What’s the Difference Between Constructive and Destructive Emotional Discomfort?
Emotional discomfort is a complicated subject. Is it a feeling to take seriously, to ignore or to overcome? Does it serve or hinder us from growth? How can we learn to distinguish constructive from destructive emotional discomfort?
After two sessions in a row discussing emotional discomfort with clients, I began thinking more about it. In the first session, a client said that she overate because “I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable stopping.” This led to discussion of why and whether she could have managed her uncomfortable feelings in order to avoid experiencing a different kind of discomfort, that is, over-fullness. In my next session, a client expressed pride that when she’s with certain kinds of people—mostly narcissists like her father—she’s now able to see them for what they are (from her emotional reaction to them) and either distance herself from them or manage being in their company.
For certain, emotions are meant to give us information about situations, especially if there is any threat inherent in them. Emotional discomfort in its myriad forms can alert us to whether something or someone will bring us pleasure or pain. Feelings are strong and keep returning because they want to make a point—pay attention here. However, not all emotional discomfort is a valid warning against pain or threat. Some of it is from our old stuff stored in memory.
For example, as a dysregulated eater, if you leave food on your plate when you are used to finishing it all, you will likely feel uncomfortable. Your thoughts will try to reduce your anxiety (destructive discomfort) by tell you to keep eating. The story you tell yourself will be that you can’t bear the anxiety of leaving food and only will feel better if you polish it off. However, if you want to learn to eat “normally,” you will need to tolerate (by softening or changing) this discomfort so that you can learn to stop eating when you’re full or satisfied. In this case, suffering anxiety is constructive discomfort.
As soon as you feel emotional discomfort, ask yourself these questions: Is the feeling justified or mere habit because you’re experiencing a challenge? Is the feeling giving you crucial information that will help you survive and thrive? Or are you experiencing recall from a similar situation long ago rather than being in reality? If you sit with the feeling, will it go away? If you decide that you’re experiencing constructive discomfort which will better your life, all well and good. But if that discomfort will be destructive to your well-being, you’ll need to manage it in order to thrive. In fact, experiencing that discomfort is the only way to grow and improve your eating and your life.