Learning to tolerate discomfort

We daydreamers tend to have difficulty tolerating unwanted feelings and emotions. I think it’s because we never have to. When real life becomes uncomfortable, we can disappear to a better place in an instant; and while we’re there, our real-life problems seem comfortably far away. But the problem with doing this is that we don’t learn other ways of managing difficult feelings. Daydreaming works really well as an escape mechanism, when the distress is just too much to tolerate and we need to feel better immediately, but it does nothing to solve our problems. So when we return to reality, the difficult feelings are all still there, encouraging us to escape again.

If we want to be in control of our daydreams, rather than letting them control us, we need to find other ways of managing difficult emotions, preferably ways that go some way towards resolving the problem. Sometimes this can involve using our daydreams to our advantage; at other times, it means resisting the urge to daydream and looking for a more productive strategy. So how do you decide when it is OK to escape for a while and when you should stay present and work through the emotion?

We have emotions for a reason. When our minds are working as they should, our emotions guide us to do more of what’s good for us and less of what’s bad for us. For example, if we do something nice for someone and they express gratitude for it, that makes us feel good and motivates us to be kind again in future. Over time, those repeated acts of kindness maintain and strengthen our connections to those around us.

The same kind of feedback should work for negative emotions. If we treat someone badly, we feel guilty. Guilt is meant to feel uncomfortable, so that it can motivate us to behave better next time. Where we often go wrong as daydreamers is that we don’t allow our negative emotions to do their job. Instead of feeling them, dealing with them and learning from them, we escape to our perfect daydream worlds and pretend the negative emotions don’t exist. But then two things happen. Firstly, our emotions have to shout louder to ensure they get our attention, so we tend to feel worse and worse. And secondly, we don’t learn the lessons that the negative emotions are trying to teach us, so we keep on making the same mistakes. These two factors trap us in a downward spiral of negativity that can quickly become overwhelming.

When our negative emotions are shouting so loudly that they feel unbearable, I think it’s OK to use daydreaming strategically to bring the emotional intensity down. When I’m really distressed, I’ll ask one of my imaginary friends to just give me a hug. I’ll let him hold me; I’ll soak up all the feelings of love and unconditional acceptance, and I’ll wait for the difficult emotions to subside. If I’m able to focus enough to get further into a daydream, I might imagine I’m walking in my calm place. In both cases, the fact that I’m focussing on a single scene or sensation helps me to keep the daydreaming session short, and I can return to reality as soon as I feel calm enough to face it.

Once I’m feeling calmer, I can take a more detached view of the emotion I’m feeling. In particular, I can decide whether the situation justifies the emotion. Healthy emotions are justified by the situation. So, for example, it’s healthy to feel anger if we’re treated unfairly; it’s healthy to feel afraid in a situation where we could get hurt; it’s healthy to feel sad when something doesn’t turn out the way we’d hoped. When the emotion is justified by the situation, it’s not going to go away on its own. That’s when we have to learn how to work through it. The first step is to feel the emotion without being overwhelmed by it. Mindfulness techniques are really helpful here. For example, tuning into where you feel the emotion in your body can help you to get curious about it. You can then describe the emotion in detail; for example, instead of saying “I feel sad”, you might say “I feel a heaviness in my legs, an emptiness in my chest and I fear that these feelings will never go away”. When you describe your emotion in detail it tends to feel less overwhelming, and you realise you can survive it after all.

Learning to tolerate difficult emotions allows us to navigate our lives with more confidence. We don’t have to avoid challenging situations if we know that we have the tools to cope with whatever life throws at us. If we don’t need our daydreams as a way of escaping from difficult feelings, it becomes much easier to find a healthy balance between real-life and daydreaming.