My mother was a beautiful woman -- homecoming queen in high school. But when she was older, breast cancer left several scars, only a few that you could physically see. When my twin brother and I were 9 months old, she had a mastectomy. Three months later, my father divorced her, moving in with his mistress. And like many young boys around the globe, we were left without an adult male role model. Nobody to teach us how to ride a bike without hands, change a flat tire, strum a guitar, be a good storyteller, and ask insightful questions to trigger new friendships. My mom recognized this and when we turned 7 years old, she began a quest to find us a father. I remember that she dated three guys at the same time to speed up the pace of finding "the one."
I distinctively remember bachelor #2. Sometime after their first date, we were invited to his house. A shrine to Herbie The Car memorabilia (yes, Disney's talking 1963 Volkswagen Beetle). Instead of a moose head wall mount, there lied the front hood of a Herbie car busting out of tiles above the fireplace. Needless to say, these decorations have since been proven by psychologists to be 100 percent accurate in detecting 42-year-old virgins.
I remember returning to our house after an afternoon fishing with Herbie boy. My mom asked us what we thought of him. I remember the resignation in her face -- a full acknowledgment that she was willing to pursue men of subpar quality to ensure our needs were met. I wish I was older at the time, more comfortable in my skin, wiser, so that I could tell her, "Forget us, we're fine under your watch, and we refuse to spend time with any men that you wouldn't want to snuggle next to on the porch, snorting from laughing so hard -- so what do you want?" But alas, my brother and I said nothing or mumbled the words "he was okay."
If only she could look at herself as beautiful (as we did) -- a lost breast being inconsequential, a derelict first husband being irrelevant.
If only she could tolerate the pain of being alone, until the right person showed up and if not, we will thrive as a household of three.
If only she knew that it was normal to be scared, doubtful, and lonely raising two little boys with death breathing a bit too heavily on her neck.
Perhaps I will rewrite history. This was the moment I decided on my answer to the question that journalists, students, and cab drivers continue to ask -- If you could give someone one piece of advice on how to be happy, what would it be? My answer has been consistent for over a decade -- the ability to tolerate pain.
The amount of scientific research to support this point continues to grow. Just today, a study was published on what predicts whether or not an adult develops generalized anxiety disorder or depression in their life. (1) The researchers studied 347 adults seeking psychological treatment. What did they find? Adults with a strong ability to tolerate the presence of negative emotions (high distress tolerance) and a willingness to experience fear openly without worry about what these thoughts and sensations mean (low anxiety sensitivity) only had a 3 percent chance of meeting criteria for a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder. In stark contrast, adults with an inability to tolerance discomfort and a strong fear of fear had a 38 percent chance of meeting criteria for Major Depressive Disorder. The findings were nearly identical in predicting who ended up with a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
People who lack the capacity to withstand physical discomfort, negative emotions, frustration, and uncertainty are at a marked disadvantage in life. When faced with challenges, they react with greater emotional distress but this is not the problem. Instead of dealing with the challenge at hand, their energy gets diverted to worrying, procrastinating, and pursuing harmful activities to take away the pain -- from excessive alcohol and drug use, binging and purging behaviors, and verbal and physical aggression toward others. Essentially, instead of living their lives, people with a low tolerance for discomfort, spin their wheels trying to rid themselves of pain and avoiding situations that might arouse frustrating, ambiguous, tense, or uncomfortable. What do you think happens when you attempt to remove yourself from uncomfortable situations? Your mind, body, and spirit start to atrophy.
Read the groundbreaking research by Dr. Steven Hayes, Kelly Wilson, and others on psychological flexibility, and you will discover one important fact: The cultural message that "you should feel good and try not to feel bad" is among one of the most toxic processes known to psychology.
When we attempt to divorce ourselves from pain, we end up feeling nothing pleasurable or meaningful at all. When we better understand, tolerate, and harness distressing thoughts and feelings, and become aware of the situations when they are helpful, we become empowered. We gain vitality. We become whole.
1. Allan, N. P., Macatee, R. J., Norr, A. M., & Schmidt, N. B. (2014). Direct and Interactive Effects of Distress Tolerance and Anxiety Sensitivity on Generalized Anxiety and Depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 38, 530-540.
2. Hayes, S. C., Wilson, K. G., Gifford, E. V., Follette, V. M., & Strosahl, K. (1996). Experiential avoidance and behavioral disorders: A functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 1152-1168.
3. Kashdan, T. B., Farmer, A. S., Adams, L. M., Ferssizidis, P., McKnight, P. E., & Nezlek, J. B. (2013). Distinguishing healthy adults from people with social anxiety disorder: Evidence for the value of experiential avoidance and positive emotions in everyday social interactions. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122, 645-655.
Learn how to enhance your capacity to tolerate, accept, & use pain effectively, pick up -- The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self -- not just your "good" self -- drives success and fulfillment
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self -- not just your "good" self -- drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to www.toddkashdan.com.