It’s natural to want to run away from difficult emotions such as grief, anger and fear. But what happens when these feelings catch up with us? This week, in the second installment of our Happiness 2.0 series, psychologist Todd Kashdan looks at the relationship between distress and happiness, and how to keep difficult emotions from sabotaging our wellbeing.
Don’t miss the first part of our series on happiness! You can listen our episode on chasing contentment.
The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment, by Todd B. Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, 2015.
Why do People Prefer Gratitude Journaling over Gratitude Letters? The Influence of Individual Differences in Motivation and Personality on Web-Based Interventions, by Lukasz D. Kaczmarek et al., Personality and Individual Differences, 2015.
The Prospective Effects of Perceived and Laboratory Indices of Distress Tolerance on Cannabis Use Following a Self-Guided Quit Attempt, by Nadeem S. Hasan et al., Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 2015.
Commitment to a Purpose in Life: An Antidote to the Suffering by Individuals with Social Anxiety Disorder, by Todd B. Kashdan and Patrick E. McKnight, Emotion, 2013.
Everyday Strivings in War Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Suffering from a Hyper-Focus on Avoidance and Emotion Regulation, by Todd B. Kashdan, William E. Breen, and Terri Julian, Behavior Therapy, 2010.
Experiential Avoidance as a Generalized Psychological Vulnerability: Comparisons with Coping and Emotion Regulation Strategies, by Todd B. Kashdan et al., Behaviour Research and Therapy, 2006.
The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively, by Todd B. Kashdan, 2022.
The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.Shankar Vedantam:This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. How do you cope with unhappiness and distress? It's a question humans have wrestled with for thousands of years. It's a foundational issue for many of the world's religions. It's also what may have kept you up at night this past week. Lots of us have techniques to deal with pain. We hang out with friends to make ourselves feel better. We exercise or turn to music. Some of us turn to drugs and alcohol. In recent years, researchers have run experiments to see what works and what doesn't work when it comes to dealing with distress. Some conclusions of this body of science are counterintuitive, and some dovetail with lessons learned hundreds of years ago. Today, in the next installment of our Happiness 2.0 series, we examine the difficult emotions that often sabotage our wellbeing. How to deal with distress, this week on Hidden Brain.When Todd was growing up on Long Island, his mom was the center of his emotional life. She raised him and his twin brother by herself. Todd's relationship with his mother has informed the next several decades of his life. He's now a psychologist at George Mason University, and he studies the science of wellbeing. Todd , welcome to Hidden Brain.Todd Kashdan:So good to be here.Shankar Vedantam:Todd, your dad left the family when you were a toddler. What was your relationship like with your mom?Todd Kashdan:Well, the way people refer to it was I was the mother's boy of my twin brother and myself, and everywhere she went I was in her lap, next to her, holding her hand, inseparable.Shankar Vedantam:I understand that she was unwell through much of your childhood. What happened, Todd?Todd Kashdan:So, this is from the perspective of a 13-year-old, and when you're told that your mom has breast cancer and you're told that there are these stages, none of it makes sense to you. And so, for much of my childhood as I remember it is she was losing her hair, she wore wigs, and I knew something was wrong. But the idea that there's the possibility that your mom might die, it's just not something you even consider.Shankar Vedantam:When Todd was 13, his mother was hospitalized.Todd Kashdan:My grandmother took us to the hospital, my twin brother and myself. And when we got there, so excited because it had been days or weeks since we had seen my mom. That we'd get to run into the room and go give her a hug. And when we got there, we were told that my mom didn't want to see us because she knew she was dying, and she didn't want to taint our memories of what she looked like and what it was like to be with her. And if you can imagine two 13 year old boys, we're going on our toes, waving our hands, trying to get her attention in the little glass window in her hospital door, and we're jumping up and down. And we could see her and we could see that she was gaunt and pale, but she couldn't see us. And that experience has lingered so deeply in my psyche, where I could see the person I love the most and the person that gives me the most stability in my life, but that person has no ability to even notice that you're there.And that's the lasting memory because that was the last moment that I sort of saw, but wasn't able to interact with my mom.Shankar Vedantam:So, you were in middle school when she died. How did your school and your classmates handle what had happened?Todd Kashdan:So, this is something it's worth thinking about in the aftermath of death is my twin brother and I walked into school, people avoided eye contact with us, and if I saw one of my close friends and I waved at them, they give that half-wave where their arm doesn't even go above their hip. And then they looked away. We were basically ghosted, and we walked through this hallway wondering what to do with all these emotions and thoughts that are uncomfortable inside of us. I have no judgment of anyone, because I had no idea how to respond either. In some ways I have a little bit of beef with the school itself of making this announcement, and setting ourselves up for having this awkward, uncomfortable social interaction where nobody is skilled in how to deal with grief. And we just walked right into that trap, my twin brother and I, and we didn't know what to say or do either.Shankar Vedantam:For the next several days, friends came over to Todd's house to offer their condolences. Todd and his brother would bring them to an upstairs bedroom.Todd Kashdan:And who knows what you're supposed to do at the age of 13. And my brother and I, not knowing what to do with these emotions, we just did karaoke, playing loud music, we're doing impressions of teachers, and every emotion existed except for grief in those upstairs bedrooms. I closed myself off from everyone. That moment of being able to see my mom in her last moments of suffering and not be seen is a thread where my capacity to love, things, activities, people was there, but nobody was going to gain access to understanding me. And so, I lost myself in listening to heavy metal music, and going into mosh pits and slamming it to other boys and some women at concerts. And then it switched to being interested in body building and weightlifting, and I became obsessively passionate about that.And then I spent many a day, which my grandmother never knew, where I would just sit in a softball field in a Friday, Saturday night with a 12 pack or 24 pack of beer with my friend Martin or my friend Mark, or even by myself. And it was just oscillating between trying to numb myself and just have as much entertainment as humanly possible. Just keep that negative stuff away.Shankar Vedantam:Perhaps you know people like Todd, perhaps you know firsthand what it's like to look away from pain, to find distractions, laughter, entertainment, anything really, so long as you don't have to acknowledge the elephant sized hurt in the middle of your heart. Notice also how the world conspires with us to look away from our distress. Todd's mother kept him from seeing her as she was dying because she wanted to spare him from pain. School friends were only too happy to talk about anything other than grief. As Todd grew older, he found plenty of peers who were willing to drown sorrows in loud music and alcohol. All of this makes intuitive sense, of course. Pain is unpleasant. Grief can feel unbearable. When we come back, more of Todd's journey to understand the role of distress in our lives. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When Todd was a sophomore in college, he fell madly in love. The woman he adored was way, way out of his league. Then something amazing happened, she agreed to go out with him. The woman had recently been engaged to be married, but her fiance had broken off the relationship. Todd was the rebound guy. That was just fine with him. He was ecstatic.Todd Kashdan:This is my first love. Sophomore year in college. I was in her apartment and she was on the phone with her ex, and I could only hear her end of the conversation and I'm sitting on the floor and I'm thinking this will be a five-minute conversation. And on this phone call she's saying things such as, "No, he's not that important to me. Of course it's not like you, of course I'm not going to be engaged to him. He's just, it's something to do in the interim." And this goes on for, I'm going to say like 50 minutes, an hour and 20 minutes.Shankar Vedantam:Oh my God.Todd Kashdan:And she hangs up that phone and I'm only hearing her side of the conversation. And when she's finished, no apology, she just lunged towards me, kisses me, and I pretend as if nothing happened. And I had this thought in my head of this woman is so above my league, she's so physically attractive, she's so intelligent, she's so witty. I'm so lucky to have her that I just took all of this embarrassment, and regret, and self-loathing, and dismay from this moment, and it was just like taking two fists and just shoving it down my throat and pretending it didn't even exist.Shankar Vedantam:So, we've seen two examples from your own life, Todd, where you were encouraged to look away from pain when you were a child, and you actively chose to look away from pain as a young adult. Soon after college, you trained to become a clinical psychologist and you started working with one client who was a war veteran. Tell me how you met this man, and what he said about his experiences in the Vietnam War.Todd Kashdan:Yeah, this is at the Charleston Veterans Administration Hospital, and is introducing himself to a group of about 20 other veterans. He mentions that he's a Vietnam War veteran, so we're talking 20 years after the war. And he told this story that when he came back and entered civilian life, his friends bought him tickets to a Knick's game. Are just so excited that he survived and just to have him back in their lives. And he's in the stands, and if you've never been to a professional sporting event the amphitheater goes black and then if it's the home team you've got this loud speaker introducing the players. There's pyrotechnics and there's fireworks, and explosions, and the diamond vision screen has all this huge sound effects and neon lights. And when this guy responds to the loud sound, the noises, he jumps out of his seat, climbs below the bleachers, and is hiding where people drop their pretzels and spill their beer.And when the lights came back on, his friends found him there and they pointed at him and they laughed. And as he's telling the story 20 years later, he is crying, tears streaming down his face. He looked at them, ran out of Madison Square Garden, never spoke to those friends again, had never gone to a public professional sporting event ever again.Shankar Vedantam:In some ways, the man was doing what Todd himself had done in his own life. In response to an emotionally traumatic event he had withdrawn into himself. Clinicians were seeing similar patterns in patients across a wide range of emotional problems. After something bad happens, any contact with a source of distress, even the memory of the distress can produce unpleasant physical and emotional reactions. As a result, the person does everything in their power to keep the pain at bay.Todd Kashdan:One of the things that cuts across is the unwillingness to be in contact with ugly, undesirable thoughts, feelings, memories, even bodily sensations like an increase in heart rate. And this was a person experiencing physical tension in their leg, experiencing their hands shaking in front of other people. I was trained to have a combination of two things. One was called narrative exposure therapy, which is a disorder does not define who we are, and we can actually experience joy, meaning, and richness, and vitality even if we're suffering from a disorder. It's opposed to being the title or the subtitle of your story, "Here lies Robert, a combat survivor with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." Try to move it in the narrative of this doesn't define you, it's really chapter three, paragraph three and four of you were in war, and it was difficult to come home, and there were some traumas that you experienced. And so it's not you, it's an event that happened.So, one part of the therapy is realizing there are other parts of the narrative that you're ignoring, your strengths, your goals, the things that matter most to you, what you're going to commit your life to. And the other part of therapy is what's called behavior activation, and that's instead of trying to change a person's thoughts or feelings, you say, "What if we try to increase a number of potentially pleasurable activities and realize it just feels good just being around other people, especially when you're sharing things that are important to you and sharing your feelings?" And by doing it, as you take action with your body, the thoughts and the feelings will follow with it.Shankar Vedantam:This form of therapy is designed to reframe the centrality of the distressing event in your mind. Instead of being the main attraction, it's now in the background. You try to focus on other activities, other goals. The distress isn't gone, but it's been moved from the front row of the picture to the third row. Doing this requires a form of metacognition, becoming aware of your thoughts and trying to make conscious decisions about which thoughts to prioritize.Todd Kashdan:It was hard for him at first. It took us several sessions for this to sink in. But it was the idea that there's a part of us that goes through a trauma, like losing your parent at the age of 13, or being in combat and seeing your close friend die right next to you on the front lines, that is unharmed because you could notice that memory of what they looked like, and what it was like to touch the blood on their body, and what it was like to see the little bristles of hair on your mother who's dying from cancer. Because you can notice that memory, there's a part of you that's going to observe that. And so, that part of you, that observer self, is unharmed. So, the idea of imagine if you're a fly on the wall watching this from the outside, it taps into that observer self and then you can look at things with a little bit more stoicism.Shankar Vedantam:Intuitively, this makes sense. Instead of spending a lot of time trying to avoid emotional pain, focusing on pleasurable activities can deprioritize the role of pain in your life. Many people do this, of course, even without therapy or psychological training. Todd himself, in response to his mother's death, had turned to weightlifting and music. Todd and his colleagues ran studies with veteran suffering from PTSD, and people with social anxiety disorder, to show that patients who spend less time trying to escape the distress in their head and more time engaged with the world had better outcomes.Todd Kashdan:So, there are things we can do in terms of defining what we are striving for in everyday life, and building a life that matches up with our values where maybe we don't have to work with any of the psychological symptoms that are bothering us, as opposed to trying to reduce social anxiety. The fear that your perceived flaws will be exposed, visible to other people and you'll be rejected because of them. That's the core of social anxiety. We wondered if they're pursuing their primary purpose in life, what does their days look like one day after the other? And we found that for those people with significant impairing social anxiety in everyday life, if they devoted considerable effort on a given day to their primary purpose in life, maybe it was like to be really present around their kids, maybe it was to be very compassionate with coworkers, on those days they had over a 20% bump in their level of meaning and joy in everyday life.They had nearly a 15% increase in their positive emotions on that day, and a 10% drop in their social anxiety symptoms even though they weren't doing anything to try to reduce their social anxiety.Shankar Vedantam:Notice however, that this technique is only one step removed from trying to avoid distress and pain. Instead of taking your pain and jamming it back down your throat, you focus on something that isn't your pain. Focusing on positive goals that move your distress off to one side is certainly better than drowning your pain with alcohol and drugs, but it still has the central goal of keeping distress at bay. The more Todd thought about it, however, the more he started to see that there was a deeper thread that connected people who seemed to do well after physical and psychological setbacks. They weren't just able to deprioritize distress by focusing on something else. They seemed to be able to endure distress.Todd Kashdan:One of my favorite studies is by a friend of mine, Marcel Bonn-Miller, and he was interested in people that have a dependence on pot or marijuana. And wanted to know for people that want to quit, what's predicting whether they relapse one or two days after starting? And he finds that on the very first day of committing to quitting, if you break people down by levels of distress tolerance, those people that are intolerant of the withdrawal symptoms, that 63% of them end up relapsing after one single day of quitting, where those people that are able to tolerate distress, you get only 32% of people relapsing. That's a huge difference, and we see this with obesity, we see it with people in terms of their comfort about being exposed to ideas from the opposing political party. The people that can better tolerate distress are more open and receptive to new ways of behaving, and new ways of other people acting towards them.Shankar Vedantam:All of this applies to positive things too. Think about starting a new exercise program, or a new job, or moving to a new country. Each of these can bring rich benefits to your life, but each of them also comes with distress, at least at first. What are the effects of trying to avoid distress on our long-term wellbeing and success? Is it really helpful when friends, and family, and coworkers do all they can to shield us from pain?Todd Kashdan:It's a misunderstanding of what leads humans to develop strengths and grow. I mean, if you think about it there are so many positive consequences of pain that people pursue them intentionally. So, think of first dates, roller coasters, horror movies, spicy foods, competition. These are all events where they up-regulate the negative emotions we experience, but many of us like them because they give us an opportunity to show our medal, they give us an opportunity to see what capacities do I have at my disposal. And the way that I like to think about this, it's like safely testing the alarm system in your mind and body. Now that it's safe watching a horror movie, maybe you could handle it a little bit better when you get exposed to a haunted house, and then maybe even better when you get exposed to a stranger passing you by at 3:00 in the morning on a random Tuesday.Shankar Vedantam:We've talked a lot about the idea of emotional distress and emotional discomfort, Todd, and ways to not escape this emotional distress, but to be able to sit with it, to be able to deal with it. I'm wondering if this has any correlates in the physical world. Is learning how to deal with physical discomfort connected at all with our ability to deal with emotional discomfort?Todd Kashdan:Yeah, this is a societal problem that my co-author, Robert Biswas-Diener and I call "comfort addiction." And it's one of the bizarre byproducts of economic prosperity is you have all the things that you described, and because of all the safety, because of all the security, we become psychologically weaker. And all of a sudden sitting on an airplane for a two-hour ride is unbearable, and sitting through a presentation from a coworker where you don't get to speak is you can't resist the temptation of drawing on a piece of paper, or whipping out your phone, or just anything else other than listening. And the consequences are we are able to have less mental and physical stamina, we tend to be more selfish, and we have greater difficulty of pursuing long-term goals. What Angela Duckworth calls "being gritty."Shankar Vedantam:In his life and his research, Todd had now come a long way. He started out like many people believing that distress was best suppressed and hidden away. Then he found it was possible to deprioritize the role of distress and focus instead on positive goals and values. The next step was a discovery that you could actually sit with distress without believing it would destroy you. If you think of distress as being an alarm, Todd's initial response was to try and turn the alarm off. In his work with the Vietnam War vet and other patients, he realized that you could leave the alarm blaring in the background but turn your attention to something else. That was followed by the discovery that people who do especially well at difficult challenges in life seem to be able to do more than deprioritize their distress. They seem to be able to endure the blaring discomfort of the alarm. There was one final discovery to be made.Todd Kashdan:The first stage is where we tend to avoid these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. We don't want contact with them. The second one is what we've been talking about, is we can tolerate negative experiences, but that's kind of like white knuckling our way through a rollercoaster ride. And so, the third phase is this acceptance phase where you embrace that this is a part of being human and a part of life. But then there's another level that almost nobody's been talking about in psychology we discovered has a really good power in predicting high performance and high levels of flourishing in life. And that's harnessing negative emotions as fuel, and motivation to push us to higher levels of effort and progress towards the goals we care about.Shankar Vedantam:To be clear, Todd is not suggesting we embrace masochism or pain for pain's sake. It makes sense to be vigilant to trauma and to choose activities that make us feel happy. The goal here is not to be terrified or to fall in love with pain. Rather, it's not to let the desire to avoid pain cause us to forget our values and our goals. One set of experiments led by psychologist Martin Seligman showed how this worked when it came to something many of us think of doing, but that few of us actually do. Writing a letter of gratitude to someone who has meant a lot to us, and then reading the letter aloud to that person.Todd Kashdan:What's it like to share this letter? What's it like to wait for someone's response? And their response might not be the response you want, just like the story of me at age 13 walking through the hallway for the first time after my mom passed away. People don't necessarily know what to do when you give all these beautiful compliments to somebody. And when people come back from reading these letters, they talk about how it's awkward, how they were anxious, how they were shaking. Some of them were crying because they were so damn uncomfortable in the experience. It is very awkward really letting yourself share to another person that I can't get through life without the benefits that you afforded me. And in some way we are interdependent and I'm not a self-sufficient person fully. I need you, I crave your company, and I've benefited from your company. The really bizarre part is how much laughter and joy was in the classroom as people were sharing this very similar experience.Shankar Vedantam:I understand that you've run a study comparing the effects of reading a gratitude letter out loud to a benefactor, as these students did, versus writing down those sentiments in a private gratitude journal. What do you find, Todd?Todd Kashdan:Yeah, this is led by my amazing colleagues in Poznan, Poland. And what we wanted to know is what's the best way for extracting the pleasure, the meeting, the fulfillment from a gratitude experience? Is it from journaling on a regular basis about all the affordances that you have in your life from other people, from benefactors? Or is it from giving this letter and reading it to another person? And what we found was people experience more joy and meaning, and stronger social bonds after sharing this gratitude letter and having this conversation about this letter than compared to journaling, which is this intrapersonal activity. But it's more anxiety provoking, it's more confusing, it's more ambivalent. And so, this is one of the reasons why people don't pursue this higher difficulty activity, but this is exactly the activity that builds this gratitude muscle where it becomes more of a habit that can not only give you good moments, but produce these really positive, healthy relationships.Shankar Vedantam:I mean, it's another example of where if you're able to sit with the uncomfortable emotion for a bit, you can actually scale a much higher psychological and emotional peak.Todd Kashdan:In some ways, we can think of all this in three simple parts. One is noticing and normalizing the difficult emotions that arise. In this case, we're talking about the anxiety of expressing deep intimacies in a gratitude letter. Then there's, as you're saying, sit with that and play with it, work with it, be curious about these emotions that arise. And then it's take another perspective. And that's the beauty of this conversation is saying, "You might not like the feeling, it might not feel good, but it's going to do good." And that's really what we're looking for is how do we construct a life where there is stable architecture, where there are sustained building blocks for the things we care about, playfulness, feelings of competence, feelings of belonging, feelings of autonomy, feelings of satisfaction. And it tends to be, on average, that when you go through the negative emotional experiences, you tend to get the greatest strengths and the greatest outcomes.Shankar Vedantam:In 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested during civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama. On his second day in jail, he was passed a copy of the Birmingham News. It featured a full page letter about the protests signed by a group of white clergymen. This letter advised protestors that their actions were unwise and untimely. King later said, "When I read it, I became so concerned and even upset and at points so righteously in indignant, that I decided to answer the letter." The result was King's famous letter from Birmingham Jail. King later read that letter aloud. I want to play you a clip, Todd.Martin Luther King Jr.:Non-violent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the non-violent resistor may sound rather shocking, but I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but that is a type of constructive, non-violent tension which is necessary for growth.Shankar Vedantam:It seems that King here is talking about the same idea At a societal level, Todd, we have an impulse to turn away from anything that produces distress, to turn away from what King would call tension. But he's arguing you cannot have growth and change without some amount of distress, without some amount of tension.Todd Kashdan:I mean, he's encapsulating this great body of discoveries. And let me just pose a few questions, and every one of the answers to this question is that it is better to experience tension and be south of neutral in terms of your emotional experience. Which emotion is better at detecting deception? Which is better at producing persuasive messages? Which is better at restoring your social standing after a moral failing? Which is better at stimulating effort and performance? Which is better for having less selfish behavior in groups? Which is better for soliciting cooperation and support and finding allies for civil rights causes, for any causes? Every one of these questions, it is better to be in a mild to moderate state of anger, or sadness, or irritability than being happy. And yet, this nuanced emotional palette of tools, we suppress it, we can seal it, or we pretend that it's better to be happy because that's what we think society wants us to be.Shankar Vedantam:Todd writes, "Too often our strategies to cope with distress while providing momentary relief bring us further away from the life we want and from our values. Distress is an inevitable human experience that is not inherently problematic. Distress itself does not impair functioning and wellbeing. The culprit is unhealthy attempts to escape distress when time and effort could be spent elsewhere in meaningful activity." When we come back, how to build a capacity to tolerate emotional distress. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In day-to-day life, most of us have an instinctive desire to avoid pain. This makes sense. Pain is, well, painful. The problem however is that constantly seeking to avoid pain and distress can cause us to lead constricted lives and keep us from reflecting our deepest values. Psychologist Todd works at George Mason University. He's the author of The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self, Not Just Your Good Self, Drives Success and Fulfillment. Some time ago, Todd, someone pointed out to you that as a state employee in Virginia, you had access to some information. What was this information?Todd Kashdan:Yeah, after a few years of working as a professor, someone told me that because we're state employees, it's transparent what everyone's salary is. And I downloaded a file of what everyone makes, and I found that the salary I was making was not commiserate with what I was producing, and how much effort, and how much time I was devoting to my work. And there's some metrics as a professor in terms of the amount of articles you publish, how prestigious those outlets are where you publish in, how many times you give a talk to a large audience. And all the numbers showed that it was absurd how low my salary was compared to other people.Shankar Vedantam:I'm wondering how this made you feel when you saw this information on this spreadsheet.Todd Kashdan:Well, you have a few thoughts that pop into your head. So, one is that I'm not worthy of making as much money as these people. They've been around longer. I should just be waiting until it's my turn. Maybe I'm not as good as I think I am. Maybe my salary is indicative of what my value is, and I have an inflated sense of self-worth. And you also feel bitterness, and you feel uncomfortable with the idea of I am one of the lowest paid people in a room of 80. And by no means do I view myself as number 79.Shankar Vedantam:So, you came up with a number of psychological techniques to process how you were feeling, and one of those was something called cognitive diffusion. Explain this to me, Todd.Todd Kashdan:Yeah, this is about viewing thoughts in a more accurate representative way. So, you look at thoughts as this is something that the brain is producing, and just like a friend who might give you advice that might be good advice, that might be bad advice, your brain is the same way. It's just constantly churning out thoughts, and feelings, and sensations, and you separate the thought from you, the thinker. And when you create this space, there's room to take actions that don't match up with the thought itself. And so, when you have a thought such as, "I'm not worthy of making a lot of money," and then you add in front of that, "I notice I'm having this thought that I don't deserve to be making a lot of money," it's just like being the fly on the wall of viewing yourself in a social situation. You recognize like, oh, it's not going to stop me from crafting an email or making an opportunity to actually schedule an appointment with someone to actually talk about my pay salary.Shankar Vedantam:A second strategy you used was self-affirmation. Walk me through this strategy, Todd.Todd Kashdan:So, this is when you basically clarify that your identity is bigger than any stressor, and to inflate the size and the complexity of who you are. And so for me, I identify strongly with bravery. And you start to note very clearly your track record of being brave. And so, for example, you would see that I had lost my three bottom teeth and they're fake, because freshman year of college and I saw a guy knock out his girlfriend, and I stood in front of her and would not let him near her again. Because I don't know how to fight, I took quite a shot in the face and three of my teeth were lost in that battle. And you think of events like that, and you clarify exactly what your identity is composed of that can last across time and space. And it centers you to realize that no threat is going to have that much of a neutron blast to my identity because it's so large and it's so sophisticated.Shankar Vedantam:It's almost like you are a general who's sort of marshaling troops, but also assessing the threat. So, you have these negative emotions, these emotions of feeling unworthy, or disappointment, or anger, but you're not swept up in those emotions. You're basically saying, "All right, let me evaluate them. Let me test them to see how accurate they are. Let me figure out how much I should be paying attention to these different emotions." And then you are cataloging all of the strengths that you have that you could bring to this battle. What do you think about this analogy that in some ways you're stepping back from the field of battle rather than being swept up in what's going on, and essentially assessing what your next move should be?Todd Kashdan:Yeah, no, no. I like that. And another analogy that works is you are doing an audit of what resources and capabilities psychologically, socially, and even financially and emotionally do you have at your disposal, irrespective of what pops up in terms of a difficult demanding situation?Shankar Vedantam:So, once you did this audit, both of the emotions that you were experiencing, as well as the strengths and virtues that you knew that you possessed, what did you do next?Todd Kashdan:I scheduled an appointment with the chair of my department. They said that, "Listen, you'll eventually get a higher salary as you spend a longer number of years in the department." And I said, "If I wasn't satisfied with what you just said, would you be okay if I went one step above you and made an appointment to meet with the dean of the entire college?" And they said, "Yes. Most people don't do it. But sure." But this is where that affirmation of bravery allows you to withstand the discomfort of being told you're not doing what other people do when they feel they're not being paid adequately. And when I made an appointment with the dean, before I stepped into his office I created a spreadsheet of everyone who was making more money than me. And then I basically denoted all their productivity over the past three years compared to myself in terms of number of publications, presentations, how much grant money they brought in.These are the metrics of a researcher. And the dean was laughing, was saying, "You put a lot of effort in. And to be honest, the data don't lie. And although I am reluctant to create a precedent where people come into my office and do this, you earned a pay raise." And he gave me a substantial pay raise.Shankar Vedantam:So, one important question here, Todd, which is how do we tell the difference between pain that we should learn to tolerate, and pain that we should seek to eliminate? I mean, I don't think that you would tell someone who is in an abusive relationship that she should strengthen her tolerance for pain.Todd Kashdan:No. And neither should you put your hand in the toaster as you're in the middle of making Pop Tarts. To me, it's as simple as are these tools? And that's what emotions are, they're tools. Are they helping or hindering you in your pursuit of goals that you care about?Shankar Vedantam:And in other words, if the emotional distress is in the service of a goal that you really care about, that's emotional distress worth enduring.Todd Kashdan:Yeah. I mean, in some ways if you think about what's your greatest fear, and for a lot of people it's the fear of public speaking. Does the anxiety that's pushing you to want to actually say, "No, I'm not going to go on stage," does that hinder you from the goal of presenting this information that you think is valuable to impart to this audience? Is that showing respect and dignity to those people that are about to give you undivided attention? And if you ask those questions and you really probe why is your mind evoking this particular emotional state? You'll realize it's mobilizing you for action probably, not to make you avoid getting in front of these individuals.Shankar Vedantam:So, it's been many years, Todd, since you ran away from your pain as a young man. And more recently you've had opportunities to see how far you've come in your journey to reorient the way you think about fear, and distress, and other unpleasant emotions. Tell me about your encounter with rock climbing.Todd Kashdan:I met this guy, Matt Walker. And he knew I was an author and he said, "Listen, can we trade skills? Go back to the old school bartering as if you teach me how to write a book, I'll teach you how to rock climb. Come out to Arizona," the Cochise Stronghold, which I knew is this great mountaineering area, "And come for a five-day trip for beginners." And I booked to flight, went out there, and once we got there the first night and everyone introduced themselves, I realized we had very different definitions of what beginner means, because the person next to me was an ex-Navy Seal. The mother and daughter next to him had traveled to Patagonia and rock climbed all over South America. And then next to her was a, I forgot if it was a professional volleyball or soccer player, but they played division one ball and they were a professional.And then there's me who has a fear of heights, and it is a 700-foot climb called Moby Dick. This is not what beginners should be doing. To give you an idea of 700 feet, a 700-foot climb, just take an entire cul-de-sac, every single house, and then stack them on top of each other. And you are climbing that, and it's pretty much almost purely vertical. I mean, it's the most anxious that I think I've ever been in my entire life. After climbing for just a few hours on a practice rock, I was so nervous. I was pushing my fingers so hard in the rock that I had gone through five layers of skin. It was so bad that the first day of climbing, Matt had to take crazy glue and pour it over all of my fingers so I had fake layers of skin to protect me on the climb.Shankar Vedantam:So, on the day of the big climb, when you are standing before Moby Dick, you have the 700-foot climb before you. What happens that day?Todd Kashdan:I could barely even breathe. And when you're climbing with pitches, you are putting anchors into the rock. And then as you are going up, you are taking all the equipment with you to go for the next pitch and climb up the mountain. And so, there is no way down until you get to the very top. And Matt said this statement into me, which is, "Listen, I can see how afraid you are. I'll look at your fingers. Here are the choices. Either you stand by yourself in the desert, because we're all doing this and there's no one else down there. Or you climb up this mountain with your fear, and your fear is going to be your friend and you're going to take it with you, or your fear is going to be your enemy and you're going to expend so much extra energy to get up this rock and you don't need to."It was like he just took off three vales of fear, and defensiveness, and coping mechanisms. And it was like, I'm going up the rock no matter what. Why am I doing this with so much physical tension inside my body? Again, slow the actions down and just do one step and one handhold at a time. And he did something further, which was the last pitch before he got to the apex of the climb he said, "Todd, you're going to be the last person and you are going to not only climb, but you're going to pull the anchors out and put them into your belt as you climb," which means that everyone is already climbed up. And I am on, I don't know, 500 feet in the air by myself, a rookie. And there's no one there to help me because everyone's already on top of the rock.And this is what we call not gradual exposure to the things that you're afraid of, where if you were afraid of spiders you would start by reading Charlotte's Web, watching a movie of like Arachnophobia, and then maybe there would be like a spider in a jar behind a locked door. This is called flooding. This is like, I'm going to drop you off in a pit of pain and despair, and you're going to fight your way out of it. And I did it.Shankar Vedantam:Tell me what it was like to get to the top of the mountain, Todd.Todd Kashdan:When we got to the top, everybody was cheering, everybody's hugging each other. And I just said, "Can I just have a moment to just take this all in?" And I just wanted to sit on the edge with my legs dangling, and just take a deep breath of air. And the landscape at the Cochise Stronghold, just this beautiful vista, and I had this thought of, "I know I'm strong and I know that I can persevere and test but I didn't know how strong and how capable I was." And then it's like, this is why you do the work, because this sense of awe of looking at this landscape and the sunsets you just dream of sitting and watching, it's just a reminder of the richness and the vitality we're shooting for, and that the pain is worth the effort.Shankar Vedantam:Todd is a psychologist at George Mason University. He's the author of "The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively," and "The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self, Not Just Your Good Self, Drives Success and Fulfillment." Todd, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.Todd Kashdan:Thanks for this therapy session.Shankar Vedantam:You're welcome. Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristen Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero today is listener and Hidden Brain supporter, Aurelien Joga. Aurelien started listening to Hidden Brain while in Texas for work training. Aurelien writes, "Thanks to podcasting, I brought that home with me back to France. Had we been 20 years earlier, this wouldn't have been possible." Aurelien, thank you for bringing Hidden Brain back to France with you, and also for supporting the show. If you enjoyed today's episode and if you would like to join Aurelien in supporting our work, go to support.hiddenbrain.org. Again, go to support.hiddenbrain.org to help us build more stories like this one. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.
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