ACCEPTING FEELINGS AND TAKING CONTROL.
By GRAHAM W PRICE
I like to get my clients into the shower …on their own, at home.
I encourage them to turn down the hot water until the shower feels uncomfortable, then I train then how to deal with the discomfort.
In winter I take them outdoors, underdressed. Teaching my clients how to deal with feeling cold is an easy way of introducing them to the life-changing practice of accepting our uncomfortable feelings.
Cold is an externally generated feeling. Most feelings, such as anxiety, feeling low, embarrassment, frustration, irritation or cravings, are internally generated. Learning to accept our uncomfortable feelings is the secret to taking control of those feelings and our lives. I believe it’s the most powerful psychological tool anyone can learn.
Most people resist uncomfortable feelings. Resistance means not wanting to experience the feeling, trying to diminish it, hoping it will go away or worrying that it might get worse. Or it can involve behaviour aimed at avoiding or reducing uncomfortable feelings.
The opposite of resistance is acceptance. Accepting an uncomfortable feeling means being willing to experience it and being able to say to yourself “it’s OK to have this feeling for now”.
When I take a client outdoors in winter underdressed, or encourage them into a tepid shower, I get them to ask themselves four questions about the experience. And I suggest a few answers:
Is this feeling going to kill me? … Clearly not, unless I stay here all day!
Is it going to harm me? … Again no! No-one has ever been harmed by a feeling
Can I bear it? … Any feeling short of extreme pain is bearable
Can I accept it? … Yes I can. After all, it’s just a feeling. If it’s not harming me and is bearable why can’t I accept it?
There’s a bonus when we master this exercise. We need never again ‘suffer’ from feeling cold. We can just feel it and accept it. Having mastered this I then encourage them to practice accepting internally generated feelings by asking the same questions.
So why is accepting our uncomfortable feelings so valuable? There are three benefits;
1) Most of the time we have little direct control over our feelings. We cannot usually just choose not to feel anxious or depressed. It makes sense to accept things we cannot control. By doing so we’re immediately less unhappy about whatever we’re feeling.
2) Paradoxically, accepting uncomfortable feelings nearly always diminishes them. When we’re resisting our feelings, we might become anxious about feeling anxious, depressed about feeling depressed, embarrassed about feeling or appearing embarrassed, and so on. Accepting our feelings breaks these cycles.
In addition when we’re accepting feelings such as frustration, irritation or anger – the action of accepting takes our attention away from whatever generated them. And so the feelings immediately diminish.
‘What we resist will persist!’ is an expression that applies to many things in life – but nothing more so than uncomfortable feelings.
3) Accepting our uncomfortable feelings enables us to break the link between our feelings and our actions. Most people most of the time allow their feelings to determine their actions. If we’re anxious about something, we tend to avoid whatever we’re anxious about, if we’re depressed we tend to withdraw in some way, if we’re angry we tend to retaliate, if we have a desire for chocolate cake, we’ll probably eat the cake.
The problem with this is that actions aligned with our feelings will always reinforce the programming that’s driving the feelings. If I’m anxious about speaking to groups, my anxiety is driven by a, perhaps unconscious, belief that it’s somehow dangerous to speak to groups. Every time I avoid speaking to groups, I’m reinforcing that belief. My unconscious is receiving a message that it must be dangerous, otherwise why am I avoiding it?
Withdrawing when we’re depressed will reinforce our belief that life is hopeless in some way. Retaliating when we’re angry will reinforce our belief about injustice. Eating the chocolate cake will reinforce our desire for chocolate cake.
Accepting our feelings enables us to choose actions not determined by our feelings. We can ‘accept the feeling, choose the action’. If our feelings are limiting us in some way, the programming that driving those feelings will be undermined if we repeatedly accept our uncomfortable feelings and choose actions opposite to those suggested by the feelings.
If I can accept it’s OK to feel anxious, for now, while speaking to groups, I can ‘accept the feeling, choose the action’ and start speaking to groups. Just having an intention to do this, even before taking the action, sends an initially confusing message to our unconscious mind. It’s left thinking “I thought it was dangerous to speak to groups, so why on earth are we planning to do so … maybe my belief is wrong”. When we start taking action, that message is reinforced.
If we accept it’s OK to feel low, for now, it becomes easier to take the action that will in most cases resolve the feeling, which is to act as though we didn’t have the feeling, in other words to get active, take exercise and fully re-engage with life. If we have an anger problem, which generally means getting angry more than most, we’ll resolve the problem if we repeatedly accept the feeling and hold back on the response.
If we’re overeating because of an excessive desire for food, we can accept the desire while choosing to restrain what we eat. Many people overeat in order to control uncomfortable feelings, often called ‘comfort eating’. Learning to accept our uncomfortable feelings, helped by the understanding that they’re doing us no harm, and choosing the opposite action resolves the problem and the feelings will soon subside.
Whatever self-limitations we may experience in life can be resolved by following the adage ‘accept the feeling, choose the action’. I encourage you to try this in every area of your life. For example; walk-up the escalator while accepting any discomfort this may generate – a great way to practice this technique and take healthy exercise at the same time.
About Graham W Price:
Graham W Price specialises in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and his own development Acceptance-Action Therapy (AAT). Price offers seminars or DVDs costing £20.00 on Acceptance-Action Training. See www.abicord.com Download an extract of his book at www.what-is-is.com