Often when we experience strong emotions our primary goal is to GET AWAY from the feelings. We may not consciously realize this, but that is exactly why we dive headlong into 7 hours of Netflix and 4 drinks!
As survivors, our natural predisposition is to strong emotional responses (see why here). Thus, we can find ourselves stuck in reaction and coping- rather than healing.
In order to make the shift, we need to learn 3 new skills.
Skill 1: Accept reality- you will have negative emotions
Often, when we begin our healing journey, our primary goal is to ‘feel less’ anxious, depressed, afraid, sad etc. This makes perfect sense. These experiences are hard.
Behaviorist theory tells us that living things will seek pleasure and avoid pain. It is simple biology. However, as survivors, we must endure hard things to heal. We must look at our past. We must make changes to our beliefs, our habits and our environment. None of this work is easy or pleasurable, but it is also the only way to a life we truly love.
Thus, a primary skill we must learn is to be okay with negative experiences coming up.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy speaks to this directly. In this model, they ask us to imagine the life we want as a castle on a hill. Surrounding the castle are bogs, and scary forests, and high cliffs. We know we will have to face and surpass these challenges to reach our final destination.
Skill 2: Acting in Spite of
We cannot get rid of difficulties in life. Thus, rather than trying to have less difficult experiences- we must learn how to act ‘in spite of them’.
We can waste years because things don’t feel right, or because the voice in our head has told us all the reasons not to. We then turn to tools like alcohol, avoidance and distraction to get rid of these experiences.
Another foundational skill is to learn how to act in line with our goals, even when we have negative thoughts and feelings.
ACT doesn’t promise us that these will go away. Instead it asks, ‘are you willing to take action even with these unpleasant things being present?’
Skill 3: Break your patterns
Running away from difficult sensations is a behavioral pattern. It is simply something we have learned. However, many patterns keep us stuck in a feedback loops that make change very difficult.
Consider the typical emotional avoidance loop:
We have a difficult experience, which leads to a strong emotion. To escape this, we run headlong into substances, distraction and self-destructive practices. When we come out of the reaction; we are left with the self loathing, regret and pain of our actions while coping. This in turn becomes its own negative experience, and the entire cycle repeats. By running and coping, we are condemning ourselves to more and more negative emotions. Further, the longer we stay in this cycle the more our self respect and self esteem is eroded.
Learning how to break our patterns is necessary to free ourselves from these cycles of negativity. Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘that’s why I’m here! Tell me how to do it!’
The post next week will walk you through the process!