In my last post, I talked about learning to make plans for yourself in the context of possessing a sense of a foreshortened future. This can feel almost impossible if one has poor distress tolerance. Distress tolerance is very important when it comes to learning to make plans for the future because it’s our ability to trust our own resiliency that enhances our self-esteem and gives us a sense that we can overcome present and future challenges.
For example, I used to have very low tolerance for disorder in my environment including loud noises. Well, don’t have children then, I say to my past self. I would feel very marginalized and overwhelmed when loud people entered into my home. I really liked to be hospitable, but I would become very anxious upon seeing a messy kitchen. When my children got old enough to ask for their pre-school friends to come over and play, my initial reaction was one of horror. Another child? In my house? I would consent because I wanted my kids to have fun, but I hated every moment. I felt adrift internally, out of control, and invaded. My environment was too loud, too messy, and disordered.
Why was I like this? Well, I grew up an only child until my mother remarried when I was 11. I was also a latch key kid beginning at the age of 7. I spent most of my young life alone. I’m also an introvert. When I experience stress, my first coping strategy is to seek time alone. My next coping strategy is to clean because cleaning gives me something to do while I process my emotions. When my mother remarried, however, my quiet life of solitude changed. I had two new stepsisters who were both older than I, and my mother’s marriage to her husband can only be described as “nuclear”. The fighting was epic. If you were to watch the movie “War of The Roses” with Kathleen Turner, you might get a sense of what went on in our household for seven years. My stepsisters and I cowered in our bedrooms most of the time hoping that an object thrown in the heat of the moment would not strike our heads. Sometimes it was just so absurd that we emerged just to eavesdrop. Sometimes the cops showed up because a neighbor had complained. I was either terrified or amused at that point. We were that family.
So, as an adult, I had almost no tolerance for normal expressions of frustration, anger, or negativity. If someone looked at me sideways, I would start trembling, and then I would start cleaning something. Must exert control over something. Clean something! Anything! The healthy part of me would speak up and tell me that this was no way to live. I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was anxiety. I didn’t know that it was rooted in PTSD, an anxiety disorder. I didn’t know that I needed to increase my distress tolerance. I just knew that I needed to learn to relax. I needed to learn to leave messes for a while in exchange for some fun, but I had never done that before. I was not allowed to do that growing up. Ever. Growing up, if I left a dish on the counter or, God forbid, crumbs, my mother would lay into me like I had just driven the car through the garage door. If I left streaks on a window or mirror after cleaning them, she would make me do every mirror and window in the house for good measure even if they were already clean. I once attended a birthday party at my next door neighbor’s house. I chose to go to the party first rather than clean my room. I was going to clean my room afterwards. My mother came to the party, humiliated me, and made me leave early because I had not cleaned my room before going. We were not allowed to do anything, enjoy anything, or have fun unless we had met her standards for cleanliness, and her standards were military. She even did the white glove test on my bedroom furniture and once bounced a quarter off my bed to ensure I had made it properly.
I’m not sharing this to vent or garner sympathy. The reason I put this out there is because low distress tolerance exists in people for a reason. Human behavior originates in something. My former inability to enjoy life. filter out the background noises, and deal with a certain amount of environmental chaos was really tied to a tremendous fear of my mother. I was programmed. When I made a point to deal with the root issue, my mother, my distress tolerance for the troublesome environmental factors increased. I began deliberately exposing myself to the very things that caused great anxiety in me. I invited my daughters’ friends over. They made messes. I made myself sit in the discomfort of it. I increased my distress tolerance. I deliberately left crumbs on my kitchen counter. I didn’t make my bed. I even left streaks on the mirror in the bathroom. I made myself miserable so that I could teach myself that I could be highly uncomfortable but functional at the same time.
In my mind, this is the heart of distress tolerance. I work with my daughter on this very idea almost daily. I ask her questions like:
- Can you feel sad but function at the same time?
- Can you hallucinate, know that what you saw was a manifestation of your brain misfiring, feel anxious about it, but still go on to function?
- Can you feel very irritable to the point of wanting to act on it but still choose to do something functional with your body while feeling that feeling?
Tolerating unpleasant emotions does not mean that we accept or justify what caused us to feel that way. I don’t justify my mother’s behaviors. I don’t accept them as life-giving or even good. I do accept, however, that I feel the way I feel. I accept that I don’t like how I feel sometimes when I’m reminded of what I experienced growing up. I also accept that I can feel a negative feeling and still be functional. I don’t have to say, “Nope. Shutting it down. I can’t deal with this.”
What if I can deal with it? What if it’s just so uncomfortable because I’m not accustomed to sitting with it? What if I don’t trust myself to handle it because I was never allowed to feel anything in my former environments? What if I was always told that how I felt didn’t matter? What if I was told that feelings were opinions, and my opinion was stupid? There are a plethora of things that we might have been told that prevented us from realizing our own resiliency, but it doesn’t mean that we accept them as truth. It also doesn’t mean that we can’t begin practicing now. We can, at any time, give up the line, “I can’t deal with this,” and replace it with, “I will learn to deal with this.” Once you change your mindset from one of helpless victim to empowered and learning adult, the world opens up to you. Maybe you won’t like your choices, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t have them.
Yesterday, I had a choice. A family member emailed me–AGAIN–wanting information about my mother. I’ve explained to this person more times than I should have to that I’m not in a relationship with my mother. I don’t want to give too many details because I don’t want to discuss my mother with her. I have never desired to vilify her. Suffice it to say, if an adult child tells a family member that there is no relationship, that suggests that there are problems. Be respectful for goodness’ sake! Don’t keep asking me if I’ve talked to my mother! Don’t you understand what feelings your lack of empathy provoke in me? There is, however, never understanding. So, I get emails that say things like this:
It sure would be nice if I had a picture of you and the girls to show your mother when I see her next month.
I’m not a fan of the passive approach. Just say what you mean. Embedded in this statement is a request that I send her a photograph of my family so that she and my mother can discuss me. Nope. Not gonna happen, and I told her as much. She is getting in the way of a process that has been set in motion. One that has the possibility of actually doing some good. When people begin to interfere, believe my mother’s distortion campaigns, and attempt to force reconciliation, I pay a very high price usually in some form of retaliation. I won’t endure this sort of behavior anymore.
How we bounce back from interactions like these tell us a lot about our distress tolerance. When I read that email, I groaned aloud. I complained to my husband. I emailed my family member, and then it was over. I emotionally moved on. It was contained. No crying. No panic. No cleaning rampage. Alright, I might have said something about someone having the emotional intelligence of a sea anemone. Otherwise, it was handled. I did not say that I couldn’t deal with it. On the contrary, I said, “Good grief, now I have to deal with this!” Take note, however, that my language described my capabilities. I can deal with this even if I don’t want to deal with this. Not wanting to do something is very different from not being able to deal with something.
Distress tolerance. It’s something that every person on the planet needs, and every day provides us with an opportunity to practice it. Once you begin to believe that you have what it takes to tolerate varying degrees of distress, you are that much closer to being able to imagine your own future. Why? Because if the future is scary to you but you believe that you’ve got what it takes to overcome scary and distressful situations, then you’ll have the resiliency to begin taking risks. And making plans about a future that you know nothing about? Really, what’s riskier than that?