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!

Am I “Normal?”

One of the most common questions I’m asked by therapy and testing clients is “Am I normal?” It’s a fair question, and it makes sense that some people view psychologists as the people trained to give a solid answer. After all, one of the core educational requirements of anyone seeking a graduate degree in psychology is a course in “Abnormal Psychology.” It can certainly be fascinating to learn about “outliers” in any human trait—intelligence, athleticism, narcissism, and so forth. Plus, in order to accurately assess and diagnose, we need a framework for organizing whatever it is we are assessing and diagnosing. As such, the foundation of our field for the last century has been rooted in “mental illness” being just that—a diagnosis or label, assigned to people whose presentations are “not normal.” So I get why this is the burning question.

“Normal” in 2017 is more elusive than ever. With technology at our fingertips, we ask Google, Wikipedia, and WebMD to weigh in. Social media has perhaps been most influential, taking the “am I normal?” question and providing “answers” by showing us what “everyone else” is doing with their lives. What does a “normal” body look like? A “normal” family? A “normal” person’s Saturday night? Consult social media, where you can decide if you measure up to the curated online images of people popping up in your newsfeed. For some people, it’s easy to feel lame and unsuccessful when it’s “normal” to censor ourselves and only show the public the highlights reel. For others, it’s a constant competition to set the new standard. I wonder what would change if everyone knew how much everyone else was asking whether “it’s normal to [fill in the blank]?” Maybe we’d have more tolerance for the full spectrum of our daily experiences if we could accept that “normal” doesn’t exist.

Perceptions, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories are subjective. They are often driven by context and filtered through the lenses we’ve developed through life experience. So what’s “normal” in one context may not be seen as normal in another. Walking down the sidewalk with one’s nose to the ground, sniffing for discarded food scraps = unusual for a human, “normal” for a dog. Sucking one’s thumb = unusual for a 45-year-old, “normal” for a 2-year-old. However, context isn’t always as clear as one’s species or age. Is it “cautious and smart” to lock and then double-check the locks on your doors and windows at night, or is it “paranoid and obsessive” to do so? It depends.

It’s “normal” (natural?) to be curious about whether our experiences and behaviors can be considered appropriate, acceptable, or healthy. But who is the authority on what is considered appropriate, acceptable, or healthy? Psychologists? We’re people too! I’m not the authority on “normal” just because I can tell you if you match up to an agreed-upon set of criteria published in a scientific manual. The reality is that you are the authority on yourself, so only you can answer whether your experience is adaptive or not.

For example, anxiety is “normal.” In fact, it’s a human necessity. It keeps us alert to danger and motivated to complete tasks. Without any anxiety, we have no urgency to get anything done. With too much anxiety, however, we become too overwhelmed to be productive. Finding that “sweet spot” of optimal anxiety for optimal performance on top of the inverted “U” illustrated by the Yerkes-Dodson Law  is the key to success. That sweet spot, however, is subjective to the individual experiencing it.

Current research shows that mental “illness” might be more of the “norm” than the outlier. The Dunedin Study in New Zealand has followed over 1,000 people from birth and over the course of their lives for the past 40 years, assessing them every few years to look at various health and mental health conditions. The most recent “check in” with study participants took place when they were 38-years-old. So far, only 17 percent of the sample has never met any criteria for a psychiatric disorder at any time in the study’s assessment points. This means that at some point in your life, it is likely that you meet criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis (most commonly something like depression, anxiety, an adjustment disorder, or substance abuse). While of course no single study can be generalized to reflect the whole world’s population, it gives us some pretty solid data.

Given these findings, we could argue that it’s “normal” to experience depression at some point in one’s life, just like it’s “normal” to get the flu or break a bone at some point in life. Whether your symptoms warrant treatment depends on how the symptoms are interfering with your life. Everything falls on a spectrum; just as there is a difference between bumping your head and bumping your head with such force that it’s deemed a concussion, there is a difference between feeling a flash of anxiety before a big presentation and feeling such debilitating anxiety that you cannot speak.

The newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5), which mental health professionals use for making clinical diagnoses, has shifted towards a more dimensional approach that matches this concept of everything falling along a spectrum. Hopefully, in future editions, it will move even further away from categorizing people as “normal” vs. “abnormal” and help us remove the stigma from these diagnoses, especially since most diagnoses can be temporary. So is it “normal” to struggle at some point, and to have symptoms intense enough to meet criteria for a diagnosis? Absolutely. It’s part of being human.

Maybe we can let go of the need to know if we are “normal” and instead ask ourselves, “does this work for me?” or “is being this way helping me live a meaningful life?” When I first meet with someone seeking therapy, I ask them the “miracle question,” some variation of the following: “If I waved a magic wand and you walked out of here today completely cured of your [depression, anxiety, painful trauma memories, addiction, etc.], what would be different about your life? What would you be able to do?” Usually, the answer has something to do with more meaningful relationships with loved ones, a rewarding job, more energy, etc. Those answers become our treatment goals. If you’re able to move towards your values, the things that truly matter to you, then isn’t that more important than knowing if you’re “normal” by someone else’s standards?

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.

New Year, Same Fear (Part 1)

It’s 2016! When did this even happen? Time seems to pass at weird rates.

How often have you asked someone about their day at work, and they replied, “Ugh, it was so LONG” or have you been asked about a trip and you responded, “it went by so FAST”?   The passing of time can feel excruciatingly slow or dizzyingly fast, depending on a million other internal and external factors.

Not to go all Literal Lucy here, but time actually moves at the same rate, no matter what. A minute is always sixty seconds. The reality is that this is 100% our perception and experience of time.

If we can recognize that the passing of time is only quickened or slowed down by our perceptions of it, we become better equipped for living fully in each moment. Time doesn’t have to be this slippery, elusive element that never seems to do what we want it to; time simply passes, and we can watch it, ignore it, lament what could have been, anticipate what is to come, or, trickiest of all, simply live in it.

What makes us wish time slowed down (or stopped) during the joyful moments is the same thing that makes us wish it sped up when our day feels sucky. It’s the phenomenon referred to in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as experiential avoidance or control, which is the attempt to control or alter the form, frequency, or situational sensitivity of internal experiences, such as thoughts, feelings, sensations, or memories, even when doing so causes us behavioral harm (Hayes, Wilson, Gifford, Follette, & Strosahl, 1996).

Okay, I’ll chill on the psych jargon and give it to you straight. Basically, we use all kinds of conscious and unconscious strategies to try to avoid, suppress, or ignore the things that we don’t enjoy (the long line at the supermarket, the obnoxious sound your partner makes when he chews his cereal, the throbbing pain of a sinus headache, the painful memories of a traumatic experience, the feeling of grief when we lose a loved one, the feeling of rejection when we get dumped). When we perceive something as crappy, we want to make it STOP or GO AWAY. On the other hand, we do the opposite and try to cling to, prolong, or drag out the things that give us pleasure (vacations, eating cake, having an orgasm, getting a good night’s sleep, feeling important or special when we get a promotion at work, feeling loved when our children climb into our laps with a book).

For example, try to recall a time you have felt a positive feeling (such as pleasure or delight) and an experience that went along with it. For me, an easy example is when I’m eating a delicious ice cream sundae on a hot summer afternoon. With my first decadent bite, I can count on a slew of enjoyable feelings and internal experiences to pop up. I’ll think the thought, “this is delicious!” accompanied by my mouth watering when I taste the refreshing sensation of cold, creamy sweetness. Then… the moment I have these enjoyable experiences, my body and brain automatically go into experiential control efforts. No more than a few bites in, I may start to think, “I wish this bowl was bigger.” I start trying to eat very slowly and make it last longer, or I think about what else I can get to satisfy my insatiable sweet tooth after I finish. Sometimes I feel guilty over my indulgence, or I feel annoyed that it’s melting faster than I want to eat it. All at once, my experience of pleasure becomes tainted by my own reactions, my “control agenda” and the effort to hold onto ice-cream-induced pleasure forever and ever.

The same goes for avoidance efforts. Addiction often develops because of experiential avoidance. For example, a 35-year-old man feels self-conscious when socializing in groups, but he works in an office culture where the expectation is to attend work-related social functions. He finds that after a few drinks, his nerves are calmed and his anxiety is dulled. He starts to rely on this strategy more and more, to take the edge off. Over time, this behavior gets reinforced. He learns that when he drinks, the unpleasant feelings go away. His body builds tolerance to alcohol, and he must drink more and more to get the same effects. When he sobers up, he feels guilty and ashamed, on top of the anxiety he already was feeling. He starts drinking before work in the mornings, trying to prevent the unpleasant feelings before they overwhelm him. It’s easy to see how the man’s efforts to control his feelings lead to his feelings controlling him, as his daily life becomes focused on “not feeling anxious.”

As Brene Brown mentions in her popular Ted Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, we cannot selectively numb. We can’t choose to not feel anxiety ever, because anxiety is part of life. On a related note, we cannot selectively cling. We can’t choose to only feel joy all the time. Knowing this, it’s futile to tell someone (or to tell yourself) to “just stop thinking about it” or “perk up!” If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of these well-intentioned pieces of advice, you know how unhelpful they can feel. We don’t get to choose WHAT our thoughts, feelings, and internal experiences are. What we can choose is HOW WE RELATE to those experiences. We have a choice in how much attention we give to the thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations that we experience, and how much we allow them to dictate our behaviors and control our daily lives.

Next time you feel like time is slipping through your fingers, or find yourself impatiently watching the clock, see if you can turn inward and tune into what else you’re feeling, not just what’s driving a sense of urgency.  And then, see if you can let go of the urgency and connect to the experience itself.  If you’re not sure how to do this, you’re not alone. It’s much easier said than done.

Stay tuned for a sequel to this post in the next few days, and as always, feel free to contact me for help or support.

 

Wishing everyone a warm and healthy new year!