Emotional capacity is exactly what is sounds like: our ability to tolerate and experience emotions. Many people find it easy to experience positive emotions, while finding it significantly more difficult to tolerate challenging emotions.
What is a challenging emotion for one person my not be for the next. What we all have in common though is adaptive strategies to distance ourselves from/regulate that which feels uncomfortable, hard, intolerable.
What sets one person apart from another is our capacity for certain/specific emotions. For example, it may be that you are quite okay with frustration but find yourself having much more trouble coping with disappointment.
Dealing With Difficult Emotions
When faced with disappointment (or any other emotion that is hard for you), you likely have ways of dealing with it. You may not be aware of it in the moment but somewhere along the way you learned ways to cope with it, though this doesn’t necessarily mean the way you currently cope with it is working well for you.
Perhaps you push it down, snap at someone else, ruminate for hours about it, rationalize it away or feel at a complete loss for how to move forward.
You may have noticed that you can handle a certain level of disappointment but once it hits a certain intensity, that’s where your adaptive strategies kick in.
Or maybe some days you are able to cope, while others you find it much more difficult.
Why Emotional Capacity Matters
What are the benefits of working on expanding our emotional capacity? Aka why should you care?
Those adaptive strategies we talked about above have a way of being unhelpful in the long run. They DO help us get through the moment but leave us being reactive rather than responsive in the longer term. And when we react rather than respond, we let past conditioning run our present.
We lose ownership of our own stories and the stories we tell about our lives and the world.
We may act in ways that are not aligned with our values.
We may stifle our innate impulse for curiosity, compassion, and creativity.
We miss out on hearing the important data these emotions are sending us about our needs, desires, and hopes.
Let me give you a fairly mundane example of how this can play out:
It’s been a regular day for Julia. Now it’s time to release the day and move into her bedtime routine. As she begins to get ready, buggy little thoughts of where she missed an opportunity, misspoke, exposed too much of herself, and tasks she procrastinated start bubbling to the surface. The temptation in this moment is to shove all those thoughts and emotions down and distract herself with YouTube or Instagram or TikTok videos; anything to not fall into the self-critical inner dialogue. Julia is tired. She does not want to be criticized, not even by her own mind. She does not want to feel discomfort, disappointment, and anxiety and so she avoids these feelings by distracting herself.
Maybe your example is that you tend to spend an hour ruminating, beating yourself up for all the things you did or said “wrong” that day and let your mind tell stories about yourself and the people in your life.
In time, this pattern of distraction or rumination lowers our capacity for self-reflection, for connection to ourselves, for living in line with our values. We shut those thoughts and emotions down and are thus doomed to repeat the pattern again tomorrow.
In essence, our capacity for uncomfortable emotions, for self-reflection and course correction dwindle with each merry go round.
How Can You Build Emotional Capacity
Building our emotional capacity may look like…
- taking a few moments to write out what felt challenging in the day
- putting the situation that triggered the challenging emotions into the context of what was happening around you and for you today
- offering some compassion and self-forgiveness to yourself or another person
- exploring what could be changed going forward
- feeling the sting of having disappointed yourself and perhaps others (again, insert any other emotions that feel challenging for you)
- evaluating expectations of self and others
- becoming aware of the story you tell yourself about your own way of being in the world and about others
Building emotional capacity always starts with willingness to lean into the discomfort, shame, critical inner dialogue, emotions of disappointment, anger, sadness, fear.
Building emotional capacity is a lifestyle, a daily practice of increasing self-awareness and ability to tolerate what we notice without turning away from it.
Building emotional capacity requires intention, commitment, persistence and a knowing that if we lean into to discomfort today, little by little, we grow in our ability of what we can face without having to withdraw, react, or get stuck in negative inner dialogues that torture our souls.
Little by little, we grow in our ability to remain connected to ourselves in difficult moments, to stay present in conversations with others. We grow in our problem-solving skills. We grow in ownership of our lives; so it feels less like life is happening to us and more like we are directing our own way through this life. We grow in our ability to forgive ourselves, to be brave, vulnerable, and creative.
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