Thoughts and Emotions are here to stay
Last month, we explored some of the negative consequences we face when implementing strategies to avoid uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. We saw that really, there is no way to truly get rid of these tough thoughts and emotions. To further this idea, let’s explore some classic exercises from Steven Hayes, the creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy:
Try to delete the number 4 from your mind. Once you’ve done that, complete the following number pattern. 1,2,3… What number popped into your head? Got you there.
Try the instant love game. If I would pay you $1 billion to instantly love the next person who walked through your door, would you be able to create the emotion of love? What if your ex who dumped you the day before prom walks in? Or the creep next door who keeps stealing your newspaper? Would you truly be able to love them?
There’s no honest way to get rid of thoughts or control emotions. As a therapist, I frequently encounter clients who walk into the therapy room “to figure out how to be happy.” I tell them I would love to teach them that…if I knew how. Unfortunately, the hard reality is that my job as a therapist is not to help people be happy. Rather, our work together focuses on helping each client live meaningful lives.
The life of a Bunny
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, there is a great metaphor taken from the life of a bunny. A bunny divides its time between running away from predators and toward sustenance. Imagine if the bunny spent its entire life running away from predators, but never thought to run towards the carrot. Alternatively, if the bunny only focused on getting carrots, but never watched to make sure that it was avoiding predators, that wouldn’t end well either. People are similar to bunnies in that we are constantly running away from predators. Our predators take the form of anxious thoughts, difficult relationships, stress and the whole gamut of difficult thoughts and emotions. We become so preoccupied with the escape from these predators that we neglect to consider our carrots, or what is important to us. This leads us to an emotional starvation or in other words, a feeling of emptiness in life. We cannot let our escape from “predators” overtake our equally important need for emotional sustenance.
What’s your carrot?
Some people can easily state their passion and values. For many others, though, focusing on values and passion is swept aside in the chaos of everyday life and there may be a need to reflect and figure out: What do I value? There’s no one right way to figure out what you stand for. In fact, for many, it may be a life-long journey
and introspection. Here are some ideas that can help you get started:
The funeral - Imagine you had the opportunity to plan and attend your own funeral. Who would you want to eulogize you? What would you want them to say?
The 2-sided coin - Ironically, the very areas that cause you suffering can give insight into where your values lie. You will only be stressed by that which is important to you. Imagine a 2-sided coin. On one side are your anxious thoughts and feelings. Flip over that coin to reveal the cause of that stress- the very area that you value. My fears about the dating scene are keeping me up at night because I value relationships.
Role Models - Who is someone that you look up to and admire? What qualities do they have that make them someone you would want to emulate?
Once you identify some of your values, putting those values to practice will start filling your bucket with carrots. Living your values is not usually accomplished through heroic, large scale acts. Someone who values kindness does not have to start a national charity in order to live a meaningful life. This type of grand thinking can lead to despair and hopelessness when it cannot be achieved.
Rather, let’s take a micro-step approach. Identify one very small action you can do in the next week to demonstrate your value. If working towards the value of kindness, that may look like lending a helping hand to one person over the next week or simply saying good morning to a co-worker that you don't typically speak to. The important thing is to keep it intentional and ongoing. Notice how you are filling your life with meaningful actions and let that shape your path forward.
Next month we will explore how to manage challenges that interfere with chasing your carrots. We’ll discuss strategies that will empower you to create meaningful choices.
About The Author
Reuven Rosen, LMSW is a licensed social worker with The Calming Mind in Bethesda, Maryland. Reuven began his professional career as an educator where his love for helping others grew towards the mental health field. Reuven became certified in the Nurtured Heart Approach, where he provided parenting seminars and coaching to schools, organizations, and communities to help parents and adults connect with their struggling teens to create healing. Reuven took his knowledge and set off to complete his second Master's Degree, but this time in Clinical Social Work from the University of Maryland. Since completing his degree, Reuven has received extensive training in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) as well and Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFT). Reuven joined The Calming Mind in 2021 and has done wonderful work for so many teens, adults and their families. Reuven is currently accepting new individual and couples clients for in-person and virtual therapy.