I posted last week about my lovely sweet kitty passing away, and since then I’ve been largely quiet on the subject. This is probably because my general coping strategy is to try to get rid of anything that makes me feel bad. I am amazing at distracting, at acting opposite to my emotions, at looking like I’m coping fairly well by going to work and doing everything I’m supposed to do. Interestingly enough, this strategy often gets praised: people tell me that I’m doing well, that I’m getting through things, etc. In conjunction with this, I’ve seen a lot of people lately talking about taking the negative influences out of their life. I think that one of the coping methods that our society promotes right now is to simply abandon, ignore, or run away from things that hurt you. On some level this is good: leaving a toxic relationship behind is a great idea, or getting yourself away from a horrible job. If you cannot fix a situation, it might be the best idea in the long term just to leave it.
However I think that this method of coping has gotten extended from one that applies to long term or never-ending situations (in which it’s good) to something we apply to short term situations (which are often good learning experiences or can gain you something in the end). Excising things that are negative is a good coping strategy when there is something in your life which is bad for you and will not end, and whose positive consequences don’t outweigh the negatives. It is not useful in situations that are short term and which you need to be in: for example you need to grieve a loss in order to heal from it. You might need to be able to cope with being temporarily bored because boredom will happen in your life. You should be able to tolerate an unpleasant class because it will end and you know that you need the credits. Removing ALL of the negative things from your life leaves you unprepared to process and tolerate distress. It also often requires stuffing some of the negative emotions you do feel simply by not thinking about bad things that you can’t get rid of (for example the loss of something). Those emotions have nowhere to go, and generally build. A healthy relationship with emotions requires you to be able to tolerate distress in order to process it. Avoiding all distress doesn’t let you do this.
I think that in general as a society we have lost the skills for distress tolerance because we have so many tools available to us to be able to take ourselves out of negative situations. Unfortunately, this means that we often might miss out on a big payout at the end, or leave ourselves floundering when something we can’t avoid comes along. Now I think that when we see a clear physical payout, we’re fine with putting in hard work and tolerating distress: we can work long hours or wait in line for tickets to our favorite band, but that’s because we know exactly what we’re getting out of it.
However in emotional terms we’re far worse at this. I think that in relationships people are not very good at putting up with bad times, because they assume it means things will always be bad. We may be willing to tolerate boredom (although only with our smartphones at our sides), but when we’re put into a situation that makes us feel unwanted or anxious, we bail. We haven’t learned that we can learn skills to help us calm down, to stand up for ourselves, to effectively get what we want and need, and to still validate the other person in a given situation. We haven’t learned that some bad emotions can teach us things.
The problem with this is that when we hide from things that scare us or make us feel bad, we never get around to processing that information, and our brain never gets to the point where the threat feels like it’s gone. We walk around carrying this DANGER sign in our mind indefinitely, still feeling every loss or anger or frustration or fear that we haven’t yet turned off. Our brains need to be told that a threat is gone by understanding the new shape of the world, and in order to do that we have to look at things that hurt. This can be hard. It’s uncomfortable. It feels bad. But it’s also necessary and good, and in the long run will leave us with less stress and anxiety, less anger, and less worry, more content with where we are.
There are ways to feel negativity without it getting out of control. You can give yourself a concrete amount of time to feel it, give yourself something positive to look forward to afterwards, or have other people around. Emotions don’t have to be overwhelming.
And so I suggest that we all take a minute today to be with whatever’s bothering us. Just a minute. A contained moment by ourselves to feel it, well and truly, and then to move on and let it be.