Discomfort-Intolerance: Is it really unbearable?

Do you ever tell yourself that you can’t stand, tolerate or endure something? You can make it harder to cope with unpleasant situations when you have thoughts like:

  • I can’t stand it any longer.
  • I can’t bear ... .
  • It’s intolerable ... .
  • I’d never be able to live with myself if ... .

What we’re often afraid of is not the situation itself, but rather the unpleasant feelings we associate with it. In other words, we anticipate feeling bad (e.g. putting ourselves down, getting anxious, feeling rejected or hurt, etc.) and tell ourselves we simply can’t stand the discomfort of feeling like that. This in turn leads to the demand: Because I can’t stand to experience such discomfort, therefore I must not. Unfortunately, such a combination of awfulising and demanding makes us even more uptight!

This common tendency is known as discomfort-intolerance, or low discomfort-tolerance (colloquially called 'can't-stand-it-itis'). It is a significant cause of many of the emotional problems that afflict human beings.

Discomfort anxiety

Low discomfort-tolerance leads to discomfort anxiety: the unpleasant sensation that occurs when we perceive some threat to our physical or emotional comfort. As well as discomfort-intolerance, awfulising and demanding are usually involved:

  • 'I can't stand discomfort and pain.'
  • 'It is terrible to feel bad.'
  • 'I must not experience discomfort.’

If we kept our desire for comfort as a preference, we would be just disappointed or concerned when it was not met. Turning comfort into an absolute 'need' is what makes it seem catastrophic. It also creates what is called secondary disturbance - having a problem about a problem. If we catastrophise about discomfort, and demand that we avoid it, we make ourselves uncomfortable!

Increasing your discomfort-tolerance

How do you overcome low discomfort-tolerance? It involves a combination of rethinking and action:

  1. Learn to accept discomfort as unpleasant rather than awful and unbearable.
  2. Increase your tolerance for discomfort by deliberately facing rather than avoiding uncomfortable situations.

Rethinking discomfort

See discomfort is a normal part of life that, generally, only becomes a problem when you tell yourself you cannot stand it.

Get rid of the idea that you should not have to feel discomfort. This demand will only lead to anxiety about discomfort and possibly resentment when it does occur. Preferring to avoid it is fine - just keep it as a preference.

Of course you don’t like discomfort —but you can stand it. To say that you ‘can’t stand’ something is really implying that you will die if you’re exposed to it. But is this true? Obviously not! Clearly, you’ve stood many unpleasant events and circumstances - otherwise you wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. They may have been uncomfortable, unpleasant or undesirable. But, in spite of your discomfort, you stood them!

If you see yourself as able to tolerate unpleasant happenings, you will avoid adding to the pain.

Give up the idea that you should be able to feel good all the time. Learn to tolerate unpleasant feelings. Find out how to change them but without demanding you avoid them entirely. When you are confident you can handle bad feelings and that you can stand them, they will, paradoxically, bother you less in the first place!

Ask, ‘Why is such and such unbearable, rather than uncomfortable?’, ‘What makes this intolerable, rather than unpleasant?’ Don’t indulge in unrealistic 'positive thinking' - acknowledge that some things are unpleasant, uncomfortable and inconvenient. Just don’t make them into anything more.

Getting into action

Make a list of activities or situations you typically avoid, or behaviours you engage in, because you are trying to avoid feeling uncomfortable: going into public places, speaking to strangers, learning a new skill, misusing drugs, alcohol or food, losing your temper, putting off difficult tasks, and so on. Then commit yourself to confronting one or more of these things each day, using the technique of exposure. Instead of trying to get away from the discomfort as you normally would, stay with the negative feelings until they diminish of their own accord.

You can prepare yourself to cope with the discomfort by using rational self-analysis, imagery, and the blow-up technique. Afterwards, do a catastrophe scale to get your reaction to the discomfort into perspective. If you have suffered a loss you think you cannot survive, try using ‘time projection’ to get the future into perspective.

Regular use of rational self-analysis to identify and change irrational thinking about discomfort will probably give you the best results in the long term. As you challenge exaggerated thinking, don’t fall into the trap of so-called ‘positive thinking’. Telling yourself that everything is all right won’t work for long. In the real world there are negatives and bad things do happen, so acknowledge unpleasant realities — just keep them in perspective.

Remember, if you learn to tolerate frustration and bad feelings, they’ll trouble you less in the first place

Mountains Back to Molehills

See the list of typical discomfort-intolerance thoughts below. Alongside each is a more realistic alternative.

Low tolerance beliefs

High tolerance thinking

It is awful and intolerable to experience physical or emotional pain and discomfort. If I tell myself that pain and discomfort are awful, I’ll only set myself up to get anxious when I think they’re coming.
I can’t stand it when people don’t act as they should. I don’t like it, but I can survive it - and survive better when I don’t lose my cool over it.
This situation is simply unbearable. This situation is unpleasant and uncomfortable, and I don’t like it - but I am (obviously) standing it.
There are certain things in life which I just can’t stand. Certain things are uncomfortable or unpleasant, but it’s wrong to say that I ‘can’t stand’ them. If that were true, I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale!
My circumstances have to be right for life to be tolerable. It’s disappointing when things aren’t the way I’d like them to be, but it’s not awful — and I can stand less than the ideal.
Because I can’t stand discomfort and pain, I must avoid them at all costs. Total avoidance would mean a very restricted life. Though I don’t like discomfort and pain, I can tolerate them.

Other resources on raising discomfort-tolerance

Links in this program

Further reading

  • Dryden, Windy and Gordon, Jack. Beating the Comfort Trap. Sheldon Press, London, 1993.
  • Hauck, Paul. Overcoming Frustration and Anger. The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1974.