Feel, Tolerate, Respond

This is a blog about three words that support mental health.  Combined into a whole practice the meaning of the words can reduce feeling miserable.   If your life is too dramatic, or emotions easily overwhelm you, “Feel, Tolerate, Respond” is something you can do for yourself to feel better.

Mental Health is the health of the Mind/Body.  Mental is not just related to the mind and the mind is not just related to your head.  Your mind is also “in” places like your gut.  That "gut feeling" you sometimes have is knowledge.  If nothing else, a gut feeling is knowledge you are alive.  I like a definition of “mental health” that includes not only “where your mind is at” but also your capacity for emotional and intellectual response to a problem.  For example, if your mom and dad suddenly and unexpectedly start fighting in front of you…  you can respond or react in many ways.   One person might cry, another might feel guilty, or argue, or try hard to make things better.  Another person might close down and become very quiet, afraid, sad, or even depressed.  There is no one way to deal with the drama of life.

If you try this little exercise, you will need to remember all three words and take three steps.  The first step is to “Feel” with awareness.  Feel whatever you need to feel.   Feelings can happen fast.  Ideally, your awareness of feelings happen before you are overwhelmed.   In order for you to feel with awareness, it helps to name the feeling—  ask yourself, “what feeling is this?  Insecurity, sadness, anger, joy, love?  Name the feeling.  Try to name it with no judgment or story of “I am good or bad.”   For many teens (and adults) accepting strong feelings and riding the wave of emotion is not easy.

The second step, “Tolerate,” is the toughest challange of this little equation because it may be so uncomfortable and full of anxiety.  To tolerate is to “hold” or “see” the feeling in a way that is neutral or at least compassionate--  as if you see the feeling like watching clouds in the sky…clouds just keep moving and changing.  If you can see those feelings from a distance and observe, it helps.  When you tolerate your difficult feelings you have a chance to steer your thoughts about the feelings.  You may notice some feelings quickly produce negative thoughts.  If you are aware, perhaps you can turn them around to positive thoughts.  You know, the Mind/Body can make a big, awful mess of a few sad feelings, when really, all you might need is a little time to rest, heal, or talk to a friend.  So, if you are tolerating your feelings with awareness, you will soon (or someday) come to know they will change.  No feeling is permanent.  Do your best to let the feeling be there, but not completely control you.  Try not to react in anger, revenge, or hatred.  Rather, be good to yourself and stand tall and let the storm system pass.  In tolerating mode, you may still feel awful, because your brain may be racing, your heart beating fast, and you are not in your “right” mind.  You may still become overwhelmed.  But, if your intention is to remember this process, you will not become overwhelmed as long.

The third step is to “Respond.”  Do something.  Take a nap, talk to a friend, talk to yourself, take a bath with Lavender oil, talk to the person who is upsetting you (if possible) journal, exercise, go for a run, etc.  Sometimes, all you can do is cry and feel awful.  That is normal.  And, that too will pass.  “Respond” is the action you take next to tolerating the feeling.  To respond is to “do” something.  Talking to a friend is “doing” something positive when you are trying to “tolerate” a miserable “feeling.”  Healthy responding is like digging a trench to redirect the fire.  Responding in a positive way is often the opposite of what you may want to do, like scream, cry, seek revenge, run away, escape, or any desperate action.  So, if you are feeling desperate do the opposite of what you are thinking.   If you are angry, say nothing immediately or choose your words carefully, act without aggression when you want to fight, or at minimum, think before you act.  Sure, you may still feel like crap, sure it may be hard as hell to tolerate your feelings and respond with just the right amount of effort, but at least you are not making matters worse with negative or extreme actions.

Will you try it?  “Feel, Tolerate, Respond.”  

When something happens that is upsetting, become aware of your feelings, tolerate them with as much grace as possible, and respond.  There is no way to fail, because you will simply do your personal best. To do your best is to be good enough for this moment.  Give yourself room to practice and make a mess of it, if needed.  Like strengthening your muscles, you will become stronger the more you use those muscles.   

Feel, Tolerate, and Respond is an action plan for cultivating Mental Health.  Of course, it is easier said than done.  But, who said life is easy?  Life is challenging with moments of easy.  So, a few action plans may come in handy.   

Marc Aronoff