Evolution may have been wise in programming us all to avoid pain (given the survival advantage it clearly provides), but one important “unintended” consequence of that programming is that we tend to view pain in general—psychological and physical both—as experiences to be avoided at all costs. This shunning of all pain, however, turns out to come with a significant price: in many cases the strategies we use to avoid pain often cause more harm than does the experience of pain itself.
More harm results, for example, from excessive drinking or drug use than from the anxiety they’re often used to anesthetize; more harm results from relationship sabotage than from the fear of intimacy that often drives it. It’s actually astounding how regularly and unconsciously we take steps to avoid feeling pain. (Just think about how many emails you avoid answering because they require you to deal with something that makes you uncomfortable).
Not only that, but attempting to suppress emotional pain may paradoxically increase it. In contrast, being accepting of pain, being willing to experience it without attempting to control it, has actually been found to decrease it. In one study of patients with generalized anxiety disorder, for example, subjects who were taught to accept their anxiety reported substantial reductions in worry, reductions that persisted even beyond the duration of the study.
But such a decrease is only a happy byproduct, for the true purpose of acceptance isn’t to diminish pain but rather to become more comfortable feeling it. In fact, aiming to diminish pain purposely via acceptance is functionally no different than trying to suppress it, and as a result typically backfires. For acceptance isn’t about feeling better so much as it is about doing better—about preventing hunger from causing us to overeat, or anxiety from causing us to socially isolate ourselves, or chronic headaches from causing us to decrease our activity level. By accepting and even embracing such painful experiences, we prevent ourselves from engaging in the undesired behaviors to which they often lead.
In learning to recognize just when we’re trying to avoid pain—a feat that requires, surprisingly, significant amounts of practice—we become more capable of experiencing pain without judgment. With practice, for example, we can move from thinking “anxiety is bad” to thinking “I’m feeling anxiety.” Likewise, when painful thoughts arise—for example, that we’re worthless—an exercise in which we repeat the words “I’m worthless” again and again until they stop triggering any meaning at all, becoming in essence nothing more than sounds, can help us recognize that our thoughts are just stories, not truths that necessarily reflect objective reality at all. In this way, by learning to withhold judgment of our painful feelings and draining the meaning from our painful thoughts we’re able to reduce our desire to be rid of them.
A number of other techniques can help with this as well. We can imagine our painful thoughts as letters sent to us by others—perhaps people whose judgment we find flawed and with whom we often disagree, thus predisposing us to accept any such negative ideas with a proverbial grain of salt. Or we can practice “thanking our minds” for painful thoughts as if we were thanking a small child for offering a quaint but ultimately nonsensical idea. Or we can imagine a painful feeling as a discreet package of a specific size and weight that we might need to hold for a little while but which eventually we’ll be able to put down. Anything and everything that draws our attention to the fact that our thoughts and our feelings are not tyrants we have to obey but merely phenomena of our minds.
This then helps us with the real goal of acceptance: preventing those phenomena from interfering with the achievement of our goals. For acceptance doesn’t mean allowing our problems to go unchallenged; it means accepting the painful thoughts and feelings that invariably arise when problems occur so that they don’t stop us from trying to solve them.
This is something everyone who’s ever succeeded in a large way on a public stage knows: you don’t achieve your goals by avoiding pain; you achieve them by being better than everyone else at enduring it. This notion of accepting pain is relatively new in the world of psychology, but a new kind of cognitive behavioral therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) has been finding surprising success with many patients. Luckily, you don’t have to see a therapist trained in ACT to make use of its principles.
ACCEPTANCE AND COMMITMENT THERAPY
The goals of acceptance are to change your aim from getting rid of unpleasant emotions to fully experiencing them in service of achieving your desired goals. Anyone can follow the steps, which are as follows:
- Practice “defusing” your judgment from your emotions. Labeling your feelings as negative and your thoughts as truths tends to extend your desire to avoid them to the circumstances and/or actions that stir them up. You need to break this link to become more capable of taking the action you need to achieve your desired goals—or to stop maladaptive behaviors like relationship sabotage or drug abuse designed to prevent you from feeling or thinking unpleasant things.
- Clarify your goals. You may not even be aware of some of them, so impossible might they seem because of the painful feelings that even contemplating them stirs up.
- Commit to behaviors that will enable you to achieve your goals. You must decide that you’re going to achieve your goals no matter how much pain striving toward them may cause you.
- Accept the impossibility of ceasing to feel unpleasant emotions. You will never, ever succeed in feeling only good. So stop trying. Seek to become strong enough to tolerate feeling bad.
Here is an exercise I recommend to get you started:
- Write down a goal that you’ve either repeatedly failed to accomplish or have never even attempted because to contemplate trying has brought up intense, unpleasant emotions. Perhaps you want to reunite with your estranged father, or read a poem in front of an audience, or ask someone out on a date. You’re looking for a goal that you’ve been unable to achieve not because of an external obstacle (though they certainly may exist) but because of an internal one.
- Then write down underneath it all the steps you would need to take to accomplish it. You can do this in any level of detail you want.
- Then write down next to those steps the unpleasant emotions they stir up.
If you’re like most of the people who I’ve taken through this exercise, even thinking about taking on your goal along with the steps you’d need to take to accomplish it will bring out the very feelings that have prevented you from trying. But it’s to these very emotions you must apply the principles of acceptance listed above. Anxious about asking out someone on a date? Stop trying to avoid that anxiety. Stop telling yourself you first have to become anxiety-free when asking someone out to do it. When you find someone you want to ask out, accept that you’re going to feel anxious. Become determined to take the action anyway. Scared to ask your boss for a raise? Stop trying to turn yourself into someone who doesn’t feel afraid to ask for one. Accept that you’re going to feel afraid and become determined to ask for one anyway.
You are, in fact, far more capable—far more powerful—than you ever imagined. Certainly external obstacles can rise up to stop you. But you’ll never even have a chance to confront them if you don’t manage the internal obstacles—the uncomfortable feelings that striving toward certain goals stirs up—first. Yet the best way to manage them isn’t to suppress them. It’s to accept them. Because the better you’ll become at accepting them, the better you’ll become at tolerating them. And the person who can tolerate the greatest pain, seeking not to be rid of it but to act in spite of it, is the person who can accomplish anything he or she wants.
Note: Much of this post was adapted from my book, The Undefeated Mind. Readers interested in the references that support the principles listed above or in further information about how to apply them are invited to refer to Chapter 6, “Accept Pain.”
Next Week: How To Manage Your Partner’s Bad Moods