Staying Power: How to Tolerate What Feels Intolerable
While on my healing path from anorexia I’ve had to learn how to tolerate what often felt positively intolerable (my body, food, treatment, calorie increases, exercise restriction, gaining weight, drinking supplements, painful therapy sessions, and much more). I was taught to sit with uneasy feelings and physical discomfort and to wait for them to pass. The reality is that that space and time of “waiting” can be in itself intolerable and set off habitual negative thoughts and behaviors. Yes, learning to be present to discomfort is an important life skill, and that awareness is key, however, I believe that approach can sometimes feel passive and leave us feeling helpless in a difficult moment or situation.
Staying power is what I call super-charged presence. It’s actively and directly taking on intolerable feelings -- those feelings that set off negative thoughts and coping behaviors. It’s about staring those painful thoughts down and not letting yourself off the hook with sabotaging and destructive behaviors -- like hiding food, over exercising, being dishonest with support people, or checking out by starving, purging, and bingeing. The more we practice staying power and get comfortable with what feels intolerable, then the door to acceptance and the deeper work of healing can open. But first, we have to learn how to NOT escape the feeling.
The minute you have the awareness that you want to dodge, push away, or ignore a feeling or situation is the exact time to tap into your staying power. In yoga, we have a saying: the pose begins the moment you want to come out of it. The same with recovery: the real work begins when we choose to stay and push ourselves to withstand what feels awful. In my experience, practices like mantra, deep breathing, and yoga poses cultivate staying power by creating focused positivity. For others, prayer, art, music, cooking, and nature brings a peace and calm from which to harness clarity and strength.
To learn your power source, reflect on these questions:
When in your life do you feel empowered?
What activity are you doing?
What thoughts, feelings, and emotions do you sense when you feel empowered?
How do you hold your body in that moment?
The qualities and activities you identified are your power source. To “stay” with what feels intolerable, you need to plug into your personal power source. It will both protect you from self-sabotaging behaviors and empower you to call on your strengths and not be defeated by what you believe you can’t tolerate.
I get that it’s not easy to REMEMBER your strengths when you feel consumed by an intolerable feeling and you want it to go away ASAP. Most likely, you have habitual responses that will need rewiring. To help you remember your strengths, I encourage you to create an intention that aligns with your power source or carry a grounding stone to help pull yourself out of ED Head and into the moment. You might even ask yourself "WTF" (What's the Feeling?) when the urge to check out comes on or try this simple yoga practice to interrupt habitual eating disorder rituals.
Here's the thing: we need to get creative and test out little tricks to begin to make small shifts in our recovery. We can't cultivate staying power if we don't actively, directly, and deliberately pull ourselves out of ED Head and use our personal power to rise above the challenge of tolerating what feels intolerable.