Posted by: thealienist | March 25, 2010

Foundations of Mental Health: Tolerance

Consider the times that you made your best decisions.   What did these times have in common?  If you are like many, your best decisions come at times when you are able to take your time, consider the facts that you think are important, and weigh them in your mind to consider the outcomes.  Now consider the times that you made decisions you regret.  You may recall times when you felt pressured to make a decision because a deadline was approaching, because of pressure from a salesman, or because you felt you could not stand the frustration or pain of the situation you were in.  In these instances, a quick decision would resolve a sense of urgency, confusion, frustration, or pain; but it could also lead to long-term problems.

On of the most common problems I come across in my practice is the inability to tolerate distressing emotions.  My patients who have problems with anxiety, depression, frustration, anger, and tension may feel strong impulses to do or say things that later cause them problems with finances, relationships, work, school, or family.  They often come to my office in search of ways to remove, or at least improve, the amount of distress they are suffering from.  While this is understandable, often the solutions to their problems are complex and take time to plan.  Frequently, a useful place to start is to learn to tolerate our emotions.

Before learning to tolerate distress, some find it difficult to control their behaviors.  They act on impulses to escape or avoid their sources of distress.  They eat to escape their feelings of emptiness and hunger.  They spend money to avoid feeling their lonely, impoverished relationships or to escape feelings of control by their family.  They take drugs (legal or illegal) to numb anxiety or depression.  They rush into sexual relationships to escape their isolation.  They immerse themselves in computers, television, and books to avoid conflicted relationships.  These are common, but there are hundreds or thousands of additional ways we try to control our emotions.  But what would happen if we could learn to bear our sufferings calmly and patiently?  What if we could choose not to avoid or escape but to experience our suffering as an important source of information in choosing our path in life?

I believe that much of the long-term suffering we experience in life stems from our unwillingness to tolerate the distress life brings us.  In order to avoid the pain of assuming responsibility for our decisions and our actions, we hide from ourselves and from others.  We seek shortcuts that we hope will bring us happiness and contentedness, but these unconsidered efforts often simply add to our regrets.  The lies that we told to spare our feelings or the feelings of others, the corners we cut to save some effort or avoid a confrontation, and the activities we put off to try to reduce our stress too often return to us causing more stress, more confrontation, and more shame and guilt.  We buy our short-term comfort at the cost of our long-term contentedness.

The good news is that we can learn to tolerate our emotions.  We can be sad without fear of unremitting depression.  We can endure anxiety without life-changing catastrophe.  We can hunger without starving; we can argue without breaking up; and we can feel tense without dying.  In short, we can find that our emotions are nothing to fear but are the spice of our lives.  And once we find that we can endure our emotions, we can reclaim our self-control.  We can make decisions for our lives that we can be proud of and that achieve our highest goals.

Until some of my patients learn to tolerate their emotions, their progress is often slow and irregular.  They often speak of feeling like they take “two steps forward and three steps back.”  This is frequently due to the difficulty of making consistently good decisions while distressed.  Once they are able to patiently endure their distress, they paradoxically find that they have achieved the control they need to control their distress.



  1. You can have no idea how timely this post was. It has followed me all week. Now that I have a less than stellar situation to deal with, I can choose more wisely. Thanks.


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