Dealing With Distressing Emotions in Oneself and Others

Distressing Emotion

Dealing with distressing emotions like anger, fear, hurt, frustration, and others that are generally know as “negative emotions” is one of the most difficult aspects of any relationship.  Whether it is how to accept and understand our own feelings, or how to understand and respond to someone else’s feelings, therapists are often working with clients on the consequences of how they have learned to manage and share distress.

As I’ve been reading Robert Karen’s very informative book “Becoming Attached,” I am reminded of how important it is to view distress as an important survival skill in relationships, and not something to be ignored or criticized.  In Karen’s book, the author cites child psychiatrist John Bowlby for for advice on why parents in particular must learn to tolerate the expression of negative emotions in their children if they want to create a home life for the family that promotes good future adjustment in life.  Bowlby wrote in his 1979 book “The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds:”

Nothing helps a child more than being able to express hostile and jealous feelings candidly, directly, and spontaneously, and there is no parental task more valuable, I believe, than being able to accept with equanimity such expressions of filial piety as, ‘I hate you, mummy,’ or ‘Daddy you’re a beast.’  By putting p with these outbursts we show our children that we are not afraid of hatred and that we are confident it cal be controlled; moreover, we provide for the child the tolerant atmosphere in which self-control can grow.

Unfortunately, parents often do “just the opposite” writes Karen.  For a variety of reasons, many of us have learned that feelings like jealousy, hatred, and hurt are too dangerous to express.  Instead many of us learn to suppress feelings like that because we fear they will not be well received by those we know the best and with whom we want to be closest.  It is not an accident that one of the core skills that people learn in couples therapy is how to share difficult and distressing emotions in a safer way.  I believe that when we learn to ignore or avoid expressing distressing emotions, we are learning to function poorly in all relationships, especially the important ones.

In future posts I plan to dive more deeply into practical ways to increase one’s tolerance of his or her own negative emotions and also how to better respond to others when they share the same emotions.

Next Steps

For now I would suggest further reading that would help you answer the questions like:

  • What are my distressing emotions trying to tell me about what’s going on with me and this person?
  • What are the feelings I find most difficult to experience when conflicts happen?
  • What would I like to be able to say about my feelings to people, for whom I care most?

A few books that I find helpful when asking such self-reflective questions are: Alice Millers, “The Drama of the Gifted Child” and Dan Allender’s “The Healing Path“and “To be Told.


©Ryan W. Gano – www.ryanwgano.com – 2016

photo credit: Girl and Grief via photopin (license)

Author: Ryan Gano

I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in San Antonio, Texas. I work in hospital inpatient psychiatric, pediatric intensive care (PICU), and private practice settings.

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