As a child, were you ever afraid that there was a monster under your bed? Think back to that time . . . How did it feel? Were you terrified, anxious, or worried? How did you respond? Did you pull the covers over your eyes and try to pretend that the monster wasn’t there? Did you listen to music, read a book, or try to distract yourself from the fear? Did you lay awake trying to convince yourself that the monster wasn’t real?
Our reaction to the monsters in our past can be a lot like our response to experiencing pain and discomfort as we get older. We fear it, try to avoid it, distract ourselves from it, push it away, and hide from it . . . This is our natural response to an aversive stimuli. If you touch a hot stove, you pull away your hand. If you are being chased by a dangerous animal, you run away or play dead. These responses work in our external world and help us survive against threats to our safety and well-being. So it only makes sense that we respond similarly to our internal world, especially when we experience difficult and painful emotions.
Yet we can’t escape our internal world and all emotions are a part of the human experience, including those that are difficult or painful. In their pursuit of happiness, human beings go to great lengths to avoid discomfort and pain – sometimes at great cost to themselves (i.e. financially, physically, mentally, socially). If given a choice, who would choose to feel depressed, sad, angry, afraid, or anxious? Yet when we try to push away, avoid, or hide from our difficult and painful emotions – they often become stronger and more persistent. And if we do find a way to numb our pain and discomfort – we end up numbing all of our emotions – including those that are pleasant and joyful.
To illustrate how avoidance tactics increase our pain and suffering – think back to that time as a kid when you tried to hide from or forget about the monster under the bed. No matter how hard you tried or what you did; the monster most likely became all you could think about and your fear grew and grew . . . And then at some point you built up the courage to look under the bed . . . And what did you find? A crumpled up t-shirt or a forgotten toy? You had to move toward your fear and look under the bed to see the monster for what it was . . . and only then could you go to sleep.
Looking at sources of pain and discomfort in our lives is similar to looking at the monster, in that we may find that our emotions are manageable and possibly even a helpful source of information. More importantly, moving towards the pain and discomfort takes power away from the source of distress and allows us to make space for it in our lives. Accepting painful and difficult emotions opens us up to discovering our capacity to cope, our resilience, and the knowledge that all emotions come and go and are part of a vital life.
The video below provides an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) method for accepting emotions.
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