Tolerating Discomfort

“If some longing goes unmet, don’t be astonished. We call that Life.” – Anna Freud

This is essentially the argument for affect tolerance, the ability to tolerate all of our feelings and continue to function; being able to feel all our feelings without compulsively needing to anesthetize ourselves from them. There are always discomforts, disappointments and even tragedies in life. Our ability to bounce back from these experiences is resiliency. We can learn from our feelings, particularly the uncomfortable ones, so long as we are open to having them. If we choose to close ourselves off from these feelings we do so with the cost of impoverishing our genuine experience.

So many of my patients come to me initially seeking relief from “anxiety” or “depression” by which they mean a subjective experience, a feeling, that is uncomfortable or unbearable. Our culture tells us that there is no need to tolerate an uncomfortable feeling. There are medications or new consumer products that can take these feelings away, banish them to the unknown.

But in doing so we flee the here and now for imagined comfort of somewhere else. We trade our lived experience, the only true reality, for some imagined talisman that will end our suffering.

Michael Balint, a Hungarian psychoanalyst, argues that advertising, art, the longed for relationship, all depend upon our yearning for what he calls the transformational relationship. If we could possess that thing or relationship our lives would be transformed and made better.

The hard sell in psychotherapy is that rather than taking uncomfortable feelings away, we work to increase the capacity to tolerate the full range of feelings, including the “bad” ones. So question is not “how can we take that feeling away?” but rather, “how much of that feeling can be tolerated?”

As you can imagine, not everybody wants to take that on. Why not just make the thing that causes discomfort go away? The point is that once a greater capacity to experience feelings without being overwhelmed is reached, greater emotional flexibility and resilience is attained, and that is the proper goal of growth oriented psychotherapy.

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