A Different Perspective on Emotional Tolerance

The term “emotional tolerance” is a common phrase that is used when people think about how to cope with what we would consider negative emotions. We learn to just power through the sadness, loneliness, frustration, anxiety until they subside. Or if you haven’t learned to “tolerate” the emotions you might turn to distracting or numbing by binge watching Netflix, or binge eating or drinking. That’s why we use the word “tolerance” when thinking about how to cope with these feelings. You tolerate things that are distressing or frustrating to you versus accepting and working with them.

I’m not saying that learning to tolerate your emotions through healthy coping skills is a bad thing by any means, I think it’s wonderful. However, I do think that there is another step that we can take to make emotions that normally cause us distress less distressing. This step can lead us to not experience the emotion as distressing as it might be if you are just tolerating it.

What if you changed the way you perceived the emotion itself versus just learning to cope with it? When you think of an emotion like sadness, what is the initial thought that you have? It might be “that’s not something I want to feel, let me try to distract myself until it goes away.” This type of thought teaches us that the feeling of sadness is inherently bad. It might be hard to do at first, we are hardwired as human beings to want to feel good, so when we have an emotion like sadness our natural tendency is to want to push it away. The problem is that when we tell ourselves “I don’t want to feel sad” we are making the experience of sadness that much worse, if it’s already there then resisting it will only make it worse.

So how do you go beyond just tolerating emotions to perceiving them as something that doesn’t need to “go away”? There are a few steps you can take to learn how to relate more positively to your negative feelings:

  • Be Curious. Watch your initial reaction to the negative feeling you have. If it’s resistance, try asking yourself “I wonder what is bringing up this feeling in me right now?”
  • Show compassion towards yourself and the emotion. It’s normal to want to get rid of the emotion, but next time, try showing yourself some kindness by saying things like “I know this is difficult for you, I’m here for you.”
  • Remember that emotions are usually there for a reason, to communicate something to you. If you frame the emotion as a messenger versus something scary, it can help change your relationship to the emotion to working with the feeling rather than want to get rid of it.

If you are having trouble managing the emotions you are experiencing, feel free to reach out to see if we may be a good fit.