Every emotion serves a useful purpose, even our bad feelings. Anger, for example, arises when we sense that someone is threatening our wellbeing and we need to defend ourselves. Embarrassment is often the emotional signal that tells us we’ve made a small mistake and need to correct it. Feeling guilty can boost our motivation to become a better person after we’ve committed an act that damages an important relationship and violates our own values.
Our negative emotions either make us or break us. We either become consumed in ruminating over worst case consequences lurking over the horizon or we use bad feelings as a springboard to strive even harder for successful outcomes. In fact, studies show that the key to predicting success in difficult situations – whether dealing with business challenges, marital conflicts or parenting problems – is the ability to tolerate distress.
You may be asking, “Why would I want to develop my skills for becoming comfortable with psychological pain? (And isn’t this column supposed to be about achieving happiness?)” I want you to be happy, but the truth is no one is positive 100% of the time. Surveys show that the happiest people are distressed about 25% of the time. But because they’re good at handling their bad feelings they don’t stay unhappy for long.
Positivity and optimism are essential ingredients for attaining the 75% happiness level. But being able to harness the energy that evolves from negative emotions is essential if you want to achieve an optimal level of success and satisfaction. Dealing effectively with the dark side of the human experience gives you an extra 25% edge over those who can only cope well when life is copasetic.
Distress tolerance, as psychologists call it, is a quality akin to being able to survive at a camp site in the wilderness where you have to contend with weather, critters and no toilets. You may not be nearly as comfortable as when you’re staying at a 5 star resort being waited on hand and foot, but you’re also likely to miss out on feeling wiser and stronger, more adaptable and accomplished.
Many Americans have achieved a comfortable lifestyle, and their children grow up assuming that level of comfort is to be expected. These families experience a narrow, mostly pleasant range of emotions free from the gut wrenching hardships associated with issues such as poverty or serious illnesses. As a result, they develop little knowledge or capability for contending with the negative emotions that accompany devastating circumstances.
Living a life filled with material comforts and conveniences can lead people to become dependent on external goodies (shopping, drinking, etc.) in order to feel good. This lowers their psychological immunity to uncomfortable situations and inconvenient realities.
This hedonistic lifestyle makes it hard for many young people to launch into adulthood after graduating. They find that starting on the bottom rung of the ladder is problematic: the pay doesn’t afford them enough to satisfy their desire for external gratification and the prospect of having to work themselves up from low level jobs is repugnant. They’re used to someone else working hard to pay the bill for their 5 star lifestyle.
People who are able to withstand painful emotions are far more resilient when facing big challenges. They have “grit” – that powerful combination of passion and perseverance. Passion to achieve an outcome that they dearly desire and the perseverance to work hard until they get there.
Psychologists have observed that people who are psychologically wounded react the same way that they do when they’re physically injured. If you sprain your wrist you restrict its use. If a friend hurts your feelings you restrict your interactions with them. While it seems that avoiding someone who’s psychologically attacked you would lesson your anxiety, just the opposite is true – worry about the relationship will intensify over time.
Rather than avoiding painful emotions, accept them. But do not become them. Think of distressing emotions as background noise, like music playing in the elevator. You can be aware of your feelings without being flooded by them. Like walking in the rain – it’s annoying, but tolerable, and you know you’re not going to drown. You can simply observe your discomfort.
You can learn to be an observer of your emotions rather than an actor who must say or do something to show how they’re feeling. Once you set yourself apart from your pain, it will become tolerable and give you time to think how to best respond to the distressing situation.