Lowering Tolerance for Emotional Pain

In Toronto at the end of February, with the exhaustion of winter so apparent, what I’m most conscious of on public transit is the pain of the people around me. Seats full of folks who look tired, worn down, lonely, sad, or just disinterested and disengaged.

On a southbound Dufferin bus last weekend, looking around at my seatmates, I noticed that my own tolerance for emotional pain has diminished, and for once I feel grateful for being less strong.

For most of my twenties, I had a high tolerance for emotional pain. I spent a lot of time feeling agonized, feeling like the world had sharp edges, feeling like everything had the potential to hurt me. My method for coping was to continually increase my pain tolerance. I had a dysfunctional pride in how much I could take. I could hurt and hurt and hurt before I would break down and reach out for help. I needed to be in crisis before I would crack enough to let someone else in.

What strikes me now is that I break much sooner. My emotional pain doesn’t have to be at 98% before I reach out for comfort, call a friend, go to therapy, talk to a coach, soak in a bath. The overall effect is that my average emotional pain level is much lower. I used to coast along at, say, 80% as my base level. When it spiked up to 98%, I’d ask for help. When it lowered back down to a 90% or 80%, I’d carry on. And all the while be perversely proud about how much I could handle.

I think my base level is now closer to 20%, and I reach for help when it gets to 30%. It’s taken a solid three years to lower my tolerance and build the habit of reaching for help early on, and now that I see the results I wish I had learned this sooner.

How much happier might I have been if I had learned earlier that I didn’t have to do it all on my own? If I had learned that others could provide support and care for me before I was in crisis?

I invite you to cast a glance at your own life and tendencies, and ask yourself:

  • What do I believe I have to do all by myself?
  • What level of pain do I reach before I seek out support?
  • How might my life change if I reached for support sooner?


One of the reasons I love working with coaching clients in an ongoing relationship is that our regular conversations and continual learning illuminate the need for support and self-care early on, before the client reaches crisis. If you’re interested, I invite you to contact me to learn more.