Beyond Tolerating Emotions: Becoming Comfortable with Discomfortby Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
I have a problem—I can't help but see all sides of an issue. I call it a problem because it is uncomfortable at times. It makes it hard to take a firm stand on things because as soon as I hear the opposing argument, I think, “Well, that makes sense, too.” As a result, I often have to spend time researching things to determine what is accurate. And if I find that both sides have valid points I end up more confused than ever.
Maybe, being able to see disparate points of view is due to my training as a psychologist, maybe it is my nature. I tend to think, perhaps, that it existed prior to my psychological training and is one of the reasons I became a psychologist—because I could understand and empathize with others who were different from me.
Even in high school I always seemed to get along with the different social groups. But maybe that part of my belief is just an illusion I've created—to feel good about myself and to protect myself from uncomfortable emotions about the true beginnings of my empathetic nature.
Isn't that what we do? Create illusions instead of confronting reality? Maybe I really felt that I didn't fit in anywhere and so I created the illusion of getting along with different social groups. I tried to meet everyone's standard of “friend” instead of facing the reality that I was an outsider. And so my empathy most likely came from my feelings of powerlessness and helplessness and was forged into an alliance with other outsiders. In the end, though, it allowed me a deeper understanding of my therapy clients. But, who knows? Maybe that is an illusion, too.
People don't like to live in a state of confusion. Confusion is uncomfortable—it is a mix of all sorts of unnamed emotions. We are fearful of being wrong. We are fearful of being on the outside of a social group. We are fearful of being different or being the one that is labeled “bad” or “evil.” We are fearful of not being loved. But all these things add up to not being acceptable in some way. So we try to find ways to rid ourselves of this knowledge and this discomfort. One common way we do this is to create illusions:
1) The “happy family” illusion. I remember an episode of “Cheers” from years ago that illustrated this concept so perfectly. Frazier was dating a very young woman who asked him to her home for dinner. During the dinner, her recently ex-boyfriend (who she was trying to make jealous) showed up and they started arguing. Her father jumps up and gets in the middle of the argument. Meanwhile her brother is making faces at Frazier and throwing food at him. During all this chaos, the mother is smiling serenely and pleasantly states, “Isn't this nice that we can all be together like this?” (Forgive my paraphrasing as I'm describing this episode from memory)
2) The “everyone likes me” illusion. A person believes that because they don't have conflict with others that everyone likes them. This illusion often coincides with social perfectionism which is the attempt to fit in and avoid conflict by being perfectly acceptable.
3) The “if I try hard enough” illusion. The belief that with enough effort we can change things to be consistent with the illusion. For instance, a woman in an abusive relationship believes that she can change her husband and have the “perfect” relationship.
4) The “I would never do that” illusion. When other people do things that get them in trouble or that are rude or mean, we want to believe that we wouldn't behave in such a way. However, studies have shown that under the right circumstances, more than 2/3's of us will. Milgram's obedience studies showed that obedience to authority was more important than the suffering of another individual. Zimbardo's prison study showed that normal people can degrade into brutish behavior when the norms of society are removed. And Asch's conformity studies demonstrated that people will lie rather than disagree with inaccurate conclusions by a group.
5) The “I am right” illusion. We insist on believing that our way of life, our opinions, our beliefs are the correct ones and anything that doesn't fit with our concepts must be wrong. There is no gray area or room for differences.
6) The “ignore the past” illusion. This is the belief that if we pretend past experiences didn't happen or aren't important, then they can't affect us. Yet, the reality is the past is more likely to affect us when we ignore it and don't learn from our experiences.
But given the nature of illusions, they can be fragile because they are not based in fact but on what we want to be true. As a result, we have to distort reality to protect our illusions and to prevent discomfort:
1) Repetition. We insist that opposing views are wrong, or even “evil.” Anything that could violate our illusions is considered wrong or misinformed and through repetition we convince ourselves that our illusions are the true reality.
2) Reject. We ignore or reject information that doesn't fit our illusions and we refuse to listen to others' contrary views.
3) Refute. Before we even hear opposing views, we immediately refute. By doing so, we prevent uncomfortable information from eroding our fragile illusions.
4) Ridicule. We label those with different views. By labeling them as “misinformed” or “stupid” or “evil” we can validate our refusal to listen to them.
5) Refuse. We often refuse to be friends or associate with people who have different beliefs. Yet, such a strong stance indicates that the illusion is vulnerable. Is the belief so fragile that differences can't be tolerated?
6) Replicate. We try to make others into copies of ourselves. By controlling others and eliminating diversity of ideas and beliefs we validate the correctness of our illusion.
These are all ways to make ourselves more comfortable. Yet, the reality is that different beliefs and opinions can be valid—because they are beliefs and opinions. We can say that the illusions we have created are fact but that doesn't make it so.
However, discomfort is more “real” than comfort—at least if we are being honest with ourselves. I tried to teach my clients to be comfortable with discomfort, some even learned to welcome it. Yes, I mean "welcome." For instance, not long after I learned myself to accept and tolerate my emotions, my grandmother died. I found that in the middle of my grief I also felt ecstatic that I could fully feel the grief! I had the ability to feel the loss instead of ignoring and repressing the emotions. Somehow, in a way I can't really explain, it made me feel closer to my grandmother. It was a liberating experience that taught me to welcome my emotions even when they are unpleasant and seemingly impossible to survive.
I describe the grief I carry through life (as we all do) as a feeling of a hole in my heart, an emptiness that is always there. Accepting that it is there and won't go away is tolerating it. But seeing it as an important part of me, the part that is my humanity, where I carry the losses I have experienced and that helps me to be empathetic with others who experience pain and sorrow and grief allows me to be comfortable with it because it is an important part of who I am.
By doing so, many unpleasant situations become tolerable. I've written much about learning to tolerate emotions and discomfort especially in my mindfulness training and panic management, but being comfortable with discomfort is a step beyond tolerance.
How can we fully understand the motives of others when we don't fully understand ourselves? We spend so much effort creating a persona that provides comfort that we don't fully see ourselves. We want the world to change so that we can keep our illusions. However, it's only through changing ourselves by letting go of these illusions and becoming comfortable with the reality of discomfort that we can change the world.
So, if we want to truly change the world, we need to start with the personal. Instead of insisting that others are wrong, evil, and should change, we need to look at ourselves. Once we can see our illusions we can begin to see the different sides of an issue and have more empathy when others' opinions and beliefs differ. Then, we may have a greater chance of coming together with solutions.
1) Learn to tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty, and discomfort. This is an important first step to eventually becoming comfortable with discomfort. The mindfulness methods can help with this.
2) Recognize illusions. This is very difficult to do because we have spent a lifetime building up the barricades around our illusions. Even, as I tried to illustrate with my personal experience at the beginning of this article, there may be layers to our illusions that we uncover gradually over time. However, only by being able to clearly see illusions can we begin to break down those protective barricades.
3) Stop, listen. Instead of immediately dismissing someone when they disagree with you, especially when it directly attacks your illusions, listen to their ideas. These are opportunities for knowledge and self-understanding. Instead of being afraid of it, welcome it. I know this is hard—I don't want to do it either. I might resist initially but then I try to consider it and see if it is valid.
4) Try to understand. What I've learned from many years as a psychologist is that when I know someone's story, I can better understand their decisions and actions. Even when I don't agree with them. You don't have to be fearful that understanding someone's position might change your own. If your position does change, then maybe it wasn't that strong in the first place. Maybe it was just part of the illusion you created.
5) Grieve the loss of your illusions. So many times I have been asked when a client is leaving a spouse, “Why do I feel so bad when I am better off?” One of the reasons, I explain, is the loss of the illusion—at one time they believed they would live “happily ever after.” So, in many situations, it is the loss of the illusion that a person is grieving. Illusions are often our reality and can be painful to abandon. By recognizing this, it allows you to fully feel and come to terms with the loss.
6) Change viewpoint. All of the above leads to changing your viewpoint about discomfort. However, this is an evolving process and is best achieved by first developing the mindful tolerance of unpleasant emotions. As you do so you will begin to find the purpose and value of those emotions which will eventually allow you to further embrace them.