“Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” – William James
When we experience emotional suffering, it is natural to want it to “stop.” There is often a tendency to want to avoid unpleasant feelings because we believe that experiencing them will make us feel worse. The result is often a denial or overcontrol of those unpleasant feelings. We are taught in our Western culture that feeling angry, depressed, or anxious is “bad” and that feeling happy, joyous, and optimistic is “good.” An unintended consequence of this line of thinking is that we end up feeling much worse than we really need to when painful feelings occur (which is inevitable).
The word “happiness” itself is an incredibly loaded term. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to be happy. The underlying belief is often that happiness means “feeling good.” This just isn’t natural. No one “feels good” all of the time. When we get stuck in the mindset that we are somehow supposed to be feeling good all (or even most) of the time, we set ourselves up for disappointment and unnecessary suffering.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) teaches us that “it’s not about feeling good; it’s about feeling what you feel without a struggle.” Part of being a human being means to experience a rich diversity and range of emotional experiences. This wide range of emotions gives life its color, beauty, and nuance. Without the willingness to feel what you truly feel, you are denying yourself the opportunity of a dynamic emotional life.
ACT is built upon the foundation of “workability.” This means that each behavior is evaluated on the basis of whether or not it is improving or limiting your quality of life. Sometimes control works. Consider the benefits of being able to implement self-control strategies to maintain an exercise routine or to avoid eating junk food. These are examples of how control can serve a positive, life-enhancing function. Control becomes ineffective when it is directed towards the overcontrol of emotions.
Behaviors & Values
Begin to reflect on the motivation behind your behavioral choices. Are you exercising because it makes you feel healthy and increases your sense of vitality? Or, are you exercising because you are avoiding painful emotions or are punishing yourself in some way? ACT focuses on the idea that life is richer and more meaningful when it is guided by behaviors that are in line with your true values. This means that behaviors are guided by values rather than experiential avoidance.
In what ways are your behaviors in line with your values? How do your chosen behaviors enrich your life and increase the richness of your emotional experience? Consider changing the behaviors that are really about controlling emotions or avoiding unwanted experiences or feelings. You can begin to notice what these behaviors are by examining your motivation for engaging in them and noticing how you feel after you do them. Do you feel alive, content, and peaceful? Or, do you feel emotionally numb, depressed, or drained?
Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Exercise
ACT offers a very simple three question exercise to get you thinking about your own pattern of controlling unwanted thoughts and feelings.
Identify the Agenda of Emotional Control
As you reflect upon these questions, call to mind a recent problem or event with which you are struggling. Ideally, reflect upon an event that has resulted in thoughts or emotions that you want to “go away.”
(1) What have you tried to get rid of these difficult thoughts and feelings?
What control strategies have you implemented to try to deal with the painful thoughts and feelings? Perhaps you have simply tried to block them out of your mind at all costs, yet you find that they keep “popping up” in an intrusive manner. Or maybe you are trying to control your unpleasant internal experience through feeling “numb” emotionally or avoiding people and places that remind you of the problem. For some people, they may try to “forget” about the unwanted thoughts or feelings through abusing drugs or alcohol, which typically serves to amplify the orignal problem as well as creating all new problems.
(2) How has it worked in the long run?
Reflect upon how the control strategies that you have been using have worked for you. Have your attempts to avoid the unpleasant thoughts and feelings resulted in less internal distress and suffering? Has your choice to numb yourself through drugs or alcohol made the problem go away? Has your avoidance of people and places that remind you of the problem resulted in you feeling any better? Be honest with yourself about what control strategies have worked and not worked. Notice what benefits have you received from all forms of control and avoidance.
(3) What has it cost you when you have over-relied on these methods?
What have the consequences been from your attempts at controlling the unpleasant thoughts and feelings? What have the costs been to your relationships, health, job, and emotional well-being as a result of your control attempts? Notice how you feel after you engage in whatever control strategy you have been using. How does it make you feel when you emotionally “check out” from painful thoughts and feelings? What have the consequences been to your relationships as a result of your emotional avoidance? How would things be different if you chose to confront the painful thoughts and emotions directly?
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Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
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