Can you cope?
We tolerate discomfort all the time – without really even noticing we’re doing it.
Think about a time you went to a barbecue or outside event and you were having a wonderful time all afternoon but as the sun set, you began to feel really cold. You’re laughing and enjoying the great company and conversation so you put up with the cold and stay outside long after you first noticed it.
That’s comfort with discomfort.
Going to the dentist, using a public restroom, staying up past the point when you get tired. These are all situations where you’re likely to experience discomfort and think very little of it.
You know it doesn’t feel great but you’re able to stay with it because it suits you better to do so.
Yet, when it comes to ‘negative emotions’, we find the discomfort much more difficult to tolerate.
If I asked you to make a list of negative emotions, I imagine you’d include things like anger, fear, vulnerability, frustration and many others.
But what makes these emotions “negative”? This is a word we generally associate with something ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ so how have we come to associate it with our emotions? For most of us, at some point in our childhood, we learn that these emotions are to be squashed, managed, avoided, lessened or hidden away and so we come to believe there is something wrong with them – and something wrong with us for repeatedly feeling them.
I believe it has something to do with the behaviours we exhibit when we feel these emotions. When children feel scared or angry etc. their behaviour can be very difficult to manage – and very difficult to understand – so they aren’t always met with empathy. Instead, they’re told to ‘calm down’, ‘stop being ridiculous’, ‘stop being naughty’ and a whole host of other things. Over time, I believe the messages about behaviour get mixed up with messages about emotions and if that happens, we grow up with a preference for avoiding our feelings rather than feeling them because we haven’t learned what to do with them.
This discomfort is exacerbated if we also expect that we’re meant to be happy all the time.
Not Negative. Uncomfortable.
Ironically, learning how to manage these emotions is one of the prerequisites for happiness because our happiness can only remain stable if it isn’t threatened every time we feel something else. It’s a bit like being able to have an argument with your partner – if every argument signalled that the relationship was broken and failing, it would be over very quickly. While, if every argument led the two people to understand each other better and become closer, the relationship would actually become more stable over time rather than less stable. Arguments would therefore become uncomfortable but not negative because they ultimately lead to positive outcomes.
Emotions are the same. They aren’t negative but they are uncomfortable. They are our ‘threat detection system’ and they carry important information with them. They alert us to things – either within or around us – that require our attention.
Being able to manage them productively requires us to ‘listen’ to what they have to say. The belief that these emotions are ‘negative’ sometimes comes from the belief that we’re not supposed to feel the way we feel.
“I’m just being silly.”
Thinking this way causes us to try and ignore or numb out the feeling – believing it to be bad or worthless but this usually just makes them stick around for longer or come back harder and louder some other time. This is one of the ways we keep negative cycles alive or make them worse.
Habits to help you get comfortable with discomfort
- Make the choice to feel it. In her book, “90 Seconds to a life you love”, Dr Joan Rosenberg explains that emotions generally come in waves that last about 90 seconds at a time. She calls her method for managing those 90 second bursts “The Rosenberg Reset” and the first step is to consciously make the choice to go through the experience.
- Focus on your breath. The power of deep breathing cannot be overstated when it comes to calming your nervous system. The majority of the discomfort that comes from emotional experiences is physical so your ability to calm your body drastically increases your ability to move through your emotions productively.
- With focus on the present moment, figure out how you need to think/ what you need to do to make good use of the emotion.
Over time, your ability to manage emotions this way helps take the sting out of uncomfortable emotions. They become part of your everyday experience and you treat them as valuable. This allows you to take decisive action and make changes in your life that gradually contribute more and more to your happiness.
Emotions: Earlier podcast episodes
This 5-part mini-series provides a more in-depth look at emotions, how they work and how to feel more in control of your emotional experiences.
Comments and Questions
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The content shared here is based on my experience. I am not a therapist. If you’re experiencing emotions you’re struggling to manage on your own, please seek the help of a qualified professional to guide you accordingly.