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3 Steps for Tolerating the Pain of Painful Emotions

We can pretend our painful feelings don’t exist. We can ignore them. We can judge and resist them. And so many of us do, because we think that this will soften the blow. This will help us bypass the discomfort of our hurt, sorrow, agony, anger, anxiety. We assume the feelings will just go away (and they might, but only temporarily).

It might not even be a conscious, willful decision. Avoidance might be a habit we picked up throughout the years, and now feels like an old sweater. Comfortable. Reliable. Our go-to security blanket. When we’re cold, we automatically put it on.

But unaddressed pain persists.

Psychotherapist Monette Cash, LCSW, regularly works with clients who don’t have the ability to endure the discomfort of painful emotions. She believes this stems from judgments that clients or others have placed on them. Cash shared this example: A male client told her that he was feeling overwhelmed at work and guilty because he couldn’t keep up. As a result, he started judging himself as inadequate and unqualified.

You might feel anxious and start judging yourself as weak. Because clearly only weaklings feel anxiety, especially about something so silly. You might feel angry and judge your anger as inappropriate. Because clearly good girls and boys don’t get angry, so you push down those feelings lower and lower until they’re seemingly “gone.”

Instead of judging our feelings (and ourselves), the key is to acknowledge and accept our feelings as they are, which actually relieves discomfort, Cash said. Having emotional tolerance means letting our feelings come — not resisting or judging them — and then letting them go, she said.

We avoid, ignore, judge, resist or run away from our pain — whether on purpose or not — in hopes of avoiding the ache. But the paradox is that by doing these things, we only create suffering. We only make ourselves more miserable.

Cash teaches her clients the below three-step process called “Don’t React Compulsively” (DRC) to help them tolerate the discomfort of tough emotions. The order of the steps is key, she said. “Many people become impatient not having the solution (part three) right away and skip steps one and two to achieve that outcome.” But our emotional brains can’t process everything around us, so the goal is to essentially “buy time,” as we get to the last part, she said.

  1. Distract.
    First distract yourself from the situation that is causing emotional pain, said Cash, who practices at Wasatch Family Therapy in Salt Lake City, Utah. This is different from avoidance, she said. With distraction, you’re shifting the focus away from painful feelings for a bit. Distraction techniques might be anything from counting to paying bills to washing dishes to watching a short video, she said. This step should take 10 to 30 minutes.
  2. Relax.
    Relaxation might include deep breathing exercises, meditation, progressive relaxation or visual imagery, Cash said. The key, she noted, is that it’s easy and accessible. This step also takes 10 to 30 minutes.

    Here are some ideas for practicing deep breathing and visual imagery. This page features audio meditations from psychologist and Psych Central blogger Elisha Goldstein.

  3. Cope.
    Here Cash teaches a skill called “Wise Mind” to “balance logic with emotion.” This is important because being overloaded in one area — emotion — or the other — logic — prolongs suffering, she said. Instead, we need both emotion and logic to make good decisions and cultivate healthy relationships, she said.“

    Wise mind basically shifts the brain from emotion overload (termed ‘flooding’) from the limbic system (‘emotional brain’) to balance it out with logic (prefrontal cortex or the ‘rational brain’).”

    An example of Wise Mind is cognitive restructuring, which involves “replacing a powerless, victimizing thought with something empowering.”

For instance, according to Cash, you’d replace “What will I do?!” (a powerless thought) with “I will handle it” (an empowering thought). You’d replace “I’m never satisfied” with “I want to learn and grow.” And you’d replace “It’s a problem” with “It’s an opportunity.”

Cash was working with a client, Jan, who kept telling herself, “I am a terrible mom!” As Cash writes in this piece, “She had a long list of reasons to support this belief and spent a great deal of time obsessing over why she was not a good mom. Jan reacted by yelling, criticizing, and using extreme forms of punishment, which caused her daughter to become withdrawn and increased alienation.” Jan’s self-judgment and criticism kept her stuck and created suffering. Together Cash and Jan worked on moving from the perspective “what I am doing wrong” to “what I can do right.”

People “who accept pain in life move through it faster rather than [individuals who] resist [it],” Cash said. Again, “Not dealing with it and avoiding painful feelings guarantees they will circle back.”

Sad man photo available from Shutterstock

3 Steps for Tolerating the Pain of Painful Emotions


Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.


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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). 3 Steps for Tolerating the Pain of Painful Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 7, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/3-steps-for-tolerating-the-pain-of-painful-emotions/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 30 Sep 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.