Distress Tolerance Part 1: Being Comfortable With Negative Feelings
Updated: Feb 25
If you Google, “The power of positive thinking”, or any similar phrases; you get 245,000,000 results. You could find self-help books, quotes, images, blogs, podcasts, videos, films, scholarly articles, and so much more material on positive thinking, that it would drown you. There is a lot of research connecting positive thinking to a happier and healthier life. Positive perspective helps with finding new solutions, increasing tolerance for discomfort, and keeping mental and physical health issues at bay.
At the same time, we need to acknowledge the reality that it is not possible to be positive all the time. Humans are hardwired to be more sensitive to negativity. If you think of it, we remember negative experiences more vividly and for a longer time than our positive, happy moments. We dwell on and ruminate about negative thoughts much more often than positive thoughts. We have to make an extra effort to think positively.
When we humans were living in the jungle, our survival depended on thinking of the worst possible situation. We needed to be alert and ready, just in case the rustling sound outside of our cave was not leaves but a tiger, or a bear moving around. It made sense to think of the worst outcome and be prepared; because our survival depended on it. That organic hardwiring of our brain is still intact. Even when we do not face life-threatening situations on a daily basis, our brain is always looking out for danger.
And sometimes we do not want to think positive. The situation is still fresh, our feelings are raw and delicate, and our thoughts are reactive. Negative feelings like worry, sadness, fatigue, helplessness, and rejection are real for that time and might be justified to an extent. We want to ruminate about the unpleasant outcome, envision the worst, and just sit there doing nothing.
The world around us is trying to help us get over it. A concerned friend tries to console us and offers to go for coffee, a loving sibling wants to reassure that things will work out, our spouse tells us to look at the positive side of the issue. But we don’t want to do that. We don’t want to look at the bright side or imagine the silver lining. We are angry, upset, disappointed and we want to remain that way. Is that alright??
Being comfortable with uncomfortable
It is OK to be with your negative self and acknowledge it because we cannot be positive all the time.
It is alright to say, “This sucks!!” when there is no other way to feel about it. It is fine to sit with that negative emotion or thought for a while. Be comfortable with discomfort instead of hurrying to get over it. Just as we need a small amount of anxiety to get motivated, we also need a few negative experiences in life to get to know who we really are and what really matters to us. Pain and distress are part of life. You cannot avoid them. Fighting them only increases pain and suffering.
What can you do?
There are a few things you can do to tolerate negative feelings without making them worse.
Radical acceptance- Own the negative thoughts and feelings. Do not blame yourself, others, or the situation. Just say that I am upset about what happened. Stay away from judging yourself, others or the situation. This is the first step towards positive change. Accepting reality does not mean you are condoning it.
Be mindful - Be aware that whatever you are feeling and thinking right now is not helpful to solve the problem. It is OK to feel this way because your experience is validating that.
Crisis survival - Small acts like; lighting a candle, putting on your favorite lotion, eating your favorite snack, or listening to your favorite song can make a big change. Seek something that comforts your soul. Soothe your senses.
Be watchful - Watch your behavior. Sitting in the negative space for a day or two is fine. If someone just broke your heart, you are not going to bounce back in a day. Just be aware of how it is affecting you. Are you avoiding contact with other people, are you exploding with anger over small matters, or are you not able to get out of bed? Impulsive actions lead to making the situation worse. If the pattern continues for more than 2-3 days in one week; seek help. Talk to a trusted person in your life.
Being comfortable with negative thinking and emotions does not mean we are submitting to them or acting on them. We know that this is temporary, and we need to get back on track. We know that by looking for the silver lining, we might find a way out. And we will. Just at this moment, when the floods have subsided, the wind has died down, and the damage is real, it’s alright to say that this is horrible and I feel completely overwhelmed. Acknowledging your negative feelings is the first step towards positive action.
PathWise Productions, Inc (2014). DBT Training manual.
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