Did you know that distress is tolerable? I have always tried to ﬁgure out how to get away from emotions (both positive and negative) that cause distress… and yet being able to sit with feelings that produce discomfort is a powerful and freeing skill. The cycle works something like this:
Something happens and you feel an emotion, this is called a trigger. This emotion can be happy, sad or anything in between. This is completely normal and happens to everyone. However, what you might not know is that as people we like to explain these changes in emotional state to ourselves and try to make conclusions about the triggering event. This belief actually creates the distress or calm we feel next. From here on out people are all pretty much the same. When we feel distress we try to ﬁnd an escape although that will really only work in the short term and result in more long term distress. However, when we can feel calm despite the existence of a positive or negative emotion because of what we have concluded about the triggering event… we feel peace.
If you missed it I just told you a secret. A big sign ﬂashing life changing secret. As we cycle through this dysfunction mess of emotions and self soothing there is a moment, where if you can change what you believe about what happened you can change your intolerable feelings to tolerable ones. Truth guys. This is big stuff and not to be confused with “fake it till you make it” thinking. Being fake can be hard to maintain, because you forget what you are supposed to be pretending to feel and then go back to your authentic feeling. Being fake is an escape and like all self soothing techniques will lead to short term calm and long term distress. On the other hand, changing your belief will begin to alter the emotional experience almost immediately.
I remember a time when I found myself in this situation, and my negative beliefs started hijacking my emotions. Leaving Chicago always made me sad. All my family was there parents, brother and sister. They all loved being around me (or they pretended well) and as the miles spread between us I always felt so alone in the world. Yes I was traveling back home with my family, but I missed my people. The kind that love you unconditionally and give hugs. Tears stung the corners of my eyes and we drove on.
“When we get home can you make sure I have clean socks and under ware for work,” my husband asked in an offhanded way.
“Breaking into my sadness with chores,” I grumbled mentally. I thought about all the unpacking ahead of me and the laundry. I hated doing laundry. It took forever and then folding took forever and putting it away took forever. Oh and school was tomorrow too. Waking people up in the morning was going to be murder after a long trip. How I would love to sleep in just once. I sniffed.
“What are you thinking about?” Brian asked, looking my direction out of the crier of his eye.
“Nothing.” I mumbled. There was nothing worse than having someone ask you what you are thinking about when you are thinking about how much stuff stinks. Especially when there is nothing that they can do to help you. “Are you thinking good thoughts or bad thoughts?” he asked again.
“Bad,” I said, snufﬂing and letting a tear fall down my cheek. I was feeling overwhelmed enough without his questions which only made me feel worse. Why didn’t he just leave me alone.
“Why are you thinking about bad things?” He asked. “You could think about good things.”
“Like what?” I asked feeling exasperated. We have a long drive back after which you want me to get the kids in bed and start doing laundry so things will be perfect for you and I’ll then drag myself to bed and get up to get the kids ready for school. You don’t really love me or you would ask how I was feeling not about getting you socks. No one cares about me at all around here. I wish I was back in Chicago with my family. They love me.
Colossians 3:1-17 says that you need to set your mind on things ABOVE instead of wallowing in the things that are on this earth. Consequent to not following this advice, the peace of Christ was not ruling in my heart.
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (ESV)
Brian reached over and grabbed my hand. Which annoyed me. I was mad, and wanted to be mad… not have my hand squeezed in a rhythmic I-Love-You pattern.
“Well you could think about heading back home with an adorable family and a husband who loved you, “ he said, squeezing out another I-Love-You.
“If you loved me you wouldn’t add more chores to my already long list when I was feeling sad,” I sputtered. “And I have every right to feel sad because I miss my family and we live so far away.” I pulled my hand back on my lap.
Brian looked over again out of the corner of his eye, “You know it really hurts me when you lie about me like that.”
I looked at him with the weirdest look I could manage. Now he was calling me a liar?! As if I didn’t have enough problems without that.
“No seriously,” he said. “This is a big problem and you do it a lot. When you say I feel a certain way about you that is not true, you are lying about me, and it hurts me. I do love you. I all need clean socks. I say things as I remember them because I will probably forget before we get home and I thought you could help me remember so that I didn’t have to wake you up early when I need to leave for work. I love you a lot. So you can cross that off the list of things you are feeling bad about.”
And now I was sobbing – quietly of course since the kids were in the car – but they were all playing Dr. Panda something or other and wouldn’t have noticed. Now my husband was lecturing me and I already felt like stink. What a time to be trapped in a six hour car ride.
“I know you are sad about leaving mom and dad,” Brian went on. “I know that is why you are feeling bad about stuff. But you have no reason to be thinking bad thoughts. You could just as easily be thinking good thoughts about a great visit that we just had. You could be planning our next trip back. You could be texting friends back home to set up coffee dates so you won’t be lonely. Or you could think about all the negatives ahead and feel miserable. Like you are right now. It’s completely up to you.”
Why did he have to be so right all the time. I reached my hand back over to his side of the car where I received my three squeezes. This time I squeezed back twice as if to say how-much. A great big squeeze was my answer. He was right. Life was waiting for me back home with all the dailyness and a little less companionship but I was responsible for making it good. I had been feeling lonely and that made everything seem gloomy, but that wasn’t the truth. Everything wasn’t gloomy. Everything was simply unknown. There was safety in waking up everyday with family to ﬁll your hours and it was a little scary to return home to nothing but what you create for yourself. But that meant I could make my own magic if I choose. So in that moment I changed my belief about the triggering situation from gloomy and desperately sad to simply unknown which was brimming with possibilities of my making. And perhaps unsurprisingly, I felt much better about the entire situation.
So that is what I learned although honestly it doesn’t really matter what the triggering event happens to be. Mine was driving in the opposite direction from my family… but it could be anything. And emotions are normal. It is okay to miss my family, but the idea that this event makes everything gloomy and depressing verses simply unknown was leading to unhealthy mental consequences. Turns out distress is not only tolerable but can be changed into calm with some good mental hygiene! Imagine. This is life changing stuff – at least for me!