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What Can’t You Bear?

I hear clients say, “I can’t bear to think about it” or “I couldn’t bear to do that,” but I don’t always know what the word means. Will they fall down dead, emulsify on the spot, go catatonic? When you think or say those words to yourself, what exactly is it that you fear will happen? The fact is, telling yourself that you can’t bear something makes it more than likely that you won’t be able to. Conversely, reminding yourself that you’re capable of bearing anything that comes your way ensures that you’ll be able to ride it through.

When we say we can’t bear something, we seem to believe two things—that something will make us exceedingly uncomfortable and that this feeling of discomfort will cause us to become dysfunctional in part or whole. Sometimes we think we’ll become so anxious that we’ll need sedation or so depressed that we won’t leave our beds. Or that we’ll fly off the handle and no one will love us any more. We make a cause-and-effect connection between feeling overwhelmed and negative consequence. Indeed, in the past, we even may experienced this consequence—severe depression, hospitalization for mental health issues, or relapse with drugs or alcohol—and dread a reoccurrence.

Although it’s true that there are stresses that can trigger depression or anxiety and lead to hospitalization or relapse, ordinarily most of us don’t fall prey to them. The truth is that when we say that we can’t or fear that we can’t bear something, many of us don’t have a specific event in mind we believe will befall us. We tell ourselves that a thought, emotion or action is unbearable because we don’t like how we feel having it. We hurt, it confuses or overwhelms us, it generates fear or other emotional distress. It’s the bearing we wish to avoid, the state of experiencing extreme or excessive internal upheaval, not necessarily what it might trigger.

What do you suppose is the antidote to this problem? It’s obvious: bearing emotional pain leads to learning that you can bear it. The more you avoid it, the more you mistakenly assume that you can’t tolerate it. Very few people actually succumb to dysfunction when bearing emotional distress. Actually, most often the opposite reaction occurs: they grow from experiencing something difficult and become less fearful. By tolerating thinking or acting differently, we build emotional muscle and the experience transforms us. No magic here, just gently pushing ourselves to expand our tolerance for discomfort bit by bit. Eventually, when you allow yourself to bear whatever comes your way, you arrive at a new conclusion: I can bear any emotion and, no matter what happens to me, I’ll be fine. And that kind of self-knowledge makes life a lot easier.