The Paradox of Your Discomfort
I was talking with a client about how she manages emotional discomfort and realized a strange paradox which is not only applicable to her, but which crops up a good deal in my practice: While people shy away from emotional distress because they deem it too uncomfortable to bear, they also go out of their way to upset themselves in mega ways.
Here's are some examples.
- An adult client lives with her rather dysfunctional family. She’s done an amazing job recovering from substance abuse and is bright and insightful. Currently she’s on disability for mental health issues but says she’d like to return to work to gain some independence. When I bring up the subject, though, she says it’s uncomfortable, that she doesn’t know what she’d do for work, and wonders if she could even get a job.
- Alternately, she ruminates way too much (her take on it) when she sets boundaries with her mother then ruins feeling proud of it by feeling guilty that she did so. She makes herself feel uncomfortable while knowing it’s a waste of time.
- Another adult client yearns for a romantic relationship but fears even entering the dating scene because she’ll be rejected for her high weight. She eats emotionally to quell anxiety and loneliness. I’ve suggested ways to deal with both, and she agrees to look into them but doesn’t follow through. She says she can’t face her unhappiness.
- On the other hand, she is a perfectionist in a very high stress job and often spends session time sharing her anxiety. She wants reassurance that what she does at work will meet with approval and that she’s doing the right thing. Doing an exceptional job at work seems to be on her mind 24/7 in the form of anxiety. She knows she’s driving herself (and sometimes me!) crazy but says she’s afraid to stop obsessing about work because then she’ll fail and make mistakes.
So, do you see what I mean here about the paradox. These clients say that they can’t tolerate or handle emotional distress and therefore avoid uncomfortable feelings, while also causing themselves oodles more of it rather intentionally. Consider whether this is true about you. Do you tell yourself you’re so upset you need to eat to calm down (that is, to avoid emotional discomfort), then spend the rest of the day bashing yourself for doing so and actually generating emotional discomfort? The truth is there are certain kinds of distress that you’re so used to having that you can tolerate it—guilt, shame, etc. But this is the wrong kind of internal discomfort for progress. Think about this odd contradiction and start practicing tolerating constructive emotional distress and letting go of the destructive kind.