26 Jun Pain has a purpose if we learn the art of acceptance
Yesterday I was sad! I would consider myself a pretty positive person. I try to convey positivity through everything I do and everything I write in the hope of inspiring you guys to grab life by the horns and thoroughly enjoy the ride. However, I do not live in a constant positivity bubble…shit happens…and yesterday I was sad. As opposed to writing an upbeat blog (I actually had one scheduled in about the benefits of journalling!), I thought it’d be much more authentic to discuss the less comfortable topic of pain and suffering.
Yesterday, I went to visit my Grandad in his Care Home. He has recently had a stroke and after 98 years of a life lived to the absolute fullest, I was completely taken aback by the weak, vulnerable old guy lying in front of me in his bed. Not able to lift his head off the pillow and for the first time ever, not even able to raise a smile in my presence. His zest for life was gone. As I sat by his bedside, my heart hurt and I couldn’t stop the flow of tears. I was consumed by sadness at the prospect of losing this special human. I desperately wanted to suppress my feelings, to make small talk and try and perk him up, but I couldn’t…the emotions were coming thick and fast.
When I arrived home (puffy eyed and snotty nosed), it triggered my memory of my all time favourite book, The Happiness Trap. (Weirdly, I have spoken about this book to three different people this week and it does make me wonder if the Universe was re-seeding it in my mind to help me to deal with this situation.) The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris was the first book I read that made me feel like a giant emotional weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The whole concept of the book is based on a psychological theory called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and the first part of this therapy “Acceptance” has been a complete revelation for me. Up until that moment, I had felt that pain was not an option for me. Every time I felt any kind of difficult emotion, I would catch it and squash it, believing that in order to be happy I was not allowed to feel these difficult emotions. I was so desperate to maintain a constant state of happiness that I refused to let myself experience anything that made me feel anything even slightly uncomfortable. Lucky for me, for a long period of my life, I had not encountered any kind of significant crisis and therefore this way of coping by suppressing my emotions had worked for me. I had never had cause to challenge that this way of thinking was unhelpful. However, with hindsight what I realise is that by not letting myself experience a full variety of human emotions, I was stunting my emotional growth and becoming quite non-resilient.
So…after having some pretty deep and challenging emotions triggered at the care home, as opposed to reverting back to the emotionally rigid neanderthal I was pre -The Happiness Trap, it was time to put back into action my learnings.
So, what is the happiness trap?
The happiness trap works off the principle that emotions (including happiness) don’t last. They slip away despite us trying to hold onto them and the harder we chase them and try to hold onto them, the more likely we are to suffer in the form of unfulfillment. The same holds true for what are considered “negative” emotions. These emotions don’t last either and the more we try to avoid them and push them away, the more that we fuse and struggle with them. For a full and satisfying life, we need to experience the full range of human emotions.
Historically, I was a prime example of someone living in the vicious cycle of the happiness trap. Anytime I felt a negative emotion – sadness, fear, disappointment etc – my default was to squash the pain. As the emotion consumed my heart, my chest and my entire body I started battling with myself to suppress it and filled my diary with activities to avoid it. It may have brought me a bit of light relief in the short term but the truth was that as time passed, the avoidance of this pain just led to more suffering.
I was so intent on being happy and madly striving to avoid any emotions that I felt were standing in the way of this, but actually the fight I was creating within myself was causing me to be more unhappy and unfulfilled.
Getting out of the happiness trap
The obvious eludes those of us caught up in the happiness trap, but the truth is that we need pain to experience pleasure. Our lives are never going to be pain free, we are always going to encounter difficult situations and less than positive emotions – life is a tapestry of all kinds of human emotions and in order to really feel the good stuff, we also have to experience the tougher stuff. By struggling to try and avoid or suppress these difficult emotions, we can get ourselves into a deeper web of negativity and end up experiencing much more difficult feelings of anxiety and depression. The light bulb moment came for me when realising that in order to experience true, long lasting happiness I needed to end the struggle and focus on acceptance.
But what, I hear you cry, if I don’t want to accept my emotions and I want to actually try and improve things? Boy oh boy, do I hear you! This was the constant challenge that cropped up for me as I started to get my head around the concepts of ACT. I was so nervous that by placating my emotions it would take away my drive and my edge. What I realised though, is that acceptance does not mean putting up with or tolerating difficult emotions. It is an essential initial step to set the foundations for a more solid platform to make positive changes and experience life. Dr Harris explains it this way; if you are going to walk across a pond of ice you first need a firm foothold on the ice before taking the next step forward. You have no intention of staying there with your feet glued to the floor but steadying yourself is essential before you can take positive action forward. The combination of acceptance and action is the key.
So, how on earth do we achieve this elusive concept of acceptance?
I have tried and tested everything in the book in addition to opposing tactics from other “self-help” books. The following I have found to really help me to get a handle on my emotions – not fighting with myself for feeling a certain way and yet still being able to move on from difficult emotions with ease and grace.
Unhooking yourself from your thoughts and emotions. This is the art of relating to your thoughts in a different way so they have less control and influence over you. The best way I have found to do this is by practising mindfulness. Mindfulness techniques allow you to become more aware of when and where your mind wanders. Once you become aware of your thoughts and feelings, you can catch yourself getting attached to these thoughts and unhook yourself. It really helps to focus on your breathing and use your breath to unhook you from inside your head.
Make room for your feelings. Once you have caught the thought and unhooked yourself, it is important to make room for the emotion instead of suppressing it. Fully experience the emotion in all of its glory and do what you have to do! This may be shouting, crying, sitting alone in stillness, journalling or talking. Whatever it may be you need to welcome in the pain and let it flow.
De-funk and find your flow. Once you have connected to and experienced the associated thoughts and feelings it is now about engaging with the present moment. Acknowledging how you feel is all part of the healing process but often the toughest part is not dwelling on things and making them personal. This not about throwing yourself a pity party! Once I feel as though I have fully experienced whatever emotion it is that I needed to feel, I use my tried and tested technique to pull me out of my funk. I crank up the tunes – 99% of the time Beyonce does it for me! This helps me more than anything to engage with the present and move through my feelings in my own time. This may be after 10 minutes, it may be after two weeks but I constantly check myself to ensure that there is no pity party happening here!
This is tough guys, believe me I know! Perfecting the art of sitting with your feelings, making room for them and then knowing when to move on is a real trial and error process and only you know how long is right for each step. What happened has happened and it can’t be changed no matter how much you dwell on it. Feeling the breadth of emotions that occur on the back of a difficult situation is essential in dealing with things but the ability to fluidly move on, connect with the present and jump back into the flow of life is what will make you more resilient and less smashed around by your thoughts and emotions. This is something I am still working hard on and yesterday really challenged my strength in this area. I’m not quite sure how I did but I’ll be sure to let you guys know when I have it all figured out!
PS. I’d encourage you to check out Russ’ website https://www.actmindfully.com.au which explains a little more about ACT and The Happiness Trap.