You have all heard it “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” the wise words of a true optimist. What they are saying is; make the most of the shit situation you are in, think on the positive side, life could be worse etc….you get the message.
So, imagine this…you have your stack of lemons all piled up in your arms. They are heavy, you can’t put them down, you have to keep carrying them and the longer you hold on to those lemons the harder they are to carry. The more they ripen the more the bitterness intensifies. As you are walking along with your big stack of heavy, bitter lemons, dragging you down and making you sad you cross paths with an optimist who suggests improving your life by taking the lemons, putting them through a squeezer and making delightful fresh lemonade so you no longer have to carry the bitterness around. Sounds good right?
But what happens if every time you have lemons you put them straight through the squeezer over and over again and one day the squeezer breaks! You can’t get another squeezer, so you are stuck with your lemons. You haven’t prepared for this, you no longer know how to deal with so many lemons, they are overwhelming and piling up worse than before. You haven’t built up any ‘lemon resilience’ and the optimist is nowhere to be found. Doesn’t sound so fun now.
So what’s a happy medium? What is the new healthy way do deal with life when it gives you lemons? How about this…you put some lemons through the squeezer and make lemonade. It’s always good to stay positive, it has shown to speed recovery in sick people, help people out of stressful periods and steered people through successful career paths. But don’t put all the lemons through at once. Save some aside, let them ripen a little and allow yourself to be strong enough to carry a few lemons around and give your squeezer a break. This will build your resilience so when you are inundated with lemons you will be able to cope.
We see over and over again people falling into certain behaviours in order to avoid bad feelings. Excessive gym use, over eating, drinking alcohol to an unhealthy level, consumerism for the instant gratification, cleaning obsessions, always needing to be busy, avoidance of long term relationships, avoiding lemons! It is not often we are taught that it is ok to have bad feelings, it’s ok to take time to be sad or to process a horrible event or upsetting news. When we see somebody upset our instinct is to tell them it will be ok, cheer up, let’s go and have a glass of wine and it will all go away. There is nothing wrong with trying to help this way but perhaps we should be thinking of empathising with that person and even with ourselves when it is us that is sad. Saying yeah, this is shit. Take some time to think it over, process it and come to terms with it.
The best movie I have ever watched that absolutely nailed this topic on the head was Pixar’s Inside Out. It follows the life of a little girl and the ‘beings’ inside her head that controlled her emotions; Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. The whole movie shows the efforts that Joy puts in to make sure that the little girl is always happy. If the little girl falls over and cries, joy will push her buzzer in the control room (the brain) to send a surge of ‘Joy’ to the little girl. But Joy is always fighting with Sadness as Sadness always wants to push her buzzer at the same time. As the plot develops we see how Joy becomes very controlling of Sadness to the point of banning her from being anywhere near the control panel. The climax of the film and the message that excited me so much is shown when Joy looks back over the littles girl’s life events and see’s that in some of the tough times, when Sadness had gotten hold of the controls, the little girl had responded well. Sadness had shown empathy and just listened instead of jumping around like Joy with offerings of distraction.
About 4 years ago I was dealing with some difficult memories that were reoccurring and manifesting into regular nightmares. I was under pressure from visa issues and as I got stressed with that the bad memories and dreams got worse. I went to see a counsellor in order to ‘get rid of my bad feelings’ but instead she offered me therapy session where I would learn Distress Tolerance Skills using materials from Centre for Clinical Intervention. The workbook I used is linked here:
“Distress intolerance is a perceived inability to fully experience unpleasant, aversive or uncomfortable emotions, and is accompanied by a desperate need to escape the uncomfortable emotions” (CCI)
As a previous counsellor myself I have studied many different counselling theories and practices, but I had not come across this. It is a relatively new concept and are skills that are often taught in Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) which is a combination of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Distress Tolerance (An Overview of Dialectical Behavior Therapy – Psych Central”)
During training to become a counsellor it is mandatory to do a lot of self-reflexion, written down and handed in for the trainer to read. As a practicing youth drug and alcohol counsellor I received monthly supervision by our practice manger and external supervision by an independent psychologist to ensure that as a practitioner I was emotionally safe and had an outlet and support network due to the nature of what our clients relayed to us. So, I am very used to opening up, sharing and reflecting on my feelings. However, distress tolerance was a whole new kettle of fish. It was extremely uncomfortable, draining, and hurtful. But it was one of the best life skills I have ever been taught. It has allowed me to cope with this tumour in a safe and healthy manner. People ask me why I am so calm or how am I able to keep working and getting on with my life while being positive. The answer is I am not. I am not sailing through this with Joy at the controls, Sadness is there too. Sadness comes and sits with me after surgeon appointments and watches Netflix with me. She holds my hand as I walk through hospital doors and she sits on my shoulder, with Joy by her side, while I write these posts. Sadness looks after me when I need her most and then she knows she can retreat and let Joy take over. In my life Joy is not overruling or controlling Sadness and Sadness is not pushed aside and dismissed. They work together. I have learned the skill of negotiating with two emotions I tell them when I need them to help, they do not tell me.
For anybody who is struggling with bad feelings, for whatever reason, I hope this post helps or provides a different view on how to feel ok when things feel shit.