How is this for life changing—normal psychological functioning is not an absence of unhelpful thoughts!
It is normal to experience anxious, depressed or disordered thinking at times. They are just thoughts, and it doesn’t necessarily follow that you are then “anxious” or “depressed” (although you might be and it would then be a different kettle of fish).
So, here is the life changing bit—it is okay to stop trying to suppress or eradicate negative thoughts, feelings and sensations.
Your mind is meant to think, just as your eyes are designed to see. We don’t get angry or upset with our eyes for seeing unpleasant images, so why should we get upset with our minds for thinking unhelpful thoughts?
So what then are we aiming for? Last week I brought up a concept called “psychological flexibility”—this is a goal we should be shooting for. It is a concept central to a form of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced “act”), and there is mounting evidence showing that people who score low on psychological flexibility tend to exhibit higher levels of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, worry, and many other pathologies*.
What is psychological flexibility?
Kashdan and Rottenberg, leading ACT therapists, define psychological flexibility as “contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values.”
In practice it means understanding that thoughts are just thoughts, feelings are just feelings, and sensations are just sensations. All of them are just passing states that you experience—they are not you. You experience them just as you experience the weather—they wash over you, wash through you, but they are not you.
When you learn to separate these states from your identity, it can help to create a sense of space and distance around them, allowing you to act rather than being acted upon. You can then choose how you respond, mindfully, in accordance with your own personal values (i.e. flexibility), rather than a blind, knee-jerk reaction (i.e. rigidity).
Here is the liberating stuff—you don’t have to control your inner events. This includes thoughts, emotions, associations, memories and sensations. In trying to control them (i.e. not have them, change them, ignore them, deny them or just wanting them to be different), we can wind up causing ourselves considerable suffering. It’s all the struggling with our experience of the present moment that can amplify our heartache. What allows us to find peace is learning how to sit with what we feel, even difficult feelings. Be prepared that this will involve some discomfort but by cultivating openness and acceptance towards our inner experiences, even painful ones, they tend to lose some of their sting.
By the repetition of mindfulness practices, the impact of painful thoughts and feelings truly can be diminished. Once we achieve this openness and acceptance, we can clarify our values, and then brainstorm mindful, meaningful action. And, of course, while we don’t have to control every inner event, from my personal perspective I think we should still be trying to cultivate positive mental states; however, the point here is that we shouldn’t berate ourselves for having unhelpful thoughts—just don’t invest your identity in them or give them power over you. Don’t believe everything you think!
Here is the process:
Notice your desire to control, get rid of or change certain emotions, thoughts, or sensations.
Observe the techniques you are using to do this (e.g. ruminating over it, trying not to think or talk about it, turning to work, alcohol, food for comfort, etc.)
Evaluate how these techniques are working for you and what are their costs (to your health, relationships, happiness, finances, and future. Even if it is working for you in the short term is it something you can sustain? What are the future costs of continuing these behaviors?)
Recognize that attempts to control them may be creating suffering or will in the future
Seek assistance. This will involve learning some mindfulness practices, clarifying your values and taking action to address behavior that is no longer helpful.
Despite all the focus I place in my writing on happiness, feeling good, clarity of mind and well-being, I feel it is important to remind you again that I am absolutely not saying we should feel happy all the time.
There are times when I certainly feel down, a bit blue, angry, or a little anxious. These are all normal human responses to life and are naturally part of the full gamut of human expression. Inherent to human life is an experience of loss, suffering, and grief at some stage. We need to allow ourselves to feel these things and know that any attempt to twist away from them or to push them down will only end up amplifying our pain. The only way out is through. Pain is an inescapable fact of life and, I would argue, essential to our personal growth and the evolution of human consciousness. What is also essential is a good self-care routine for both mind and body.
Please get in touch if you’d like to explore any of these concepts. It took me a little time and space to get my head around it all.
* Kashdan, T., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30 (7), 865-878 DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.001
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Ed: B. Bemel