Uncomfortable Thoughts and Feelings: An Invitation to Mastery
The more energy we expend on avoiding our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, the further we get from achieving the desired comfort. By contrast, when we courageously commit to staying with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, we build self-mastery. Let me give you an example of how this works in practice from my own life.
A few years ago I was asked to do a demonstration of my therapeutic work in front of an audience of peers. Like many people facing the prospect of performing before a group—and in this case a group of professionals—when I got to the venue, I was terrified. My first impulse was to seek ways to avoid the anxiety that was surging through my body and mind. Rather than embrace it, I tried to counteract it with cognitive restructuring and mental imagery. The result? I became more anxious!
Finally, exhausted from the effort, I abandoned that strategy, gave up trying to control my anxious sensations, and instead allowed myself to fully experience them. I decided to accept my anxiety as a part of the full range of emotion I’m capable of feeling, and when I opened myself to the experience in this way, I not only felt calmer, I actually felt incredibly energized. Once I finally became willing to fully accept my uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, I became more accepting of myself and my humanity. This kind of acceptance is a key component of self-mastery.
By the way, my dilemma—attempting to avoid anxiety and inadvertently escalating it instead—is not unique. This is the paradox of experiential avoidance. The more importance we place on avoiding anxiety, the more we develop anxiety about our anxiety. This is believed to be the mechanism behind panic attacks.
If you are not willing to have it, you will.—Steven Hayes, PhD
A Natural Impulse—and an Erroneous Belief
Wanting to avoid painful experiences is natural—as I said before, it’s part of being human. It is also natural to believe that we cannot survive certain intense feelings. But the reality is that even the most dreaded thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions are survivable, and we become stronger when we summon the courage to allow ourselves to be in full contact with them.
Experiential Avoidance Magnifies the Experience
Let me expand a little further on the paradox of experiential avoidance with a few more examples. In each case, the experience we are seeking to avoid becomes magnified because this is where we have placed our attention.
When we attempt to analyze uncomfortable thoughts and feelings we raise an inherent problem: using language to try to think our way through problems that were created by language in the first place. Here I’m referring to the beliefs and self-concepts, described in previous chapters, that are at the root of much suffering. As with anxiety, the degree to which we defend against or grapple with our suffering by analyzing it is in direct proportion to the amount of suffering we experience.
Most of us have expended great amounts of energy in trying to solve our problems by attempting to think things through, changing our thoughts, or suppressing them. Yet studies conducted by research psychologist Dr. Daniel Wegner have shown that thought analysis, suppression, disputation, and substitution all result in magnification of the very thoughts we are trying not to accept.
Just as I described with my own experience of anxiety, attempts to suppress our unpleasant emotions have the same amplifying results as attempts to suppress our thoughts. What’s more, there can be interplay between thought and emotion that further exacerbates the problem: Working with researcher Dr. Richard Wenzlaff, Daniel Wegner found that attempting to suppress a thought in the presence of an emotion eventually causes the emotion to evoke the thought. We become further trapped in a magnifying loop.
There are of course physical corollaries as well. Most of us have had the experience of trying to not dwell on an uncomfortable physical sensation only to notice that trying to not feel it is like trying not to think of an elephant. The more we try to avoid feeling a bellyache, a headache, or an itch, the worse it gets. This is because we’re focusing all our attention on the discomfort.
The avoidance of life experiences is the most serious of all the psychological processes.–Steven Hayes, PhD.