In our culture we go to school, sometimes for well into our adult lives and learn how to embrace knowledge. Yet, we are rarely well-educated on how to embrace our emotions. Often times, when uncomfortable emotions like sadness, anxiety, anger, or depression arise within us we have been told to “get over it” or “fight against it!” These emotions are usually associated with suffering and, as human beings, we don’t like suffering. But what if instead of being critical of the fact that we are struggling with emotions, we were compassionate, and even accepted them? This is the basis of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT. Rather than telling ourselves to “stop thinking this way, or we can’t enjoy things!” we change the language to “I am feeling anxious and I can still going to enjoy things, and I may not be entirely comfortable, but that’s ok”. In the book Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life author Steven Hayes teaches that thought suppression doesn’t work. He illustrates this by using an exercise in which he asks you to visualize a yellow Jeep. Next, he encourages us to spend five minutes doing all that we can to NOT think about this yellow Jeep. More often than not, when we are trying to avoid/suppress thinking about something, it comes up many more times than if we were to just accept that we may randomly think about a yellow jeep.
Relating this back to our emotions, if we are constantly trying to tell ourselves that we “shouldn’t feel a certain way” and to “get over it”, we are more likely to feel our anxiety more intensely. When events occur that produce mixed emotions, it may be our initial reaction to be harsh towards ourselves, wishing our feelings away. Not only is this method ineffective, but it deteriorates our self-esteem, which is a crucial ingredient in recovery. If it is hard for you to think about being kind and accepting of yourself, grab a picture of yourself when you were a child, and then think about how you would want to speak to this little kid who is angry at his/her family or feeling anxious, etc. How do you want to teach them to deal with intense feelings?
When we are out living our lives, we are confronted with emotionally challenging events, there is no avoiding it. In the spirit of acceptance there are things you can do to make sure you don’t get caught in a trap of emotional suffering and suppression. Here are some ideas that might help are:
-Meditate before you go into the challenging event.
-Acknowledge that you has been hurt in these types of situations before. Possibly make an agreement that if you feel hurt you give yourself permission to leave, or take a 15 min walk.
-Be an observer: Think of yourself as a scientist studying the environment to help figure out why the person in the picture is angry. Take mental notes so that you can help process it later.
-Take Time-Outs: If your anxiety/frustration becomes too great, take a breather. Go outdoors, or find a quiet room to give yourself space.
-Have someone you can reach out to. Sometimes getting an encouraging word from a friend can be helpful enough to remind you to stay grounded.
-Journal. Write a list of prompts before and after you engage in the event. “How did I feel talking to so-and-so…” “What was one nice thing that happened…” “The time I felt most vulnerable was…” “I showed myself compassion by…” Answer these before engaging with others and then afterwards too.
These are a few ideas, the hope in all of them is to learn self-compassion and give yourself space to accept who you are and your emotions. Remember, it’s not about doing things perfectly, it’s about committing to accepting and learning to become the person you were intended to be. That way you can stop trying to avoid your emotions and instead you can ACT upon them.
By Ariel Whitlock, MFT
Ariel is a therapist at Cielo House, San Jose where she works with clients toward healing through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and a variety of other means.