Distress Tolerance (part IV)

Watching Others in Distress

Last column I promised that I would write (in this column) about the importance of watching other people tolerate their own distress. If you read this series in order, it makes a lot of sense because the last installment spent considerable time discussing invalidation or, put another way, bailing people out of their distress.

So why on earth would we want to watch people endure agony? After all, that sounds awful. Some might even say it sounds inhumane.

As it turns out, however, learning to ride through a wave of discomfort – regardless of its origination – is actually quite good for development and social adaptation. What we learn (neurologically speaking) is that we can, indeed, survive an emotionally distressing experience and that the world won’t spin off its axis. Prevent that from happening though, and…well, you get some of the consequences to which I alluded in Part III.

But here’s the real catch: it sucks to watch people suffer. That includes, perhaps especially, our children. Watching people in agony is gut-wrenchingly awful and wreaks havoc on one’s own soul. And still, it is vital to human development and growth. So what is one to do?

We sit with them through it.

“Come on, surely you can’t be serious. You want us merely to sit with people in their distress and not do anything to soothe them, assuage their pain, or otherwise alleviate it?”

Yes, and don’t call me Shirley.


The word compassion is derived from Latin and, literally translated, it means “to suffer with.” It most decidedly does not mean “to suffer for” or “to remove suffering,” either of which is what many people attempt when another person is in misery. To suffer alongside another person means that you can be with them while not making any promises (or attempts) to pull them out of it. After all, to do so is to invalidate their own experiences. To do so deprives them of the opportunity to overcome the distress and learn that they can not only tolerate what they are enduring but also endure then next uncomfortable thing in their path. And, usually, life brings other things…

But there’s a catch. In order to endure pain alongside someone, we have to be able to endure our own, and if we have made a practiced habit of avoidance, we won’t be able to help anyone. We will be tempted instead to invalidate them, pull them out of it, and help them avoid it. That teaches them nothing and, in fact, almost assuredly assists them in their social and emotional demise later on in life.

The inscription above the Oracle at Delphi reads “Know Thyself.” In raising our children we have to know ourselves. Or at least, we have to know ourselves well enough to know what we are modeling for the next generation. If we as parents do not know how to tolerate our own distress, we will not be able to model for our children how to tolerate theirs and, more unfortunately, we will be tempted to bail them out of it – not because we want to help them, but because we ourselves cannot tolerate watching them in it. Because we ourselves have no confidence that it can be tolerated.

In the final installment of this series I will share the very important concept of being able to lose control and be okay. That second part is critical to being able not only to tolerate one’s own distress but to coaching one’s children through theirs.

And believe me, you will be okay. Always. Every time. Because if you weren’t okay after enduring some crazy distressing crap…

…you wouldn’t be reading this.

Leave a Reply