Authored by Neal Moglowsky, LPC

The Goal Isn’t to Feel Better, But to Get Better at Feeling

If you experience your emotions in a more sensitive and reactive way, it makes total sense that when you are experiencing intense distress you would want to get out of that distress as soon as possible. In the short term, there are many things that we all do that can give us some sense of immediate relief. The problem is that life is full of distress and in life, you can’t solve any problem, accept any situation, grieve any loss, face any fear, bite your tongue, stand up for your rights, have a healthy relationship, or achieve a life worth living without the ability to tolerate distress!!!

One of the most important sets of skills taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) are the Distress Tolerance Skills. It is important to note that the name of the skill section is Distress Tolerance, not, Distress Relief.

As understandable as it is to seek relief instead of tolerating our distress, there are problems that tend to arise if that is our default way of coping. If you always escape or avoid distress, you never get desensitized to it – in fact, you will get more sensitized. A classic example of this is putting off making a phone call that you don’t want to make because it causes high levels of anxiety. What happens to your anxiety each time you put off making that phone call? It gets more intense over time. You are becoming more sensitized!!! In this case, you never give your mind the opportunity to learn that you can tolerate the distress, you can accept it, and you can manage it. So if you are escaping your distress, your mind never gets a chance to learn anything new. So many of the things that we do to escape our emotions work in the short-term, but in the long term, end up creating what we call an “Unrelenting Crisis.” Quick fixes often end up creating more problems and more distressing consequences. At that point, you are just barely putting band-aids on your problems, and instead, the more you rely on those “quick fixes” the more misery and suffering you get stuck in.

The good news is that DBT has a skill set for that. It is Reality Acceptance Skills. This is a set of skills (Radical Acceptance, Turning the Mind, Willingness, Willing Hands & Half Smile, and Mindfulness of Thoughts) that teach you how to open your mind, body, and soul to be more willing to allow and accept distress when it comes into your life. By doing so, you learn how to “feel the feels”, choose to accept the distress that is a natural part of life, and learn to act on the distress in the most effective and wise way possible. This allows you to learn how to get out of the misery and suffering that we so often get stuck in. You learn how to deal with life on life’s terms. Life already has more than enough disappointments, anxieties, and sadness to keep most of us busy. Reality Acceptance Skills allow us to stop piling misery and suffering on top of it. 

A quick DBT mini-lesson on Reality Acceptance:

About the Author: Neal Moglowsky, LPC is the leader of the Adult DBT team at the Center for Behavioral Medicine and a Linehan Board of Certification, DBT Certified Clinician. He has been conducting DBT skills training groups for over 25 years.