When a client is in emotional distress, their first instinct is often to try to make the pain go away . . .
. . . but by avoiding those feelings, the pain usually just grows.
That’s why helping clients learn to sit with and manage distress is critical.
In the video below, Michael Yapko, PhD, shares a three-step approach to do just that.
Have a look.
And what a difference when the distress comes at you from circumstances that you played no role in. You lose your job because the company goes bankrupt. That’s not your fault, but you still have to now deal with the unpleasantness of unemployment and having to go through looking for a new job.
And then there are the kinds of distresses that are self-generated, the kinds of things that happen to people that are consequences of choices they make, that bring about the distress.
Either way, the person’s going to end up having to learn to cope with distress. But when you realize that some distress is externally generated, it highlights one very important discrimination that needs to be made: Can you distinguish between something that is personal versus something that affects you personally?
I mentioned earlier the company that goes bankrupt and you lose your job as a result – well, that clearly affects you personally. You’re now unemployed. But it isn’t personal. They didn’t go bankrupt in order for you to become unemployed.
It’s one of the things that’s very often fuzzy for people. They can’t distinguish what’s personal from what affects them personally. That’s when a lot of the distress that people experience is self-generated.
But the next part of the process, the next component of the sequence of helping people tolerate distress, is also helping people make a distinction between what’s controllable and what’s not. When people aren’t good at making that discrimination, they will attempt to control things they can’t. Or, vice versa – they don’t try and control things that they could. Again, this is one component of the decision-making process and one pathway into distress.
So, to recognize the futility of always trying to feel good, to understand that what makes distress tolerable is the importance of the goal. Here’s where the work starts to focus on goal-setting.
What allows people to put up with distress is the value of the goal. And so often, what happens for people is they’re in the immediacy of the distress and they lose sight of what the goal is. Or, they never defined what the goal is in the first place.
Change the content. What allows somebody to go through the pain of a divorce? Now, even when somebody is crystal clear this relationship cannot continue, divorce is still painful. What allows someone to suffer the distress of the divorce is the deeply held belief that when it’s all over, they’ll be better off. And if you don’t have that belief, then it’s just pain.
Now, there’s another skill that I just mentioned that goes into tolerance of distress. I’m referring to one more skill that goes into tolerating distress, and the tolerance of distress is based on compartmentalization. The ability to compartmentalize, the ability to separate elements of experience, in the same way that you’ll say to somebody, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”
That presupposes an ability to compartmentalize, to be able to set aside the trauma, set aside the hurts of the past and do it anyway presupposes a compartmentalization skill. Well, the ability to compartmentalize means separating elements of experience from one another.
So again, if I’m going to focus you on the goal instead of the feelings, I’m highlighting the goal, shining a spotlight on the goal, and letting the feelings diminish and recede into the background. That’s how compartmentalization takes place, and it’s a way of building tolerance for distress.
It means, then, that the person uses the goal as the frame of reference for making decisions instead of the feelings of the moment. I think that’s a really important skillset to be able to build into this, helping people tolerate distress.
For more practical strategies on helping clients tolerate distress, have a look at this short course featuring Peter Levine, PhD, Pat Ogden, PhD, Ron Siegel, PsyD, Janina Fisher, PhD, and Deb Dana, LCSW.
Now we’d like to hear from you. How might you apply Michael’s approach with your clients? Please let us know by leaving a comment below.
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