Accepting “clean pain” and letting go of “dirty pain”

A few winters ago, I broke my toe when I rammed it into the corner of my couch. I knew I had injured it, but promptly went into denial. I ignored it for a few days, walking on it, exercising, jamming my feet into snow boots (gotta love Chicago winters), till the swelling and pain became so excruciating that I could hardly walk. I got it checked out and was given one of those open-toed orthopedic shoes to wear. Turned out, I had probably started off with a small fracture but made it worse by continuing to bear weight, jump, run, kick, etc.

I was PISSED. I would stew on how pissed I was as I hobbled down the street, furious and impatient with myself for taking twenty minutes to walk a mere two blocks. I griped about having to “waste” money on cabs and bus fare for distances I normally could walk. I cried with frustration about not getting to exercise or do yoga, and I felt SUPER antsy. I cursed my body for failing me and cursed myself for being such a klutz. I went back over the scene of crime dozens of times, each time agonizing over how I “should have” been more cautious, should be more coordinated, should be smarter. The thoughts in my brain made me feel like a total idiot for messing up the simple act of walking across a room. I have a tendency to be pretty harsh towards myself.  After all, in the scheme of things, it was just a few weeks of my life where I was inconvenienced while healing an injury.

Reflecting on that incident, I can see just how silly and irrational all of those nasty thoughts were at the time. But that didn’t stop my brain from giving me all of that BS.  If you’re a fellow human, you can probably relate to the feeling of RAGING against yourself when you make a mistake or get hurt. Maybe you can relate to raging against your body for experiencing pain at an “inconvenient” time. Have you ever been upset that you got sick right before a big event and had to miss it? Or run outside to catch the bus, only to see it pulling away, then started cursing everyone and everything for your bad luck? Or guilted yourself for getting upset at something that “isn’t a big deal?” We’ve all been there.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), this is explained by the concepts of “Clean Pain” and “Dirty Pain.”  Clean pain is natural.  Pain is a part of being human.  We fall and scrape a knee, and it hurts. We get broken up with, and the rejection hurts. A pet or a loved one passes away, and it hurts. The fact that these experiences naturally create pain is not BAD or WRONG. It’s just an inevitable part of life. Clean pain is any pain that arises from the experiences we have as humans moving through the world.

So to recap: we experience pain, and there’s nothing we can do to change this fact. However, us humans like to be TOTALLY IN CONTROL of everything, everywhere, all of the time. So we get upset when pain happens because it reminds us that there are things we can’t control. We naturally fight against our pain, either by getting caught up in thoughts about how it’s NOT FAIR that we are dealing with pain, or looking for someone or something to blame for it happening. We get stuck in beliefs about how it is BAD or WRONG that the pain happened. We beat ourselves up for being human (e.g., when that bully in your brain starts saying stuff like “I’m so stupid! I’m such a failure. I’m never gonna get it right. I’m overreacting. Other people have it much worse than me. This is really not a big deal at all. It’s ridiculous that I’m upset by this”). Or we blame others for causing us pain, and we stew on feelings of resentment or even hatred (“How could he do this?  Who does she think she is? He only cares about himself. Why do they keep screwing me over? I hope he gets his heart broken”). We get sucked into feelings of anger, frustration, shame, impatience, sadness, and hopelessness. We look for ways to “solve” the pain, by numbing out through drinking or drugs, making efforts to control our bodies and minds through self-harm, restricting, binge-eating, purging, and exercising, ignoring or distorting reality, or trying to avoid any situation we think might cause us more pain. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

When pain happens, we try to comfort ourselves by looking for ways to prevent future pain. We try to regain that false sense of being “totally in control” of everything. Our brains don’t think we “should” experience pain, so we treat it as something “wrong” with us or consider ourselves “weak” (especially if the pain comes in the form of a difficult emotion that we were taught we should not have).  These responses to “clean pain” are examples of what’s called “dirty pain.” Dirty pain is any reaction to clean pain that we inadvertently create, like beating ourselves up mentally for being so clumsy, ignoring an injury and making it worse, or self-sabotaging in our next relationship out of fear of getting hurt again.

If you’re familiar with my whole philosophy on human experience, you know that I talk a lot about how we can’t control what thoughts or feelings arise in us.  So you might be wondering, “If we can’t control what we think about or how we feel, how can we ‘stop’ our unhelpful reactions to pain?” That’s a fair question, and a good point. We can’t stop the thoughts or feelings from popping up, but we CAN start seeing them for what they truly are: unhelpful reactions (often in the form of commentary from that “bully” voice inside our brains). That bully or inner critic has a field day every time something unwanted happens to us.

The key to dealing with those dirty pain reactions is to practice acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you like, want, enjoy, or welcome something. After all, who WANTS to feel grief and sadness when they suffer a loss? Acceptance just means we are allowing something to be a part of our current reality.  It means we are willing to tolerate something uncomfortable, painful, or unpleasant for the sake of getting to be alive. Accepting clean pain helps us to disengage from the dirty pain, and as a result, the clean pain naturally feels a little less “painful.” It becomes a little less intense and overpowering. The key though is that you have to stop trying to make the clean pain go away in order for this to work, which can be tricky.

In numerous research studies, when folks with chronic pain learn to practice mindfulness and acceptance, they become more functional and they experience their pain as subjectively less distressing and less intense than it was before they accepted it. The SAME pain felt LESS painful because they changed their relationship to the pain. Cool, right? (Click here to check out a randomized controlled trial on ACT with pediatric pain, and click here or here for some correlational studies).

When I work with people on clean/ dirty pain, we talk about all of the ways they’ve tried to control or avoid certain internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, or physiological pain) and how each strategy has worked for them.  Often, people realize that they’ve spent so much energy trying to make pain go away or trying to make sure they never experience a certain type of pain (like rejection or embarrassment) that it’s taken over their lives and has become a central focus. Learning to let go of efforts to control or prevent pain can be challenging (it means you have to FEEL the pain, which can be pretty intense or uncomfortable), but the trade-off is that you gain freedom. When you accept that “it is what it is,” you allow yourself to invest your energy into things that will actually have a payoff. It takes practice, but through mindfulness and acceptance, you learn to have a different type of relationship with pain.

That winter with my broken toe, what helped me let go of the “dirty pain” was gratitude. I realized how much I took for granted the fact that I had ten functional toes that supported me every day, and allowed me to balance and move my body with ease. I realized how lucky I was to only be inconvenienced for a couple of months, when plenty of people have injuries far more debilitating and permanent.  I tried to challenge my restlessness by finding moments of joy in stillness, and exploring other forms of meditation instead of my preferred physical activities.  I challenged thoughts from my inner bully that were urging me to ignore hunger cues or change my eating behaviors to “compensate” for being more sedentary than usual.  I listened to my body’s cues and forgave myself for being human. None of these responses were my natural, instinctive reactions, but I got there eventually.

Nobody is perfect, and even the most mindful and self-aware people will struggle at times to let go of their “dirty pain.” Be patient with yourself and with others.  Remember that I am always here to help you strengthen that mindfulness muscle and would be honored to join you in your journey towards acceptance.

Want to enjoy your life more? Think about death.

I recently saw an exhibit at the Field Museum called “Evolving Planet” that completely blew my mind. The display takes the visitor through four billion years of life on Earth, starting with single-celled organisms and moving all the way up through the evolution of every species till present-day humans. I knew from biology classes over the years that a ton of species have gone extinct over the course of Earth’s history, but it was still surreal to see it all laid out in a timeline (#nerdalert).

Every 50 meters or so, throughout the exhibit, a sign would indicate that at that point in the timeline, there was a “mass extinction,” where a bunch of species were killed off and only those most well-adapted survived to the next era. To refresh your memory if it’s been awhile since your last science class, that’s what happened when the dinosaurs were killed off—only the birds survived. Earth has had five mass extinctions in its history, and apparently we are on track for a sixth. (As a side note, did anyone else forget that birds were descendants of dinosaurs? Crazy, right? I definitely forgot that. Apologies to my fifth-grade teacher.)

Based on my rudimentary understanding of evolution, I realize that since humans have only been around since the most recent mass extinction, we aren’t destined for long-term greatness on this planet. It seems likely we will be killed off in the next mass extinction and/or we will evolve into some even more advanced species. So when you think about it, our lives are really not that big of a deal at all.

I walked out of that exhibit feeling surprisingly peaceful, thinking about how the years representing my birth till my death probably wouldn’t occupy more than a few millimeters of space on the timeline in that museum. As someone who is not naturally very “chill,” I was reminded that all of the time I’ve ever spent worrying, over-analyzing, and over-planning was a completely unnecessary use of energy, and I could let it go. My significant other walked out with the same awareness that his tiny human life is little more than a blip on the radar of this planet’s existence. But he didn’t share my sense of peace; in fact, he felt more anxious and a nagging sense of meaninglessness.

So why does the awareness of our inevitable mortality (which researchers call “mortality salience”) upset some of us, and relieve others? It depends on how you understand and define your life. It depends what you’ve been through, your spiritual beliefs, and perhaps where you see yourself on the timeline of your dreams, goals, and lifespan development. It also depends on how frequently you think about your mortality and how mindfully you live.

If you react like my partner, with panic, you’re in good company. After all, according to Terror Management Theory (developed in 1986 by Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon), all human behavior is motivated by the fear of our impending deaths. Often, human awareness of our unavoidable demise “generates a state of anxiety that triggers a defense mechanism for the control of thinking” (according to Gordillo & colleagues).

In several recent studies published in the European Journal of Psychology, researchers have explored whether people evaluated an individual’s personality differently or felt more positively or negatively about a person based on whether the person was dead or alive. It turns out that we think more highly of people when they’re dead. We are more positive in our appraisals of a person when they are dead, and rate our impressions of them more favorably even when we didn’t like them very much while they were alive.

This gets me thinking about how it’s socially taboo to “speak ill of the dead.” We can see from heartfelt eulogies that we often focus on a person’s positive qualities quite easily (and forgive their negative ones) once they’re dead. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could harness that same perspective while we (and the people around us) are still alive?

All of this comes right back to the freedom and peace I felt walking out of the Field Museum that day. While it may be a tough sell to some people, I believe it can be profoundly beneficial to think about death. It can take awhile to develop the willingness to sit with that fear and not let it drive the bus (and this is where mindfulness skills come in handy). Despite the discomfort that may arise, though, thinking of death can actually enhance your overall satisfaction with life and enrich your feelings towards loved ones, friends, enemies, and even strangers.

Personally, here’s how I’ve found it helpful:

~Remembering that I will die one day reminds me that there’s no need to strive for perfection. In the grand scheme of things, the way you look, your grades, your salary, and your accolades will literally mean nothing. Isn’t that great? There’s no pressure to do everything “right” all of the time! Given this information, the only reason to strive for an accomplishment or work hard to pursue a goal is out of genuine care for that thing. You don’t have to work hard for stuff that’s on someone else’s agenda (including any culturally-prescribed expectations that don’t resonate for you). This is why it helps to get clear about what matters to you in life, so that you can focus on those values and priorities.

~Remembering that everyone around us will also die one day reminds us that there’s no point in holding grudges or harboring resentment. After all, the person you’re pissed at has an expiration date, too. This applies to all living creatures. I feel boundless love and gratitude for my dog when I remember that one day, he will no longer be with me. I find it much easier to forgive him when he snaps food off my plate or destroys the sofa. I’ve heard from people who have young children that thinking about their limited time on this planet helps soften towards them for throwing a temper tantrum or breaking a mug. Mortality salience can also make it easier to get over the guy who cuts you off in traffic or the rude grocery store clerk.

~Similarly, recognizing loved ones’ mortality helps us to forgive them for honest mistakes, accept their flaws, and deepen our appreciation for our relationships. It makes confronting them when we are hurt a little less scary. It becomes more worthwhile to work through conflicts so that we can make the most of our time together and spend it loving and enjoying one another. It also makes it easier to let go of a relationship when it becomes clear that it isn’t serving you to keep investing, since as the cliché goes, “life is too short” to waste on that BS.

~Since the only thing that’s certain in this life is that we will die one day, we can accept that most of what happens in the universe is completely out of our control. This can be freeing. We are literally only responsible for our own individual actions, and therefore might as well invest what little time we have on this planet to making our actions meaningful and worthwhile.

Way back in the day, the Stoics believed that maintaining awareness of mortality was important and allowed them to experience more gratitude. Recent research has shown these positive effects in modern times, too. When people are reminded of mortality, either consciously (by being asked to think about death) or unconsciously (like walking past a cemetery), they behave more kindly and compassionately towards others and make positive changes in their lives. Their actions are more authentic and more in alignment with their personal values and priorities. When something is time-limited, it becomes more valuable. And when it’s more valuable, we appreciate it more and we focus more on making it worthwhile.

I’m not saying it’s always fun to be aware of your own or others’ expiration dates. Like anything, accepting our inevitable demise can involve a curly, non-linear grieving process. It can mean going through those classic “stages of grief,” sometimes living in a state of denial about it, and other times feeling angry, depressed, or trying to “bargain” away mortality (many wellness companies capitalize on our death anxiety by promising long lives if we use their product or take their supplement). And don’t even get me started on our cultural emphasis on “youth” and “anti-aging,” which could be an entirely separate blog post. Essentially, we find it tempting to ignore, dismiss, or fight against the fact that we all inevitably age and expire.

However, if we can resist the pull to drown in panic or anguish over our lack of importance, and resist going down the rabbit hole of “why even bother trying if none of it matters?” we can use this awareness to deepen our appreciation for life and shift our focus to the things that truly matter to each of us.

Do you agree, disagree, feel ambivalent, or feel totally indifferent? Does all of this “death talk” bring up fear, gratitude, mixed emotions? Whatever your reactions, I’d love to hear from you!

Book Review: “I’m Fine… and Other Lies” by Whitney Cummings

Reading tends to be very “all or nothing” for me—I’m either totally consumed, turning pages for hours on end and ignoring the world around me and internal cues for food or sleep until I’m done, or I’m noncommittal, absent-mindedly skimming paragraphs until I inevitably abandon it to collect dust on my nightstand with all of the other “I’ve been meaning to finish that!” novels. To me, the sign of a good book is not “I can’t put it down until I KNOW what happens!” and it’s not “I’ll finish it eventually, if I have the time.” It’s that healthy middle ground, much like romantic relationships. Neither codependence (“I can’t live without you!”) nor too much independence (“I’m not even interested in connecting with you”) is consistently satisfying.

Perhaps you’ll find it ironic that I was able to enjoy a book about codependency while (for once) maintaining my healthy dependence and independence needs. As a story, it contained just enough psych-y content to appeal to my inner nerd, and just enough comedy to appeal to my inner self-care coach. It was engaging, satisfying, but not so consuming that I lost all ability to stay connected to my own priorities and identity. As far as book-relationships go, “I’m Fine” quickly became a lasting, rewarding love. So I wanted to share the love, by writing my first-ever book review. Here goes!

In case you’re not familiar with her work, Whitney Cummings writes, produces, and does stand-up comedy.  I’ve been a big fan of hers for several years. What’s always endeared her to me is her tendency to “plug” therapy (thanks for the free marketing, girl!) and to use humor as a way of coping with the dysfunctions of the human condition.

A lot of memoir-type books I’ve read have bugged me (and ended up as ex-lovers in the dusty nightstand pile) because the author tries too hard to sound self-actualized, taking on an annoying “wannabe-wise” tone in an effort to artfully conclude the general storyline of “I used to be naïve in how I handled life, and then I overcame some challenges.” Whitney writes like she’s in her 30s, and she is in her 30s. She’s not pretending like she’s 80 years old and has it all figured out, nor is she dwelling in adolescent insecurities. She takes semi-frequent breaks from her “I used to be so clueless” shtick to actually give herself credit for the growth and insights she has worked to gain, but she doesn’t succumb to the urge to tie it up neatly with a happily-ever-after type ending.

Whitney (I can’t bring myself to get formal and call her Ms. Cummings, sorry) demonstrates what happens when someone moves from being a blind, passive recipient of life experiences to being a self-aware, active shaper of her own reality through intentional choices. As a psychologist, I am grateful for her honest account of her experiences with several types of therapies. She also admits several times that she often rejected an idea or treatment approach (especially in her adolescence and early 20’s) because she wasn’t yet ready to have her defenses challenged. THANK YOU FOR OWNING THIS! I get so irritated when people say, “I tried therapy, but it didn’t work for me.” People, it works if you work it! So if someone’s in denial, nothing’s gonna change. Psychologists aren’t psychics or magicians. Though Whitney has apparently tried her hand at consulting psychics and magicians, too, which made for some fascinating early chapters. Anyway, I digress.

I also enjoyed her evaluations of what worked and didn’t work for her in the process of healing from various hurts. After all, mental health treatment is not one-size-fits-all. There are so many theoretical models and approaches out there. Vera, the therapist with whom she ended up finally forming a meaningful therapeutic relationship, sounded like a total badass; she was clinically well-versed, and fluent in Whitney’s language, helping her recognize the “addictive” patterns of her codependency and eating disorders.

Self-acceptance is a major theme in “I’m Fine.” Whitney’s exploration of how she developed and then healed from an eating disorder will hopefully shed light on an often-misunderstood constellation of symptoms, and the unhelpful thinking and mixed messages that are so easily internalized. Her honesty about struggles with “ED” is beyond refreshing. The media masterfully perpetuates an absurd mixed message, glorifying the woman who acts so totally chill and just LOOOVES eating carbs, and yet is constantly pulling up the waistband of her roomy size zero jeans, equating slimness with chillness and worthiness. I have lots to say about this ridiculousness, but I will have to save my rant for another time to stay on topic.

My point is, Whitney doesn’t fall for the BS of mixed messages and she actually talks about the monster life-sucker that is the “quest for physical perfection.” She calls herself out for sometimes buying into a disempowering cultural norm, and gives us all a reality check in the process. Her overall message is that it’s not only allowed, but truly vital for us all to meet our own basic human needs for food, water, love, and self-respect.

Speaking of basic human needs, Whitney also gives a shout-out to “inner-child work,” which is an element of therapy that can be so powerful in developing self-esteem. Basically, the premise is that humans actually age like trees. Remember how they taught us in school about how to tell how old a tree is? When you cut the trunk horizontally, you can see all of the “rings” in its cross-section. Each ring grows around the one within it as the tree ages. We’re like trees; every age contains every previous age within it. If we go down really deep, we’re all housing an inner five-year-old. When there’s a control-type issue (addiction, eating, OCD, perfectionism), it can often be traced to unmet childhood needs, so the inner child is still scrambling to get “adult you’s” attention.

In Whitney’s case, she learned to deny her needs from a young age, so as an adult she only felt in control if she was denying her needs. She learned that this was the only way to be worthy of love and belonging. For example, food is a basic need. Believing it is “bad” or “wrong” to eat is not only self-destructive, it’s downright mean. When she learned to “re-parent” her inner five-year-old, she was able to live more wholly and let go of old insecurities. That’s why I love this framework: most people can get on board with the fact that it’s pretty atrocious to act like an asshole towards a five-year-old. When you start to see that’s what you’ve been doing by self-punishing (forcing yourself to exercise, cursing yourself for eating the extra slice of pizza, forcing yourself to stay at the office till 11pm instead of getting much-needed sleep) you’re more inclined to soften up. A five-year-old doesn’t care about her weight; she just wants to enjoy life. She doesn’t care about your promotion at work; she just wants you to come home and play with her. We can all benefit from the reminder that we’ve each got a little kid living inside of us, just looking for love and acceptance, so we don’t need to be so damn hard on ourselves or each other.

One area left me wanting more: I still have so many questions about the specifics of her childhood. If she had chosen to share more details about what went down in her early childhood, it could have given the reader a richer picture of how her core beliefs were shaped. However, at the end of the day, my insatiable curiosity about the human condition aside, she certainly exposed insecurities and fears that most of us lack the courage to reveal, so I can’t blame her for choosing to gloss over some details. She gave us enough info to connect the dots, and I respect her decision to not be a completely open book. Yeah, pun intended, I couldn’t resist 🙂

I often struggle as a relatively young psychologist with “imposter syndrome,” fantasizing about the day when I’ll feel like an “expert.” Stories like Whitney’s remind me that I actually hope the opposite is true. I hope I never wake up one day thinking I know exactly how to handle things. That would feel robotic. I’m human and therefore I’m a messy work in progress. I struggle to practice what I preach. I get whispers from the demons in my head. I get caught up thinking I need to be “fine,” and thinking it’s my job to make other people “fine” as well, which it’s obviously not. Insecurity and self-doubt are all just part of the deal, and that’s okay.

“I’m Fine” is a hilarious and raw reminder that life gets ten billion times more rewarding when you stop pretending to be fine. I hope this book will serve as an example of the awesomeness that can come from authenticity, owning your shit, and opening up about mental health struggles. If you read it and want to share your reactions, please feel free to do so in the comments below! Oh, and if this book made you realize you’re not “fine” or it inspired you to seek therapy, I’m here for that, too.

Why is language so trippy?

Have you ever done that thing where you start saying a word over and over and over again until it sounds sort of singsongy and you forget what it even means? When I was little, I used to do this a lot  with random “simple” words, like “awhile” and “because.” Yes, I was apparently born a word nerd. I don’t recommend doing it in public unless you really want to annoy everyone around you, but try it out and you’ll see just how nonsensical and strange words become when you repeat them. Language is trippy, and the unconscious process we have for interpreting language can be fucking weird. Think about how right now, your eyes are automatically scanning the shapes on this screen and making sense of the shapes based on how they are structured and combined with one another. Really, stop reading and think about that…

It’s kind of mind-blowing, right? We have these intricate webs of connections between words and what they represent, and our minds are constantly on autopilot interpreting those connections. It’s the process that lets us communicate with each other, and the reason we can remember something that happened years ago. We do this without being guided to do it. Okay actually, we are guided early on, but it quickly becomes second nature.   While we aren’t born with the ability to read written language, we are born with innate “reading” abilities that then get shaped and developed as ways for us to survive in a language-based world.

Unless you’re a word nerd like me who grew up thinking words and letters were just as fun to play with as Legos and dolls, you probably don’t notice language doing its thing on a regular basis. If you start to think about it and notice yourself thinking in words, and notice the associations you make with whatever the words bring up for you mentally, you get sucked into kind of this “meta” space.

The Lemon Exercise is a great way to illustrate the power of verbal associations and sensory experiences. Close your eyes and picture a lemon.  The bright yellow color of it, the bumpy, textured peel, the round, footballish shape… imagine slicing into it and noticing the way it looks, the pinwheel design with seeds in the middle, picture the juice dripping onto your fingers as you hold a slice, inhaling the fresh, citrusy lemon scent… now imagine yourself putting the slice in your mouth, feeling your mouth salivate as the sweet, tangy tartness of the lemon hits your tongue…

Without the presence of a physical lemon, you can conjure up a “lemon reaction” in your brain and body just by visualizing its properties. If you had never heard the word lemon or seen a lemon, let alone tasted a lemon, it would literally just be a sound to you when you heard the word, and this exercise wouldn’t be possible. That’s why foreign languages sound so, well, foreign (duh); we don’t have any context for interpreting the sounds we’re hearing until we attach a meaning to those sounds. Collectively, we give words meanings, and then based on our life experiences, those meanings become implicitly fine-tuned to the degree that they can even evoke strong reactions inside of us without us realizing it.

What does this have to do with mindfulness? EVERYTHING. I like to use my little repeating game with clients who have a hard time recognizing that thoughts are just words in the brain. Usually, the culprit is a thought along the lines of “I’m worthless/ not good enough/ not smart enough/ can’t do it/ never going to get what I want.” Most of the time, we don’t notice our thoughts because they act like a continuous inner dialogue, our brain’s voice sort of narrating things as we live life. We don’t usually stop to reflect on this narration– we just take it at face value, as a fact of life, and keep going on with our days. This isn’t always a big deal, but it can get messy when our brain’s little narrator voice is saying stuff that’s bullying, judgmental, or not serving us in some other critical way.

When we have a particularly troubling or unpleasant thought, we sometimes get “hooked” on it.  For many of us, it’s usually fears, worries, areas of insecurity, or that growing to-do list. When thoughts of this flavor come up and start to bug us, that’s where the mindful pause is helpful. If you can slow down and go to that trippy “meta” place where you notice yourself interpreting the words your brain is saying to you, you can step away from all of those subconscious associations between words and their meanings and instead see them as just words.

This is an example of what happens when a thought is mindless: the brain-voice says “You look stupid today,” and you instantly, automatically react, sometimes in the form of a flurry of additional thoughts (“ugh, I always look like such a mess,” and “I hope I don’t run into anyone I know”), feelings (self-conscious, embarrassed), and/or memories (of a time when you felt more confident in your appearance, for example).  Here is what happens when a thought is mindful: the brain voice says “You look stupid today,” and we start to react but then notice what we’re doing and SLOW DOWN for a second. Maybe you say back, “that’s an interesting thing to say, brain, what’s up with that?” or maybe “that’s one thought, what’s another one? What else do you have for me?” And see if the brain gives you anything else. If the brain voice doesn’t come up with any new material, we can start to more intentionally repeat it over and over until it loses meaning. If you say “I look stupid” enough times, you realize you’re just saying words, and okay, so what does it really mean then, if the words are true? How can you be SURE? Why do you care? What do you want to DO about it?

As a side note, mindlessness (and mindFULness) applies similarly to how we experience emotions and behaviors, but I will save that little ramble-fest for another time.

Given all of this, that old playground chant of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” seems incomplete. Of course words can be hurtful, who are we kidding here? But only in certain contexts.  Stupid is just a word. And words are just sounds that we put together to mean something. But when we slow down, we don’t have to mindlessly go with those meanings. Perhaps we should be teaching kids that sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me because I choose how much I buy into their intended meaning.  Less catchy, but more accurate! What does your brain-voice say about that?

 

New Year, Same Fear (Part 2)

In honor of the New Year, I’ve been reflecting on the passage of time and the ways that time becomes distorted by our perceptions. In my last post, I talked about some of the ways we (humans) unintentionally (yet oftentimes, very determinedly) keep ourselves feeling stuck. The key to freeing ourselves from our “control agendas” is acceptance.  So Part One was about how we are all, to some degree, plagued by avoidance, and Part Two is about swallowing its antidote, acceptance.

“Acceptance” means making space for all of the feelings and experiences that are natural parts of life, without trying to change them or make them go away. It means opening up to the feelings of fear that naturally arise. It means acknowledging that we can’t predict the future or change the past. It means owning that we are imperfect and messy. It means that we will sometimes feel rejected, inadequate, or unlovable, and it means that we are REAL and ALIVE. It takes courage to practice acceptance, because you have to be willing to sometimes feel like crap.   Perhaps you already try to do this, or perhaps you think it’s a load of BS. After all, why would you choose to “just feel crappy?” Keep in mind that you don’t have to want, enjoy, or welcome an emotion in order to be willing to have it.

The idea is that our efforts to change or fix the “problem” of unpleasant emotions only serve to amplify and intensify those emotions. If I hate broccoli, I can choose not to buy it at the grocery store and refrain from ordering it on a menu. That’s a great way to deal with the problem of “I hate broccoli,” because broccoli is an external stimulus. If I hate feeling guilt, I might try applying the same strategies that solved my “I hate broccoli” problem to the “I hate guilt” problem, by trying to make the guilt go away. Clearly, this does not work, because guilt is a transient and subjective internal experience, rather than a concrete, external object. We naturally try to solve our internal problems in the same ways we solve our external problems, but the strategies that are successful in the external world are pretty ineffective when applied to the internal world. Our efforts can get discouraging and just plain exhausting. Acceptance is about letting go of the struggle to “fix” everything, and learning to see what’s inside of ourselves not as “things that need fixing,” but just as “things that are there.”

What gets in the way, usually, is fear. Fear that if I let myself feel the joy of a new relationship, I’ll be vulnerable to more sadness and disappointment if it doesn’t work out. Fear that if I let myself feel worried or scared or cry, I won’t be able to handle it. I will sink into crappy feelings that will last forever, and it will be awful. The man who felt anxious at work had a bunch of different choices in how he related to his anxiety. One choice, besides drinking, would have been to feel his anxiety, say to himself “I’m feeling anxious,” and still go to work and survive his day. He just didn’t realize that letting himself be uncomfortable without trying to make the discomfort go away was even an option, because he was caught in what Tara Brach calls “the trance of fear.” The trance of fear is what sends us into problem-solving mode, and it can happen so quickly that we don’t even know we’re doing it. As a therapist, I’ve seen this time and time again, and in my own life, I’ve experienced it time and time again. It’s in our nature as humans to want to change, fix, or solve things we don’t like. We like to control, but it is our very efforts to control that draw us into struggle and suffering.

What’s so fulfilling about accepting all of the yucky stuff going on within ourselves instead of trying to make it go away (and yes, “yucky stuff” is the clinical term) is that it makes more space for the full spectrum of emotions to exist. Life includes pain, insecurity, and self-doubt, but inevitably, it also includes the pleasant and pleasurable, the warm and joyful, the loving and compassionate.

It is NOT easy to practice leaning in to the full spectrum of emotional experiences. When we get stuck, we can take comfort in the fact that we are working through what is a natural human process, because it means that we never have to walk the journey alone.

If you find yourself needing support in your efforts to open up to in fear in 2016, I may be able to help. Call or email me and we can work together toward a greater sense of support and balance.

If you had a weird rash, you’d go see a dermatologist… right?!

I feel such a mixture of puzzlement and sadness whenever I think about our country’s minimization of mental healthcare.  It’s funny (but no one’s really laughing here…) because so many of us are self-proclaimed “health nuts” who value wellness and want to live happy, fulfilling lives.  However, the reality is that many people, somewhere along the way (probably early in life), learned that when you feel a certain type of way, you “should” be able to change it or simply will yourself to feel differently.  And if you aren’t able to do that, you must not be “strong enough,” right? If you can’t just flip the figurative “switch” in your own brain and motivate yourself out of a difficult emotion, something is “wrong” with you, according to this belief system.  We therapists are here to remind people how warped and self-destructive that view can be. Let me explain…

When someone has a heart disease, you don’t say to them, “just stop having heart disease!” If you did, they’d either call your bullshit or, if they were a little more trusting initially, they’d sure find out pretty quickly that your advice is bogus! Without a real understanding of the healthy lifestyle choices and behavior changes necessary to improve cardiovascular health, a person cannot heal.  That’s why cardiologists exist. Sometimes, something more is required, maybe a medication or medical intervention.  Without the open-mindedness to see that something needs changing and the willingness to do what it takes to change it, we cannot heal.

Of course, we like to convince ourselves otherwise because change is uncomfortable.  But the discomfort of facing the pain is usually nothing compared to the fancy mental tricks we play on ourselves to try to avoid facing the pain. I’ll be writing more about this in a future post, on the ACT concept called “experiential avoidance,” but it pretty much goes like this: If I have a toothache and I don’t go to the dentist because I’m afraid of the pain that might come with the drill, I’ll have a toothache indefinitely… and it probably will end up getting worse and causing more problems down the road. Plus, on top of having the tooth pain, I’ll also have the fears and worries that come along with ignoring it. So not only have I not “solved” the problem of my toothache, I have also made the problem a bigger and more central part of my daily life.

Pretending something doesn’t exist has never worked out when it comes to our health, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. Let’s make it okay to seek treatment.

The Mental Health Association of Greater Chicago (MHAGC) is an organization that basically counteracts the logic of “just get over it” by raising awareness of mental health conditions and working to decrease stigma.  I think what’s coolest about MHAGC is that they intervene early with 9th graders to help educate them on mental health at the same time they are learning about physical health in school. I hope this will help reduce bullying in high schools by making kids more sensitive to mental health issues.  I also believe learning about conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders can teach kids to recognize when they themselves might be struggling, and make it okay to seek help.  MHAGC’s first-annual “Breakfast with the Stars” will be held on Wednesday, November 11, 2015, Veteran’s Day.  To learn more about their powerful initiatives, or make a donation, visit http://www.mentalhealthchicago.org/mhagc/

Don’t you wish you had learned as a child that it’s normal and human to experience emotional pain, and that if it becomes overwhelming, you don’t have to go through the pain alone? I know I do.

If you are struggling or if someone you know is struggling, please visit the pages on this website to learn more about my practice and who I treat.