shift throughout the day. See if you can begin a gentle practice of periodically taking a pause from your day to sit with your feelings. Maybe you can start by doing this at a certain time of day when you expect to have quiet with no interruptions. Or maybe you can try this when you feel tension rising in your body as a way of taking inventory. Sit quietly and take several focused breaths. Scan your body for sensations, just noticing what you feel without judgement. Choose a feeling you want to focus on, like sadness, and see where you feel it in your body. Take your time to feel the full depth and texture of this feeling. Remind yourself that you are safe. Feelings are temporary. Keep breathing so you feel grounded. Gradually lengthen the amount of time you spend in this exercise.
There are guided meditations available online to help you build this emotional tolerance practice. One excellent resource with meditations for downloading is:
Emotional expression or release.
Allowing yourself to be with your feelings may naturally result in an outward expression or release of this energy. No one else needs to even be involved as you allow these feelings to bubble outward. Communicating your feelings to someone else is entirely different. This is also not about problem solving or just getting over it. Instead, this is the act of acknowledging your feeling and letting it out, which can feel profoundly satisfying. Give yourself permission to fully honor your feelings in a way that’s authentic to you. You might feel drawn to have a good cry or yell into a pillow or write a lengthy journal entry. You might just have a good sigh. As long as you don’t find yourself wanting to harm yourself or someone else, there’s no wrong way to release this emotional energy.
Seek help when needed.
Knowing when to seek help in this process is important. If you find yourself feeling unable to sit with your emotions for even a few moments at a time or using self-destructive ways of managing distress, it may be time to speak to a mental health provider. People with a history of trauma may also need a professional to help manage and gradually tolerate these feelings safely. Skilled mental health providers can provide the guidance and security some people require to deeply process distressing emotions and let them go.
Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, postpartum issues, wellness, relationships, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Dr. Smith, please contact Lakefront Psychology, LLC at 216-870-9816.