You cannot run toward something meaningful while you are running from something you fear. Image courtesy of taoty at freedigitalphotos.net
Part 1 of my journey improving my life with Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) explored the 4 myths regarding happiness and our society’s obsession with it, which may be unhealthy.
The author of “The Happiness Trap”, Russ Harris, discusses how people try to avoid unwanted and painful thoughts and feelings, inaccurately perceived to be ‘abnormal’ as discussed in Part 1.
We do this by two main strategies, discussed here in Part 2, that you’ve probably heard of: “Fight” or “Flight”.
Fighting unwanted thoughts and feelings may involve:
1. Suppression. We push these undesired reactions deep down.
2. We argue with ourselves. For example, we may have the thought “I will fail” to which your mind combats this with “no you won’t!”
3. We try to take charge. We admonish ourselves by telling ourselves to “get on with it!” or “stop being silly!”, for example.
4. We bully ourselves. We may tell ourselves we are “being stupid” for example.
We may also adopt “flight” strategies to deal with undesired thoughts and emotions.
1. We escape. We avoid the situations that make us feel uncomfortable.
2. We distract ourselves. We may surf the internet, watch mind-numbing television, play online games, play with our phones or facebook.
3. We zone out. We daydream or just sleep.
4. Pills and drugs. We self-medicate to escape the pain.
The technical name for these coping mechanisms is experiential avoidance.
Just say we’ve had a hard day at work. The boss has been unreasonable, and we are working extra hours with no extra pay. If we cope by watching a little television and drinking one beer, but then are able to move on to do the things we value such as spending time with the children, it’s not a bad thing. However if we spend all night glued to the set, and drink ourselves senseless the result is our values (such as quality time with family) are neglected, and it becomes problematic.
We are trying to make ourselves ‘happy’ in the face of a situation which naturally evoke negative emotions and thoughts. We may try to avoid this unwanted response and make ourselves “happy” by using distraction, substances or just not dealing with matters. We are trying to make the negative go away or feel positive: We insist on happiness instead of accepting and making room for our negative feelings, and then moving on to a valued action. This attempt to escape our negative emotions and chase happiness becomes a trap, because:
1. It takes time and uses our mental and physical resources
2. We feel inadequate when the problem inevitably returns. That is the unwanted emotions and thoughts return.
3. Our avoidance often has negative consequences.
For example if we avoid the stress of study by procrastination, if used continually, our academic performance may suffer or we may even fail our exam! By avoiding talking about an argument with our boy or girlfriend we may neglect to address issues which was necessary to save the relationship. By avoiding social interaction if we fear rejection, we miss out on meaningful relationships. Using pills and drugs to deal with anxiety may lead to addiction and financial problems.
Trying to avoid pain firstly does not make it go away. Secondly, spending time running away from things that are difficult means that there is less time to pursue what’s important and valuable in your life.
When we spend our lives trying to escape from something, there is no opportunity for fulfilment. For example we try to escape rejection by not involving ourselves in relationships - friendships or romantic. However, at the same time we don't get to enjoy all the rewards that a relationship can offer.
The opposite to avoidance is moving toward something meaningful.
Part 3 will explore the basics of Acceptance Commitment Therapy which helps you to do this.