Admittedly, the title of this post is a mouthful, but if you’ll stick with me it won’t be as complicated as it sounds, and it will be worth your time.
What is “Negative Emotion Tolerance”?
What is negative emotion tolerance? It is our ability to endure unpleasant emotions.
Many of us have very low negative emotion tolerance. When we feel “off”–which could be stressed, bored, embarrassed, confused, disappointed, inadequate, insecure, etc.–we immediately feel the need to “make it better” quickly, regardless of the cost or the rationality of our decision making process.
Let’s start with a stereotypical example. Perhaps the quintessential “low negative emotion tolerance” person is a grandparent with one of their grandchildren. The slightest unpleasant emotion–a pouty lip, much less crying–and the child will get anything he or she wants, from an ice cream cone to a pony.
One thing we notice is that the magnitude of the unpleasant emotion does not have to be great when our tolerance is low in order to get us to make profoundly unwise choices.
We often fail to learn from our failures and weaknesses
Now let’s add another factor: our modern culture does not do unpleasant emotions well. We don’t teach people how to learn from failure, accept limitations, acknowledge and compensate for personal weaknesses, endure suffering, etc. These skill sets are significantly under-developed in our current cultural context.
When are we getting to sexual purity? Stick with me. We’ll turn that corner soon.
Does the fact that we haven’t valued stewarding and learning from unpleasant emotions mean we have fewer unpleasant emotions? Absolutely not. In a social media world, insecurity and comparative thinking runs rampant. In an advertising and athletic driven culture, only elite talents are valued. In a cosmetic medication culture, unpleasant emotions are believed to be “problematic” and erasable. In a disjointed culture with few long-term friendships, we have few relationships in which we can be authentic about our unpleasant emotions.
Why unpleasant feelings impact your sexual purity
Now let’s ask the question, “What does sexual sin have to do with negative emotion tolerance?” or asked differently, “What features of sexual sin would make it particularly appealing to someone who struggled to endure unpleasant emotions?”
One answer, among others, is that sexual sin is powerfully multi-sensory. Visual, auditory, touch, motion, and imagination are all involved (even when we are just talking about masturbation; smell and taste also get involved when a real person is present).
How do we override something as powerful as unpleasant emotions? We involve as many senses and faculties as possible. Emotions are a whole-person response (we feel them with our entire being); sex is an equally whole-person response. It’s the equivalent of fighting fire with fire.
Why does this matter? It helps remove some of the shame. “Why did I think sex in a low-commitment relationship would help my sense of inadequacy? Why did I think escaping through pornography would help my financial stress?” Stated this way, our action seems shamefully stupid.
How does removing this shame help? It allows us to get honest earlier so that we can quit using sex for irrational secondary purposes.
Try sharing your negative emotions with a trusted friend
Think of it this way: what if your “accountability partner” to whom you reported sin and temptation was also an “authenticity partner” to whom you honestly confided your insecurities, disappointments, and weaknesses? Would your temptation change? If you were authentic and vulnerable about unpleasant emotions early in the temptation cycle would the temptation be less intense.
What if during an unpleasant moment, instead of trying to escape, you asked yourself, “What am I really feeling?” and then knew someone who cared enough to listen. If you struggle with being able to answer that first question, consider this article on naming and identifying healthy emotional responses.
Use your negative emotions to help somebody else
Let’s take another step. What if after identifying the emotion and sharing it with a trusted friend you asked, “How can this experience help me grow or care for somebody else?” Think about it, unpleasant emotions are incredibly useful:
- Sharing our grief helps others feel less alone in their grief.
- Accepting our weaknesses without shame is what removes many social stigmas.
- Acknowledging our failures is what allows for forgiveness and relational restoration.
- Seeing others suffer well infuses us with courage and motivates us to face our challenges differently.
How do I start dealing with my negative emotions?
We serve a God who is not negative emotion averse. Our God is redemptive. Whatever shame we feel is either false shame or guilt derived from how we tried to escape from our unpleasant emotions; not because we have them.
So what are the implications of this reflection? Here are a few:
- When something feels “off,” slow down, pay attention to how you feel, put it into words, and share it with a friend.
- Do an experiment: spend a week making these kind of “authenticity calls” to your accountability partner and see if your temptation frequency and intensity doesn’t diminish.
- Allow this growing negative emotion tolerance (which is a good quality) to allow you to run to God in your emotionally disrupted moments instead of escaping into sin.
- When this happens, notice how much your prayer life begins to mirror the psalms; which is filled with prayers about things that were intensely disruptive to the emotions of David and the other authors of the psalms.
If this reflection has been helpful to you and you wanted to study it further, I would recommend the excellent presentation “Emotions and Sexual Escape: Reframing the Rescue” by Michael Gembola from the most recent CCEF conference that prompted me to write this post.
 Please do not interpret this sentence to imply that I am anti-medication. I advocate for individuals to think wisely about the use of psychotropic medications and to utilize them without any sense of shame when they are a good-fit for their life struggles.