Admittedly, this article might sound like an offer you are quite ready to refuse. Who wants to increase their capacity to withstand the experience of unpleasant emotions? If you read the question to imply, “increase the quantity of unpleasant emotions in your life,” the answer is no one. If you read that question (as it is intended) to mean, increase your ability to bear up under unpleasant emotions without succumbing to destructive choices, it begins to look like a useful skill.

Before we go further, let’s define each of the key words in our title.

  • Growing – This means what we’re talking about is a capacity that can get stronger or weaker; increase or decrease. Our objective is to increase our capacity to persevere when experiencing unpleasant emotions.
  • Negative – “Negative” can have at least two connotations: bad (morally wrong) or unpleasant (not enjoyable, off putting). We are not saying unpleasant emotions are bad, as if we necessarily need to repent. We are saying they are unpleasant and, therefore, tempt us to make other adverse life choices.
  • Emotion – Emotions are not something over which we have direct control. We cannot change our emotions like we can manipulate the fingers on our hand; that is, by simply choice. Whatever we do to impact our emotions is done by indirect influence; more like cultivating a garden so that it produces more vegetables than weeds.
  • Tolerance – Our goal is not elimination. If we can eliminate unpleasant emotions through healthy, ethical means, that is wonderful. Our focus is on those unpleasant emotional experiences that we cannot immediately change, but must build a resilience towards if we are going to avoid disruptive life patterns.

So, now we ask the question, “Why are we talking about this?” There are at least two reasons that merit our attention. First, we are not good at negative emotion tolerance. In Western culture, we have a low tolerance for stress, boredom, embarrassment, confusion, disappointment, insecurity, or similar emotions. When we experience these things, we immediately feel the need to “make it better”… quickly… regardless of the cost or the rationality of our decision making process. Our ability to sit in these emotions is low, even when the alternative is disruptive or destructive.

Let’s start with a stereotypical example. Perhaps the quintessential “low negative emotion tolerance” person is a grandparent with one of their grandchildren. The slightest unpleasant emotion – a pouty lip, much less crying – and the child will get anything he or she wants, from an ice cream cone to a pony.

One thing we notice from this example is that the magnitude of the unpleasant emotion does not have to be great when our tolerance is low in order to get us to make unwise, disruptive choices. The lower our negative emotion tolerance, the less life stress it requires for us to succumb to folly.

We can admit: our modern culture does not do unpleasant emotions well. We don’t teach people how to learn from failure, accept limitations, acknowledge and compensate for personal weaknesses, endure suffering, etc. These are skill sets that are significantly under-developed in our current cultural context. We focus exclusively on how to avoid these experiences (which is good) and rarely if ever teach how to endure them.

Second, many of our most destructive patterns come from our inability to withstand unpleasant emotions. Let’s make a list of things that people do to avoid unpleasant emotions (not to imply that avoiding unpleasant emotions is the only motive for these behaviors).

  • Escaping through drugs and alcohol
  • Watching pornography
  • Distraction through excessive technology
  • Over-eating
  • Convincing ourselves we are a defective person and mire down in shame
  • Avoiding communication with spouse, children, or friends and, thereby, seeing relationship deteriorate
  • Putting up a false front to make their life seem better than it is and becoming more isolated
  • Overworking
  • … you add to the list. What else do people do to avoid unpleasant emotions?

Here is the simple premise of this article: if we do not know how to be sad, we will be bad. The inverse of this premise is equally true: if we learn how to be sad in healthy ways, we will dramatically decrease our temptation to be bad. This means, whether we’re in an accountability relationship or serving as a counselor, a worthwhile question to ask is, “How good are you at being sad?” This is not a question about frequency or intensity, “How often or deeply do you get sad?” It is a question of skill and hope, “How good are you at being sad?”

If we do not know how to be sad, we will be bad. The inverse equally true: if we learn how to be sad in healthy ways, we will dramatically decrease our temptation to be bad. Click To Tweet

Note: I am using the emotion sad as a representative emotion for the full breadth of unpleasant emotions. For the thematic sentence, “if we do not know how to be sad, we will be bad,” to rhyme makes it easier to remember. But don’t feel distracted if your predominant unpleasant emotion is anxiety, boredom, insecurity, or something else.

What would it sound like to be good at being sad? It might sound like:

“When I get sad, I am able to avoid getting lost in my sadness. I can be down and still have hope. My mood can be down, and I still find meaning in the important parts of my day. I can be sad, and I don’t embrace the narrative that this sadness will last forever. I can be down without feeling compelled to distract myself with foolish choices as a way to ‘jolt’ myself out of it. I can be disappointed without getting so fidgety inside that I feel the need to escape or make wholesale changes in my life.”

You might ask, “Does this mean that being sad is good or that, if I’m sad, I should allow myself to stay stuck in it?” No, negative emotion tolerance is a skill, not a virtue. It is something we want to be good at, not an identifying mark of goodness. If you feel stuck in being sad, one of the wise choices you might make is seeing a doctor or talking to a counselor. The better we are able to be sad-with-hope, the clearer our thinking should be on this kind of decision.

Negative emotion tolerance is a skill, not a virtue. It is something we want to be good at, not an identifying mark of goodness. Click To Tweet

A parallel example of a good skill that is not a virtue is conflict resolution. We want to be good at resolving conflict. Life goes better when we are. But, if we’re good at resolving conflict, we don’t strive to live in perpetual conflict in order to display this skill. That would be foolish. We use the skill when its needed and enjoy life when it isn’t.

This brings us to the big question, “How do we get better at negative emotion tolerance?” Everything up until this point has been about cultivating an interest in enhancing this skill. But now, that you are convinced (hopefully) that negative emotion tolerance is a good skill to have, we will look at how to grow in this area. Here is a seven step progression to help you cultivate greater negative emotion tolerance.

    1. Resist the urge to feel bad for feeling bad. Assume an unpleasant emotion is a hardship (form of suffering) or area of weakness (another biblical, but non-moral category) before assuming it is a sin (something to repent of). Too often we, as Christians, respond as if guilt is the only biblical way to response to unpleasant emotions.
    2. Be content with growing; don’t insist on mastering. Learning a concept – what reading this article can do – is different from learning a skill. Give yourself time to practice and improve. Take satisfaction in the incremental progress.
    3. Name (i.e., identify) and interview the unpleasant emotion. We can learn many important things from our unpleasant emotions. Personifying an emotion and asking, “What is this emotion saying?” is one way to learn from it.
    4. Meaningfully confide in a friend. Interviewing an emotion helps us invite friends into the experience at a deeper than “I feel bad or off” level. We are more likely to engage with a friend if we can articulate what we’re experiencing and to get more from it.
    5. Pray. Interviewing an emotion also helps you pray more meaningfully about it. Instead of just praying, “God, take it away,” we can pray about the beliefs, values, or experiences the emotion is revealing. Instead of giving God a pass/fail test (Matthew 4:5-7) – either we cheer up or we don’t – we engage God in a more meaningful relationship around our struggle.
    6. Once you’ve accepted the presence of the unpleasant emotion, turn your attention to something else. Turning our settled attention to something else results in much healthier and more God-honoring choices than escaping an unpleasant emotion. It’s the equivalent of realizes its easier to steer a car at 55 mph than 110 mph.
    7. Choose multi-sensory activities to engage your attention. If we are looking to have our attention captured by something else, the more senses we can engage the better. The more region of our brains we engage, the more likely we are going to be effective at removing the dominance of the unpleasant emotion. This is why activities like addiction, over-eating, pornography, and risk-taking behaviors are such effective, unhealthy distractions.

Walk back through these seven steps. Let’s ask, “What is going on as we do each of these seven steps?

    1. We are removing unnecessary guilt from the experience of unpleasant emotions. We are opening up the possibility of experiencing God’s compassion towards our sense of disruption instead of condemnation.
    2. We are shrinking our expectations (in a healthy way) to what a God-honoring outcome would be. If we’re growing, God’s happy. Progressive sanctification was his idea.
    3. We are putting our experience into words better, so we can engage with God, the Bible, and trusted friends more effectively about our unpleasant emotion.
    4. Talking to a friend further removes the sense of stigma and shame we may feel.
    5. Praying further removes any sense of guilt and condemnation we may feel.
    6. Turning our attention puts us in a calmer mindset (as compared to escaping) as we seek to alter our mood.
    7. Taking a multi-sensory approach gives us greater confidence that we will be effective. Our healthy, God-honoring options are becoming as robust as our foolish, sinful options were.

If we do this, we will grow more skilled at negative emotion tolerance over time. We will trust God with the things that upset us more. We will find that the Bible is speaking to our unpleasant emotions in more robust ways than saying, “Stop it. You should not feel that way.” We will be inviting our friends to be more meaningfully engaged with us in hard times. Unpleasant emotions will still be unpleasant, but they will be much less threatening. I think we can agree, if all that happens, we will have been very excited about what God has done in our life and emotions.

Webinar Invitation

This case study was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar “Growing in Negative Emotion Tolerance.” The webinar will be Thursday February 11th at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.

These are great events for:

  • Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
  • Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
  • Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
  • Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
  • Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times