Whitney Houston


Was Whitney Houston’s death caused by a belief that she could not contain her emotional pain? She was self-medicating with alcohol and prescription drugs and it went terribly wrong. What if Whitney had believed she could contain her pain and any other emotions that might come? She might still be living.

We humans are programmed to move away from pain and towards comfort. Whitney Houston fell squarely into this programming and, if we’re honest, we all do in some way, shape or form.  Whitney just fell deeper. Here are some things I believe:

1–Life can be very, very painful.

2–This pain is not evenly distributed; some people carry more than others.

3–Our world offers myriad false remedies that we adopt to cope with pain.

After a death like this, there is a predictable uproar about substance and medication abuse and their dangers. For some, Whitney’s death will be the wake up call and they will get treatment! But for all of us, do we hear the more subtle invitation? If we, like Whitney, are moving away from pain and coping in some potentially destructive way, how do we get the courage to develop ourselves as people willing to experience pain for the sake of our own growth and transformation?

Recently I have been working with the idea that most clients who come for counseling can be diagnosed with distress intolerance. The work of therapy is to help these clients figure out that their distress is, in fact, tolerable. More tolerable than their avoidance strategy, which has either fallen apart or caused untenable problems. If it were still holding up, why come in for treatment, after all? The things that bring folks into counseling are all too often programs to avoid pain; OCD, agoraphobia, avoidant personality disorder, and also infidelity, passivity, and aggression.  Counseling would be an intolerable job if it weren’t for my unwavering belief that people can be supported, taught, and helped to build or recognize within themselves what they need to tolerate emotional distress. The container is there, but in some cases it has never been used. God made us with this capacity and delights to reveal it, grow it, and strengthen it. Choosing that path, the one of of healing and integration, requires courage and faith because it involves allowing the variety of human emotions rather than avoiding or coping with them.  It is not an easy path, but it leads somewhere….to life and freedom.

How do you experience your own distress intolerance?


  1. Last week I was feeling pretty depressed. My avoidance technique is to go to media: TV and computers. My disicplines that keep me on track are excercise, prayer, and being quiet. It was an intersting week rotating between the five of these. I spent half the time telling myself that sadness is a part of life and it was okay to feel this way from time to time. The other part of me was saying “Screw this, I am going to do something else.” The saving grace was that my wife and I had a marriage retreat planned last weekend. Just having a safe place to talk and be quiet and pray made all the difference. I guess my fourth discipline is asking for help.

  2. I grew up in a family where distress was the norm. After many years of suffering pain from avoiding that early stress, I learned to pay attention to my feelings. This has helped me let other people have their feelings. I don’t see hurting people as people that need to be fixed, but instead need support and understanding. When I recognize I am avoiding feelings, I remember I am human and also that I can get help. I have even laughed at my own “defenses”, because I know how ingrained they are. This allows me to acknowledge my feelings, while at the same time stop myself from shaming another part of me.

  3. I am having a particularly hard year. But I have responsibilities too. I am home schooling my daughter this year. So I really need to put my stress on hold and take care of her. My counselor suggested a stress journal and assign a daily timeslot each day to stress and worry. My journal has two columns, left column has the list of worries, right column has what I can do about it. My problem is the right column where there is nothing I can do about my worries. With the stress journal, I can give proper attention to my stress, put it aside and then take care of the rest of my life.

  4. Wow, all of you are really pressing in to this and looking inside. All of your comments help me, and I hope, all the readers to go deeper. Thank you for this. I appreciate the reflections on SPECIFIC DISCIPLINES that help folks stay IN their emotional pain when it beckons.

  5. I’ve found myself telling my children, “it’s okay to be sad; it’s okay to be angry, but it isn’t okay to [insert inappropriate behavior] to express those feelings. I bring this up, because I don’t think that humans are born with the programming to avoid all distress, but that society gives us a lot of programming. The images and stories that we are fed on a daily basis are all about amazing success, hiding our emotions to look pretty or be successful, etc., or “happy ending” stories, and this is all presented as normal. I’m rambling, but I think that it is an important aspect to doing internal work…am I allowing societal pressures to tell me how to feel? or that my feelings are wrong/bad?

    I don’t think I have very good strategies to offer as examples. I know that I tend to want to be alone, eat chocolate, and/or sleep when I feel a lot of sad or angry emotions. While those could be avoidance, I also think they can offer some healing, if I don’t go overboard. When I can’t get alone time or extra sleep, I get very irritable, and I also tend to distract myself with work.

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