Distress Intolerance

Probably the most significant problem I encounter in my work is the resistance many people show towards taking responsibility for their contribution when things fail to work out well – such as when friendships, work or intimate relationships break down.   

In these circumstances, many people want to mentally turn away, blame others, create exhausting lists of extenuating circumstances, go fiercely on the attack, argue semantics, or just refuse point blank to listen.

As you can imagine, there is huge effort involved in this ‘blocking’ behaviour.  So, why do we do it?

Overwhelmingly, what I have found to be the case in my clinical work is that it goes back to how people have built their brains in childhood.

Some people were lucky enough to have been raised in relative security where their caregivers were reliable, kind and competent and not too much went wrong. 

On the other hand, many people have come from more ‘difficult’ backgrounds where they have endured more trauma from stressful life events and, if they had less competent caregivers then they probably were given less help finding effective solutions to those stressful events. 

While trauma is not all bad and it can sometimes motivate us strongly and teach us skills, it can also often frighten or even terrorise us. 

Unfortunately, while this childhood trauma unfolds, developmentally, we have not yet built our full brain.  In particular, the areas of our brain that allow for more nuanced, sophisticated and disciplined responses, like the frontal and prefrontal cortex, are far from being able to exert their full influence during childhood and even adolescence.

However, because trauma requires a response in the moment – we are forced to implement less sophisticated mental strategies than we would otherwise apply once we had our full brain.  

One of these less sophisticated strategies is to ‘block’ and mentally turn away from anything that feels too distressing. 

This is known as ‘distress intolerance’ and it occurs because most people who have come from ‘difficult’ backgrounds have learned that they cannot cope with distress and they cannot bear to let themselves experience it.  This particularly goes for self-reflection. 

Once these traumatised people become adults, their ‘retained’ childhood fear is that if they allow themselves to acknowledge their contribution to poor outcomes (like a failed relationship), then their distress will pull them down into an emotional abyss from which they are terrified they may never be able to escape.

While this may have been the case when they were children, as adults they continue to apply this blocking strategy habitually, despite the fact that they have now built their full brain and can therefore easily cope with even very pronounced distress.

Worse still, the continued application of this blocking strategy becomes severely self-sabotaging over time.  There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, mental blocking closes us off from external influence since we are too scared to allow ourselves to properly absorb and reflect upon ‘challenging’ information.  We may become furious and full of rage at the mere mention of our contribution. 

On the other hand, we may appear to calmly agree (to shorten the interaction) but internally pull away and strenuously resist ‘hearing’ the information.  Without even a moment’s reflection, we reject out of hand.  We want to shut the conversation down quickly and stop any ‘threatening’ information from infiltrating us. 

As a result, we storm off, go feral, yell, act indignant, appear to agree, sulk or become stubborn.  Through this behaviour, we have just ‘blocked’ and driven away the very person who could most help us progress, gain insight and learn in this moment.  

Of course, even though the ‘challenging’ information may end up being incorrect, or only partially correct (or fully correct) – its ‘truth’ quotient is almost irrelevant – the crucial factor is that it prompts us to reflect and question our own behaviour and mental assumptions – enabling us to learn from it irrespective of its ‘truthfulness’.

As humans, we are in deep trouble if we shut down our ability to learn.  Failure to be open to influence prevents us from extending our intelligence, particularly our emotional and social intelligence and we can easily stagnate and remain locked in the prison of our past. 

Also, we are placed at a huge disadvantage compared to other people who keep their ‘borders’ softer, more permeable, open to influence and who remain able to incorporate new and often challenging information – thus keeping them moving forwards in life. 

The second reason the ‘blocking’ strategy is self-sabotaging follows from the first:  If we fail to learn and progress and continue to use unsophisticated childhood strategies, then we will inevitably ‘spin the wheels’.

Spinning the wheels means we repeat the same unsuccessful patterns of behaviour over and over again, making the same errors, but never learning from them.  This is one of the most common reasons people present for therapy – since when we get ‘stuck’ and cannot move forwards we become disheartened, frightened and full of anxieties.    

Yet, we are so often spinning the wheels precisely because we are not allowing ourselves to take the risk of owning up, taking responsibility, acknowledging our role and facing our own distress. 

It is important to remember that we all behave badly quite often.  So what.  Much more important is the fact that we can all cope with the distress of admitting it. 

In fact, once we finally allow ourselves to admit our errors, it is a massive relief because once we know how and why we have contributed – then, and only then – can we use our outstanding human ability at problem solving to work out exactly how we will behave differently next time and get a much better outcome.  This stops us getting ‘stuck’ in life.

The third self-sabotaging outcome arises when we keep on (for years or decades) steadfastly refusing to acknowledge and take proper responsibility for our usually 50% contribution to poor outcomes.  On and on we go, continuing to resist self-reflection and failing to admit our errors despite them staring us in the face and despite the fact that we find ourselves to be the common denominator in endlessly repeated, useless behavioural patterns. For the ‘luxury’ of doing this perpetual ‘blocking’ behaviour we will usually pay a massive price:  we will remain perpetual victims.   

Victims (by definition) are not active participants in determining their own lives.  They are people driven by and reacting to the agenda of others, rather than determining their own agenda.  They are people who (in continuing to avoid the imagined abyss of their own distress) remain trapped in the abyss of their ineffective childhood strategies.  

They continue to rage internally, hit out, complain, blame, vent, gang-up, sulk, feel entitled, bully, whinge or stubbornly block the influence of others.  All completely unnecessary behaviours.   Especially when you consider that all that was required was to simply self-reflect and then say ‘Yeah, I think you’re right – I did behave badly.  I’ll try to make sure I do it differently next time’.  Such an easier and far more effective way of behaving.