How to live your life with uncomfortable emotions and experiences
Written by Reuven Rosen, LMSW
Uh oh! Here comes the uncomfortable feelings. Ruuuuun!
Do you ever feel like you want to avoid certain experiences, even though you know they might be beneficial? Do you find yourself trying to escape from emotions that are uncomfortable or overwhelming like anxiety or depression? Experiential avoidance is a common phenomenon among those struggling to cope with difficult emotions. Put simply, experiential avoidance is the act of avoiding or suppressing one's own emotions in order to escape from unpleasant feelings or situations. While this may seem like a logical solution in the short-term, it doesn’t always benefit us in the long-term.
What’s the big deal?
Think of these thoughts and emotions like a beach ball that you are trying to hold underwater. You push down really hard and hold it there. However, inevitably, the ball will pop up somewhere else when you take a break. The stronger you push it down, the higher it will fly up.
Now consider the cost-benefit of holding that ball under water. How much energy does it take? What else can you do with your hands and feet in the pool while you’re doing this task? You’re missing out on a whole lot of fun while you’re devoting all your energy to keeping that ball under the water.
Now what’s the alternative? Imagine what it might be like to not hold the ball down; to just let it be there. Yes, it will bob around, sometimes straying far away and at other times, getting annoyingly close. However, when you’re not focused on keeping it under water, you are now free to do what you want with your arms and legs. You can swim laps for exercise, you can play games with your friends. The possibilities are endless.
Put your strategies to the test
At this point, you might be incredulous of this approach. Perhaps you’re thinking that the beach ball analogy isn’t accurate. After all, haven’t you successfully squelched those uncomfortable thoughts and emotions in the past? Doesn’t a nightly drink help give a much needed rest? Doesn't deep breathing or listening to calm music help calm the system? Doesn’t “challenging the thoughts” or “looking on the bright side” help in moving forward? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
1. What strategies and techniques have I used to get rid of these emotions?
Russ Harris, an Australian therapist, has a clever acronym to help you list all of these ways.
D – Distractions – Netflix, endless TikTok, Late hours at work, etc
O – Opting Out – Avoiding events, Procrastinating, etc
T – Thinking Strategies – Positive thinking, Challenging the thoughts to see if they’re accurate
S – Substances – Alcohol, marijuana etc
2. What did you gain from using this strategy or technique?
3. Has it worked to help you feel better in the short term?
4. Has it worked to help you feel better in the long term- did it cure the problem or did the emotion come back?
5. Were there any short term costs of your strategies?
6. Were there any long term costs of your strategies?
If there is a strategy or technique which you have found that passes the test of these questions and helps you feel better both short term and long term while not having any drawbacks, then your search is done. Use that strategy going forward because it’s your magic bullet. Do me a favor and give me a call because I have yet to find the perfect strategy to make all problems and hard feelings disappear. If you’re like most people, you haven’t been able to come up with that perfect strategy because it probably doesn’t exist. So now what? If there’s no way to get rid of these challenging thoughts and feelings, what’s the alternative? How do you deal with the struggles that come up in life and still carry on?
Recognizing that difficult feelings and emotions are a fact of life may be a downer but is a powerful first step in your journey forward. Although you can’t change your life circumstances, in this series we will explore alternative ways to respond to these circumstances through the lens of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).