What it is and how to enhance it
By Dr T J Jordan
Our tolerance for physical pain has been well studied — but our tolerance for emotional pain is poorly understood. In fact it’s called “distress” tolerance — which seems to imply that it’s something less than pain.
Our emotions color our sensations. We know that certain physical states — such as depression — make painful sensations feel worse. And we know also that the endorphins that flood us at the end of a demanding test of physical endurance such as a race, leave us feeling no pain, at least for the moment.
But what about the emotional pain that is part of all our lives? And since we all experience this kind of suffering, how can we raise our tolerance?
Pain and Suffering
First of all, raising our tolerance for emotional pain doesn’t mean suppressing our feelings. In fact, a most important step in building our tolerance is acknowledging the painful emotion — that means feeling it.
Pain is physical — suffering is emotional.
This means that physical discomfort and emotional distress are not the same thing, even though they overlap in powerful ways. We know that our bodies bear the wounds of our emotional traumas, especially when we trap our emotions. And we know that our minds have great power over our experiences of body pain.
Suffering is psychological resistance to pain. While we all experience pain, we don’t need to prolong our suffering through resistance.
The idea of resistance is key to radical acceptance and related healing practices. When we resist, we use our energies to suppress painful thoughts and memories. We suffer. We rehearse our misery by being engaged in trying to shut it down. We exhaust ourselves.
But suppression is not a successful strategy in the long run because the damaged bits raise their heads again and again.
Building Emotional Tolerance
Emotional tolerance is the ability to feel the full spectrum of our emotions fully, without resistance or overwhelm.
The pain of loss is probably the greatest emotional wound we experience. This can be loss by death, loss by abandonment, or even loss from the end of a relationship. We also suffer from anxiety about what might happen in the future. In addition to acknowledging and feeling our pain, we need to work toward integrating the wound into our sense of self.
Regardless of the origin of our suffering, we can follow these guidelines to raise our tolerance:
— Experience the hurt without trying from the very beginning to resist it.
When we resist, we don’t have the opportunity to feel the emotion. We try to exile it from our consciousness — and to exile the wounded part of ourselves along with it. We teach ourselves that the hurt is too terrible to bear.
There are many parts to us — and many times that we will be wounded. If we continue to exile our wounds and our wounded parts, we will drastically reduce our emotional landscapes and restrict the parts of ourselves that we are willing to embrace and share.
Know that feeling the hurt is the best way to begin getting rid of it. We can even permit ourselves some time to wallow. But resisting the emotion simply delays the encounter — while allowing resentments to simmer beneath.
— Remember that finding out the reason why something happened is not the primary key to healing.
Understanding can be a fundamental aspect of acceptance. But understanding sometimes privileges the mind when the heart is aching.
What understanding usually means to us is finding an explanation for what happened. For example, we might discover that our partner who was abusive to us came from a background of abuse themselves.
We are tempted to run to our beautiful minds to help us find resolution. But the pursuit of resolution is rarely what we expect it to be. And knowing the reason doesn’t really make our suffering any less.
Learn to pay more attention to your heart. Our human minds are magnificent, but we often forget to focus on our hearts.
— Change the habit of second-guessing yourself.
When something goes wrong, especially when it’s something important like a relationship, we tend to ask ourselves repeatedly,: “What did I do or fail to do that caused this?” And, “Why wasn’t I enough?” We often ask ourselves these questions when we experience a romantic breakup.
This is a failure truly to accept ourselves and our behaviors. This is a denial of self that comes from the idea that we should have done better or been more.
Remind yourself that when we can’t find sufficient explanation elsewhere, we revert to the very human tendency to blame ourselves.
— Practice radical acceptance.
This means accepting that the hurt happened as well as that we got wounded in the process.
This means learning to embrace the parts of ourselves that got hurt and then lost in the wilderness of suppressed emotions.
Learn about the many parts of yourself, especially those you have sent into exile. And start to embrace them.
— Understand that holding on to pain because it feels like holding on to what is lost is not a good strategy for building tolerance.
When we hold on to what is gone or over, we rehearse our hurtful experiences. We continue hurting ourselves with our thoughts and memories. Sometimes we engage in voluntary suffering — and that’s okay as long as it’s time limited.
Pain can feel like a bridge between us. We say that we don’t ever want to forget. But holding on to the hurt too long isn’t holding on to the whole person or who we were when we were with them or younger or healthier.
Practice thought stopping in order to extinguish this habit.
The goal here is to help people feel the spectrum of human emotions without being exhausted and depleted by resisting emotions that hurt.
When we resist our emotions, we wind up feeling that something remains forever unsolved and unresolved. We trouble ourselves over and over again in our efforts to find a good answer for why we got hurt.
But we usually do better to accept rather than try to solve. In our intimate relationships in particular, we do better to accept our partners rather than act the role of therapist in attempts to find their reasons.
Building tolerance requires a two-pronged approach because we need to “accept” the hurtful event as part of our reality, as well as to “accept” ourselves as wounded. We need to try practicing some radical acceptance toward our wounded selves as well as toward our frequently unjust and harshly unfeeling world.
(Find out about scheduling a free thirty minute individual or couples therapy session with me here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am a concierge clinical psychologist in private practice with an emphasis on remote sessions. I provide practical psychological strategies to enhance love, sex, and intimacy, as well as personal growth. I combine life lessons with clinical psychology in a mentorship framework. Together we collaboratively explore ways to celebrate self and self-in-relationship.)
Many thanks for reading!