I shouldn’t have to feel discomfort and pain – I can’t stand them and must avoid them at all costs.
This belief, along with belief number four, is possibly the most common underlying cause of distress in human beings, as well as the one people seem most unconscious of! A concept developed by psychologist Albert Ellis, low discomfort-tolerance (LDT) arises from believing that discomfort is intolerable and therefore must be avoided at all costs.
It involves awfulising and intolerance about discomfort (including the discomfort of negative emotions), with an internal demand that it be avoided. It is based on beliefs like:
‘I should be able to feel happy all of the time.’
‘I must be able to feel comfortable all of the time.’
‘Discomfort and pain are awful and intolerable, and I must avoid them at all costs.’
‘I must not feel bad.’
‘I must have certainty in my life.’
This condition is closely related to low frustration-tolerance (LFT). Frustration is uncomfortable, and discomfort is frustrating. Often one expression is used to refer to both types.
How LDT creates distress
Low discomfort-tolerance contributes to distress in many ways:
Discomfort anxiety is the emotional tension that results when people believe that their comfort (or life) is threatened, that they should or must feel good (and not get feel bad), and that it is awful and unbearable (rather than merely inconvenient or disadvantageous) when they are exposed to physical or emotional discomfort.
Worrying is based on a belief like: ‘Because … would be awful, and I couldn’t stand it, I must worry about it in case it happens’.
Avoidance. If events and circumstances are seen as intolerable, too hard to bear and too difficult to overcome, you are likely to develop a demand that they be avoided. However, it is in our interests to undergo some difficult experiences, such as grief after a loss or the discomfort of personal change. Avoidance will only create greater problems later on.
Secondary disturbance refers to the common human tendency to have a problem about having a problem. People often make themselves anxious about being anxious, depressed about being depressed, anxious about feeling guilty, and guilty about feeling angry. Secondary problems result from:
Awfulising ‘Feeling unhappy/stressed/anxious/ etc. is horrible’.
Discomfort intolerance: ‘I can’t bear to feel unhappy’.
Demanding: ‘I must not / should not have to feel unhappy …’ or ‘I should be able to handle my feelings better’.
Self-evaluation: ‘Because I can’t handle my feelings, I am … (useless, hopeless, no good, weak, etc.)’.
When you worry about feeling unhappy, demand you not feel unhappy, or put yourself down for feeling unhappy, you make yourself more unhappy!
Short-range enjoyment, another common human tendency, is the seeking of immediate pleasure or avoidance of pain at the cost of long-term stress. Examples include such things as alcohol, drug and food abuse; watching television at the expense of exercising; practising unsafe sex; or overspending to feel better.
Procrastination. Short-range enjoyment and the avoidance of discomfort may cause you to put off difficult tasks or unpleasant situations – which leads to more stress in the long run.
Addictive Tendencies. Low discomfort-tolerance is a key factor in the development of addictions (Ellis, McInerney, DiGiuseppe & Yeager: Rational-Emotive Therapy with Alcoholics and Substance Abusers. Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1988.) To resist the impulse of the moment and go without is ‘too uncomfortable’ or ‘frustrating’. It seems easier to give in to the urge to misuse alcohol, take drugs, gamble, or exercise obsessively. Much addictive behaviour serves to help people avoid pain. Most substance abusers are, in effect, medicating themselves to get rid of bad feelings. Unfortunately, once this tendency is established, it is hard to give up. Addictions create stress in the long run through damage to the body, strained relationships, and the distress of withdrawal.
Negativity and complaining. Low discomfort-tolerance may cause you to become distressed over small hindrances and setbacks, overconcerned with unfairness, and prone to make comparisons between your own and others’ circumstances. Negativity tends to alienate others, with the loss of their support.
Failure to use stress management skills. Low tolerance is a key reason people may learn strategies for managing stress but give up on using them.
Overcoming low discomfort-tolerance
The ability to tolerate frustration and discomfort is central to emotional health. High tolerance will keep you from overreacting to things you dislike. It will help you tackle problems and issues rather than avoid them. It will enable you to take risks and try new experiences.
What is high tolerance?
‘High tolerance’ means accepting the reality of discomfort, and keeping its badness in perspective.
To accept frustration and discomfort is to acknowledge that, while you may dislike it, discomfort is a reality. It exists, and there is no Law of the Universe says it ‘should’ not exist (though you may prefer it not). You expect to experience appropriate negative emotions like concern, remorse, regret, sadness, annoyance, and disappointment. But you avoid exaggerating these emotions (by telling yourself you can’t stand them) into anxiety, guilt, shame, depression, hostile anger, hurt, or self-pity.
To keep discomfort in perspective is to regard it as unpleasant rather than ‘awful’. You dislike rejection, pain, bad health, financial insecurity and other unwanted circumstances – but you believe that you can cope with the discomfort when they happen to you.
High tolerance will help you in many ways. You will be:
Less likely to create secondary problems by overreacting to unwanted events and circumstances.
More willing to experience present discomfort to achieve long-term goals and enjoyment.
Prepared to take reasonable risks.
More able to assert yourself appropriately with other people.
Less likely to put off difficult tasks and issues, including personal change.
From avoidance to tolerance
See the list of typical discomfort-intolerance thoughts below. Alongside each is a more realistic alternative.
It is awful and intolerable to experience physical or emotional pain and discomfort. If I tell myself that pain and discomfort are awful, I’ll only set myself up to get anxious when I think they’re coming.
This situation is simply unbearable. This situation is unpleasant and uncomfortable, and I don’t like it – but I am (obviously) standing it.
There are certain things in life which I just can’t stand. Certain things are uncomfortable or unpleasant, but it’s wrong to say that I ‘can’t stand’ them. If that were true, I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale!
Because I can’t stand discomfort and pain, I must avoid them at all costs. Total avoidance would mean a very restricted life. Though I don’t like discomfort and pain, I can tolerate them.
Getting into action to raise your discomfort-tolerance
Know when you are engaging in low-tolerance behaviour designed to avoid discomfort or frustration. Keep a log of such behaviour for several weeks or longer. Watch for things like:
avoiding uncomfortable situations;
overusing drugs or alcohol;
compulsive gambling, shopping, exercising, or bingeing on food;
losing your temper;
putting off difficult tasks.
The technique of exposure is the best way to increase your tolerance. Make a list of things you typically avoid – situations, events, thoughts, risks and so on. Commit yourself to face at least one of these each day. Actively confront discomfort by going into uncomfortable situations. Instead of trying to get away from the frustration or discomfort as you normally would, stay with the discomfort until it diminishes of its own accord.
You can prepare yourself to cope with the discomfort by using rational self-analysis, imagery, and the blow-up technique. Afterwards, do a catastrophe scale to get your reaction to the discomfort into perspective
Seek long-range enjoyment
Like most people, you probably want to enjoy life. As well as avoid distress, you want to experience pleasure. And you probably want to get your pleasure now, not tomorrow. But there are times when it is in our interests to forgo immediate pleasure – in order to have greater enjoyment in the longer term.
There are two parts to this principle:
You seek to get enjoyment from each of your present moments, rather than always putting off pleasure till ‘tomorrow’, or dwelling on things that have happened in the past.
However, to keep on enjoying your present moments you sometimes choose to postpone pleasure. You may wish to drink more alcohol – but you restrict your intake now so your body will still let you drink in ten years time. Or you wish to buy a new stereo, but instead you save the money for an overseas trip. This is the ‘long-term’ part.
The principle can be summed up as follows: live for the present with an eye to the future. In other words, seek to get as much pleasure and enjoyment as you can in the present – while taking into account the desirability of enjoying your life in the long term.
Here is how you can develop long-range enjoyment:
Learn to calculate gains and losses. Weigh the short-term pleasurable effects of an action against its possible longer-term negative effects. Make sure that immediate gain doesn’t set you up for future pain – as with overindulgence in alcohol.
Weigh short-term discomfort and frustration against the prospect of greater and more enduring comfort in the long term. To start exercising will be more uncomfortable than watching television – but later you will not only feel the health benefits, you will even begin to enjoy the exercise itself.
The strategy of paradoxical behaviour will help you put the philosophical change into action. Practice deliberately postponing gratification in order to increase your tolerance for frustration. List a few things you could go without and earmark the money you save for something you would really like. Reduce your intake of alcohol, caffeine or fatty foods, and reward yourself with an occasional special treat you would otherwise see as an indulgence. Be creative – what other ideas for practising long-range enjoyment can you come up with?
Be willing to take reasonable risks
Human beings, by nature, seek safety, predictability, and freedom from fear. But humans also pursue risk. A totally secure life would be a boring one. To grow as a person and improve your quality of life means being prepared to take some chances.
What we are talking about is a willingness to take sensible risks in order to get more out of life and avoid the distress of boredom, listlessness and dissatisfaction. Here are some example areas of risk-taking that relate to increasing your discomfort-tolerance:
Learning new things which may challenge existing beliefs.
Tackling tasks which have no guarantee of success.
Trying new relationships.
Doing things that risk the disapproval of other people.
Here are some suggestions for increasing your willingness to take risks:
Exposure is a key technique for practising risk-taking. Develop a list of things you would like to try, such as:
– Asking someone for something – like a date or favour – where there is a chance of rejection.
– Doing something where there is a chance others will disapprove – for example, speaking up and telling a group of people what you think.
– Trying something where there is no guarantee of success.
Put one item a day into practice. As you do so, remind yourself that the discomfort involved is not intolerable, and that staying with it will gradually increase your tolerance.
You can prepare yourself for taking risks and cope with the discomfort involved using rational self-analysis, coping rehearsal, the blow-up technique, and role-playing.