Tolerating a Difficult Thought
Gain emotional health and make necessary changes using this cognitive tactic
Posted November 8, 2013
Maybe there’s some big thing that you know that you need to do. Maybe it’s changing your job, separating from your mate or stopping your drinking. This thing feels so huge, dangerous, and consequential that you can’t get anywhere near tackling it. You have the thought “I hate my job!”, bite your lip, dismiss the thought, and get back to work. So it goes.
The habit to learn is to tolerate the thought for more than a split second. Just that. Just practice tolerating a thought like “I need to begin dating again” or “I need a divorce” or “I need a new line of work.” Notice the barrage of thoughts and feelings that assault you as you try to maintain that thought. Implore yourself to stay with the process.
When you try to hold a thought like “I need a divorce!” you’re likely to be assaulted by “If I leave him I’ll suddenly be poor!” and “I’ve never worked in my life” and “I’ll feel like such a failure!” and “Children of divorce have so many problems!” and “What will I say to my priest!” and “My parents will give me such a look when I tell them” and “I’ll need a job!” and more. Try not to shut down. Try to keep tolerating the thought “I need a divorce!”
It may feel horribly hard. So many consequences flood your mind. But in order to make the changes that you need to make the first step is tolerating thoughts. Don’t worry about “doing anything” with the thoughts and feelings that flood you as you try to stay with a given difficult thought. You don’t have to dispute them, answer them, handle them, accept them, or anything. You just have to survive them. You just have to tolerate them.
The activity of tolerating them creates calmness and an opening. You begin to see that you can survive the thoughts and feelings that come with thinking difficult thoughts. Decisions and action steps may come next. Whether or not they come, this is nevertheless the habit to learn: tolerating a difficult thought.
A corollary useful habit is to not magnify difficulties. We cause our own distress if we magnify the difficulty of our tasks. Our tasks are already real: there is no need to magnify them. Our language should not make hills into mountains. Making mountains out of hills is a habit to avoid. Refusing to add incendiary language to our everyday self-talk is a habit to cultivate.
If as a painter we say, “Let me call that gallery,” we have added no unnecessary distress to an already charged task. If we say, “Let me call that gallery, but where did I put that number, and I’ll probably get a machine, but what if I get a person, what would I say then, and I’m not sure I really want that gallery, but if I don’t get it I won’t be represented anywhere, and… ”, then we have worked ourselves up and made it more likely that we won’t call. If we do manage to call, it’s more likely that we’ll handle the call poorly.
Why do we magnify our difficulties? We magnify them for all sorts of understandable reasons. Maybe our tasks feel that difficult. Maybe it pleases us to see ourselves burdened by the sorts of difficulties that only a warrior hero could meet: when and if we manage to handle such “huge” difficulties we boost our ego. Maybe there is some emotional payoff to feeling ourselves victimized, beleaguered, and put-upon. Maybe life feels boring and we crave the dramas we create when we pour fuel on small fires. These are common, completely human reasons for engaging in a practice that fails to serve us.
Practice the habit of not magnifying difficulties. You do not need to shrink difficulties and act as if they do not exist. Just don’t magnify them. Picture possessing a magnifying glass that does not magnify but that simply let’s you see what is there. Imagine how an ant would look through that sort of glass. Imagine how an everyday task would look. The ant looks tiny; probably so does the task. Get in the habit of using a non-magnifying glass! Even if there is some payoff to turning ordinary difficulties into huge internal dramas the downside is significantly greater.
Big change is hard and trying to think about big change may be even harder. Bringing up difficult thoughts creates whirlwinds and hurricanes. Learn how to bravely weather those storms. By doing so you give yourself a better chance to make the changes likely to improve your emotional health.
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Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of more than 40 books including Making Your Creative Mark (New World Library, 2013) and Why Smart People Hurt (Conari Press, 2013). Widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach, Dr. Maisel founded natural psychology and leads workshops nationally and internationally. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, trainings, and workshops at http://www.ericmaisel.com. You can learn more about natural psychology at http://www.naturalpsychology.net. Dr. Maisel can be reached at email@example.com.