There is an unfortunate reality in life, sometimes you don’t feel good. This is not “news” to anyone reading this . . . you may even be having a bad day right now! In these moments, do you have the impulse to use a substance to change how you feel? Or engage in some other distracting behavior in order to change how you feel? Do you think you can’t handle a bad day?
What if there is a benefit to allowing yourself to experience those bad feelings without working to make them go away?
That last sentence may sound like heresy…“Why would I just experience something bad if I can make it go away?” While on the surface this approach can seem reasonable, but for many people turning to distractions or things that numb/alter negative experiences are at the crux of the problem. Sometimes, you can’t “make” the bad feelings or the difficult situation change or go away. Sometimes you just need to manage the difficult task of tolerating the difficult moment or feeling. Unfortunately, when you consistently move to distract or numb, you don’t build up strategies or skills to help get through those moments in a way that can increase the odds of a positive outcome.
There’s a perfect metaphor for understanding what happens when you don’t try to tolerate bad feelings or situations. Imagine a baby tiger in your kitchen. Although the tiger is just a baby, he is scary enough, and you think he might bite you. So you go to the fridge to get some meat for him so he won’t eat you. And, sure enough, throwing him some meat shuts him up while he’s eating the meat, and he leaves you alone for a while (and you get to be less anxious or worried). But he also grows just a little bigger. So, the next time he’s hungry, he’s just a little bigger and more scary, and you go to the fridge to throw him some more meat. Again, you feed him to keep him at bay. The problem is that the more you feed him, the bigger he gets, and the more frightened you feel. Now eventually that little tiger is a big tiger, and he scares you more than ever. So you keep going back to the fridge to get more meat, feeding and feeding him, and hoping that one day he will leave you alone. Yet the tiger doesn’t leave – he just gets louder and more scary and hungry. (adapted from Eifert, G.H. & Forsyth J.P. (2005). Acceptance & Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders)
In this metaphor, the tiger represents a bad feeling you might be having (e.g., sadness, loneliness, worry, anger). The feeling might be uncomfortable and maybe even scary. You may be wondering, “why am I feeling this way, how can I make it go away (i.e., hey tiger, how did you get in my kitchen?!?!) or “I really don’t want you here.” When you use substances or engage in a behavior (like eating) to make the feeling go away, it’s the same as throwing the tiger some meat. The feeling goes away for a bit. When you throw the tiger a steak, he goes to his corner to eat and maybe for a moment looks a little less fierce and scary. The problem? Just as in the metaphor, if you keep avoiding the “tiger in the room” by feeding him, he will just get bigger, scarier, and harder to deal with. This is likely true for any emotion you are trying to avoid or numb…it’s probably only going to get bigger and scarier.
In order to move forward and build a life that you really want to live, it’s important to work on tolerating negative feelings and situations. These can include difficult situations at work or with family members and the anxiety about telling someone that you don’t want to do something (or that you would like them to do something different). By tolerating your negative feelings and using skills to handle cravings and urges to use substances, you can prevent yourself from returning to avoidance or numbing behaviors (using is simply throwing that craving tiger a big old steak!). For help on building the skills you can use to help you start to tolerate, read “Skills to deal with Anxiety, Distress, and Cravings and I’m Freaking Out . . . Now What?”, which outlines several specific skills you can start to use.
One important caveat . . . if there is something that you can do to change the situation, it’s important that you use your skills to do that. Using skills is different from just leaving or avoiding your feelings and emotions (which is akin to throwing the tiger a steak). While you might simply have to tolerate how you are feeling, refusing to feed the tiger (which keeps him smaller and less scary) and using skills to change the situation (moving the tiger out of your kitchen, for example) can help you stay true to your goals.
Learning to tolerate your negative emotions and difficult situations helps you build up the muscles necessary to address anything that pops up in your life in the most skillful and positive manner you can. This will help you to live a more valued life and help you move towards (or keep moving towards) your goals.