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February 11, 2018

Processing Emotions and Learning to Tolerate Painful Feelings

Woman getting therapy

Tolerating uncomfortable emotions can be difficult at times. It is about being able to identify feelings, process them, and coping with them as they arise. Often our society teaches us to push down negative emotions and show only positive ones.

We are taught that certain emotions are not appropriate to share or express. Being unable to identify and process our feelings can limit our self-awareness and restrict our ability to experience our lives.

Emotions are Guideposts

Emotions help tell us what is going on in our environment, both internally and externally.

They allow us to understand and process people around us, ourselves within a situation, and even danger within our environment [1].

Emotions can be overwhelming, bursting, joyful, adaptive, and exploratory. We can feel many feelings at the same time. Emotions can derive from primary or secondary reasons.

Primary emotions are often healthy and adaptive and usually help us to survive and thrive. Secondary emotions are often a result of the judgments and internalized negative thoughts and beliefs that we internalize from when we are young [1].

Emotions are a Process

Many times we try to control our feelings rather than feel and process them. Emotion-Focused Therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on the processing and feeling of emotions.

This kind of therapy is to help individuals accept, express, regulate, understand, and transform their emotions.

Dr. Leslie Greenberg, one of the primary developers of Emotion-Focused Therapy states that “Emotion is not opposed to reason….emotions guide and manage thought in a fundamental way, and complement the deficiencies of thinking” [1].

When we learn to process emotions and to tolerate uncomfortable feelings, it can allow us to be more resilient. We are not necessarily born with the natural ability to regulate emotions, but instead, we learn from caretakers and parents.

If our first models do not have their coping strategies to regulate and process emotions, then we are not able to learn healthy and adaptive skills.

How to Tolerate Uncomfortable Emotions

Being able to sit with emotion is essential. It can help with learning to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and start to understand where it originates from and how it feels in your body and mind.

When an emotion is first felt, a person may go straight to an unhealthy skill to avoid or numb it out, especially if the feeling is uncomfortable. Working with a therapist is helpful when first starting this process.

Woman with body image issues sitting at a tableAnother aspect of learning to tolerate uncomfortable feelings is to practice slow and regulated breathing. As you breathe, focus on accepting what you are feeling.

Remember that it is alright to feel anger, sadness, or pain. Try to resist the urge to judge your emotions or label them. The longer you practice sitting with your feelings, the better you will be able to do so, and the more comfortable you will become with them.

Another essential step is to not judge your emotion as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong.’

Feelings are sensations, a cue to your past, present, and future thoughts or memories. Try not to engage the emotions being felt.

It may only exaggerate the emotions and create a stronger urge to use maladaptive coping skills. Try to stay objective with your feelings by asking yourself questions such as, ‘where do you feel the emotion in your body,’ or ‘what emotion are you feeling.’

As you work with your therapist on processing and tolerating uncomfortable emotions, you will be able to understand better what emotions you are feeling and how it can drive maladaptive behaviors within your disorder.

There are various therapies and techniques that clinicians use to help individuals identify and feel their emotions.

Emotion Processing Therapy

Emotion Processing Therapy (EPT) is a type of therapy that works to help people learn to understand and process emotions from their past and present.

It works to help individuals explore their emotion-processing style, works to help move them toward a healthy processings style, and use it to work through past or present trauma or stress to resolve issues [2].

Woman struggling with eating disorder

When a person is working through EPT, they start by identifying past and current issues that have created unhealthy behaviors, and that is affecting daily functioning.

It could be a marital issue, relationship stress, trauma or death, or could be from childhood. This type of therapy works to explore and identify how the individual processes these emotions and what maladaptive tools are used to process them or avoid them.

From here, an emotional processing scale is created to identify strengths and weakness and assist with treatment goal planning. Additional therapies can be used to help determine unhealthy thinking and behaviors that are contributing to the issues at hand.

Other types of therapies include Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Trauma Therapy [2]. Each of these focuses on various aspects of a person’s thinking, behaviors, and triggers.

Very simply these therapies can be explained. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, therapist and client work to change the way a person thinks and processes an emotion to a situation.

From that, they can change reactions and behaviors to events that occur. In dialectical-behavioral therapy, a person can learn to identify emotions, practice distress tolerance in high-stress situations, as well as practice mindfulness and emotional regulation.

Trauma Therapy is about being able to process and move traumatic images, memories, and emotions to non-traumatic ones.

Working through emotions can take time and eating disorders, addictions, and other issues can be a part of avoiding and numbing past and current memories.

Being able to access counseling and working with a professional team can help you learn how to understand, identify, and process your emotions as well as sit with uncomfortable ones.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Firestone, L. (2016, January 25). Should You Feel or Flee Your Emotions? Retrieved December 27, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201601/should-you-feel-or-flee-your-emotions
[2] The Therapy. (2017). Retrieved December 27, 2017, from http://emotionalprocessingtherapy.org/the-therapy/

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on February 11, 2018.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 11, 2018.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

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