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Tolerating Distress: Giving up the Pacifier

There is a new rule in our house for our granddaughter: the pacifier stays in the crib. At 18 months of age, this is a significant separation. She wakes from a nap and while she can get out of the crib, the "nu-nu" can't.

It's developmental irony; her comfort object now is unavailable when she needs self-soothing.

At first, we tried to help her with this transition by using a variety of distractions.

"Do you want to.... read a book? with the dog?...go for a walk? Offers for food, toys, and activities were met with a firm, "No!" Sometimes, she would start saying "yes," but quickly reverse.

She didn’t want anything except the out-of-reach pacifier.

From a parenting or grand-parenting perspective, this is the point at which we realize that our resolution to help our child grow, causes distress—for all of us. In a moment of empathy, we easily can give into our child's grief. Staying committed to a plan is essential for success.

But, there is another lesson.

Giving up the pacifier provides an opportunity for my granddaughter to experience mild stress with the full support of those who love her. While distraction can be helpful, it does not teach her about enduring or accepting distress. In fact, by offering her a menu of diversions, we may shortcut her sadness, loss, unhappiness. Disappointment is a healthy and essential part of life. Enduring negative experiences, with our support, build her resilience and competence.

As adults, we too experience internal distress. When we begin to feel the aches of the heart, we sometimes rely on our “nu-nu.” While helpful in the short-run, many of our distractions no longer serve us well. Judgment, preoccupation, and loathing (self and others) are mental gymnastics. These cerebral ruts work to distract our minds and justify the discomforting emotions.

Sometimes, our responses are so automatic, like binge eating, drinking or social media, that we are barely aware of our heart’s experience. Even when we know it is not in our best interest, we easily regress to well-worn patterns, scourge, and stories. When we decide to change a habit, diet, start an exercise program, stop binge drinking, or break free from social media, we too experience physical and emotional discomfort. Behavior change science shows that our success depends on our abilities to tolerate internal suffering. We also experience developmental irony.

Mindfulness and well-being strategies can help us build our resilience and competence. When discomfort first arises:

  • Pause.

  • Notice your go-to behaviors.

  • Check in with yourself: Can I tolerate my inner experiences?

  • You may find it helpful to hold your hands over your heart.

Life provides lots of opportunity for rehearsal. Next time you notice internal discomfort; you might want to allow the sensation to enter your awareness without labeling, judging or changing the experience. You are building an alternative, —and compassionate—way to endure the life’s suffering.

Now, rather than trying to distract my granddaughter from her experiences, I sit with her. With love, I say, "We can wait." Sometimes, I inhale and exhale in ways she can feel my breathing.

I want both of us to experience suffering with kindness and self-compassion.

If you are interested in exploring mindfulness and well-being practices, a new Growing Awareness group will begin in September. Growing Awareness supports you in developing personal and professional practices in noticing the mind’s, heart’s, and body’s experiences. With a focus on how you will begin to develop effective methods for breaking self-limiting habits while building the strengths and certainties of being in the present.

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