When I receive emails from people who are in crisis, most of the time they want to know how they can get rid of the painful emotions they are experiencing.
“My son has been arrested for dealing drugs, and I had no idea he even knew about drugs! I’m embarrassed, shocked, ashamed, and angry. How do I stop feeling this way so I can get on with my life again?”
“My wife died two months ago and I’m still overwhelmed by sadness. I feel like I’ve lost my way in the world. How do I move through grief faster so I can have a life again?”
The assumption implicit in these questions is, “Painful feelings are bad and I need to get rid of them as soon as possible in order to get on with life.”
Because of this assumption, we may try to get rid of our feelings in a variety of ways: avoiding them, suppressing them, resisting them, or wishing they would hurry up and be over. This effort is a natural thing to do, since nobody likes pain.
The problem is that all of those resistance activities, while they might work in the short run, may magnify the feelings overall. There are two parts to this magnification mechanism:
1) The more we try not to think about something (“I’m not going to think about my grief,”) the more we think about it; and,
2) Because we are thinking more about the painful feelings, we may start to add to them with thoughts such as, “This is the worst pain ever. I can’t stand this.”
Dropping the rope
Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, likens this process to being in a tug-o-war with a monster who is trying to pull you into a pit. You pull as hard as you can against the monster of your painful feelings, only to find that the monster grows stronger each time you pull. What should you do? Pull even harder?
How about if you drop the rope?
This does not mean you give up and don’t take action when it is necessary. This is about letting go of the resistance to your painful feelings so they don’t pull you further into a pit.
Finding out your son is a drug dealer and losing your wife to cancer are life-shattering events. Painful feelings are sure to arise. Allow them to do so.
And, take action when it is needed.
Perhaps you’ll want to learn more about drugs and addiction so you’ll know how to best help your son. Maybe you’ll want to join a grief group or see a therapist for support during your time of mourning.
The bottom line with life-altering traumatic events, as well as merely stressful everyday events, is that we may get too caught up in our minds with the negative thoughts and in our hearts where the painful feelings roil and stew.
With both severe and moderate crises, we can “drop the rope” by acknowledging that our thoughts aren’t particularly helpful right now and letting them go by, like leaves floating on a stream, and by allowing our feelings to just be rather than trying to get them to stop or leave.
By not resisting our experience, we may have access to more inner resources to creatively approach the problem facing us and take an active approach to solving it or figuring out a way to make it through a particularly difficult time.
What are your thoughts about these ideas? Is it hard to separate taking positive action from using negative avoidance strategies?
This is the last in a four-post series about learning to live a rich, meaningful, values-based life despite the challenges that life inevitably brings us, be they everyday annoyances or full-scale disasters. If you missed the first three posts, check them out here:
For a great read on this topic, check out Russ Harris’ The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT.
Therapists, life coaches, and counselors may be interested in ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.