The world is full of options for distracting ourselves from painful emotions. Illicit and legal drugs, shoes, food, television all serve to take us away from difficulty, to improve those moments where we would otherwise encounter anxiety, boredom, or sadness. Distraction isn't all bad and is in fact quite useful when the intensity of an emotion threatens to push us toward poor choices-- maybe if I hadn't eaten that cupcake I would have written my boss an angry email outlining exactly where she could put my poor performance review. When distraction is our primary means of managing painful emotions we may find ourselves perpetuating problems rather than learning from them.
Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun originally from New York sums it up, "nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know." There are a lot of important assumptions built in to this mind blowing quote. If we replace "nothing" with "emotion", then we must believe that emotions 1) will come and go, 2) serve a purpose, and 3) that purpose is to teach us something necessary for our growth. I've never met a 3 year old, who stopped his tearful tantrum in order to thank his mother for taking away his candy. Similarly, we typically view our negative emotions as some sort of potentially never-ending punishment, as entities to be fought against, so that we can get back to our candy-- pleasant feelings, sensations, and experiences. It may feel like a great leap to see our emotions as necessary and benevolent teachers. Just as our parents had to teach us some lessons through negative reinforcement, our emotions must sometimes take on a negative charge in order for us to make changes.
How will we know when it's time to lean in rather than time to distract? The wisdom to know what needs to be done and how is always available to us if we are willing to be still long enough to hear it. But since that is such a dissatisfying answer, here's a more concrete recommendation. When you recognize a pattern, it's time to lean in. I frequently work with clients who find themselves in the same type of romantic relationships over and over again. One person realized that she consistently partners with men who need help and ultimately ends up feeling drained, taken advantage of, and rejected when the relationships fall apart. Her care taking behaviors in all of these relationships were driven by a powerful feeling of guilt. After identifying the feeling, we got to work making room for it, allowing it's messages and sensations to drift in and out during meditation. By allowing her chest to tighten and the tears to flow, as memories of caring for her alcoholic mother arose, she was able to hear the message borne by the guilt-- I am enough. She had felt the need to earn love and connection through acts of sacrifice. Without inviting her guilt in, she would have continued chasing her worth in dead end relationships.
Whether you feel anxious any time you try something new, or feel hopeless whenever you set a goal, emotional patterns provide us the opportunity to contact a greater understanding of ourselves. Rather than starting another Netflix series at the first sign of a familiar negative feeling, try opening to it with non-judgmental presence. Opening is not narrating, but experiencing. Instead of talking to yourself about why you feel the feeling, just be with it. Allow the guilt, fear, boredom, and anger a soft place to land long enough to connect with their lessons, and those difficult emotions will soon be history.
I used to get annoyed when people would make reference to lessons "the universe" was teaching them--use of the words "spiritual" and "journey" were truly cringe-inducing. All of these words are now a regular part of my vernacular. My resistance was about my disconnection and self-doubt. I am no stranger to choosing smug intellectualism over raw fear and sadness, but every time I have turned toward a feeling, I have found a sense of presence that I can only explain as the universe, or Spirit, or God showing me something I need to know.
These days the universe is trying extra hard to teach me about boundaries. In The Matrix, (nerd alert!) the Auricle tells Neo that he shouldn't worry about the vase he is about to break, but that what will really "bake his noodle" is whether it would have happened if she hadn't said anything. So maybe I see boundary issues with my clients because I'm looking for them, but maybe the issues are there to be seen. Boundaries with parents at all levels of dysfunction and dysregulation, boundaries with bosses and friends-- everywhere I turn there seem to be people struggling to find their voices, validate their pain, or stop feeling resentful. These are all boundary tasks.
Brenè Brown said it best when she defined a boundary as a line between what is ok and what is not ok. This is one of those practices that is simple but not easy. We struggle to let others know what is ok and what is not ok for so many reasons. With functional parents, we are navigating the difficult terrain of longstanding power differentials-- I can't tell my mom it's not ok to come over without calling, that would be disrespectful! With friends, we are struggling with how much we can ask for or say no to without damaging the relationship. With a dysregulated parent we may be weighing the possible punishments we will incur if we don't bend to the parent's will, and are likely fighting longstanding patterns of guild-induced helplessness. So many factors shape our willingness and perceived ability to give voice to our wants and needs.
My boundary struggle is about fear and a "not good enough" narrative. When someone is testing or pushing a boundary I feel my chest tighten, my face harden, and fear begins to take over my being. If I lean in to that, I see all the times my needs were minimized or dismissed, all the experiences that taught me it is not ok to disappoint, disagree, or disengage. These experiences planted a seed that my worth is about my ability to make others happy, and I have been trying to rip out that taproot for a while now. It continues to be challenging to separate my desire to act in kindness from my training as "a good girl." Conversely I find it easy to overshoot on boundary setting, engaging anger as a means of feeling powerful enough to make my point.
One issue that arises frequently is mistaking a boundary goal with a validation goal. Sometimes we draw a line in the sand, not to define what is ok/not ok, but as bid for understanding. We don't just want our friend to talk about something other than her horrible life, we also want her to understand why that is tiresome and straining to the relationship. Boundaries can be set and maintained without explicit communication. Validation requires voice, and we often go hoarse asking for validation from unwilling or incapable sources. When we feel that someone must hear us and make changes in order to move past a feeling or an experience, we are handing our power to that person in a way that will inevitably leave us feeling ineffective. When we use our voices to demand respect and validation, we actually undermine the very boundaries we are trying to establish. We weave a connection and create a dependence on the other person when we hitch our happiness to their understanding.
I think the best we can do in embracing our boundaries is to 1) Identify the barriers to truth within ourselves-- the memories, the restrictive self-definitions, the negative feelings we seek to avoid 2) Get quiet and still enough to connect with our inherent wisdom and 3) prepare to be kind to ourselves when we screw up. Boundary setting skills are contextual and constantly in flux. Maybe it's ok that I can ask my boss confidently not to call me on weekends, but quiver at the thought of asking my partner to acknowledge the work I do around the house. If we are expecting to flip the switch to perfect, painless boundaries, we will get in our own way. I wish I could say it gets easier, but I just don't know that yet.
Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that feel a lot like emotional quick sand--it seems no matter what we do, we are unable to alleviate our pain. Painful situations are a natural part of human experience, and are occasionally unavoidable. For these times when we feel stuck in a miserable situation, Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills of distress tolerance can help us to ride the waves of negative experience without added suffering.
Quicksand Survival 101: While I have never personally been so unlucky as to find myself in actual quicksand, it seems like common knowledge that the more we struggle against the quicksand, the faster we go under. Painful experiences such as going through a break up, receiving bad medical news, or financial problems follow this rule as well--the more we fight against the reality of what is, the less likely we are to be effective at managing the situation. DBT offers four ways of addressing a problematic situation to avoid struggling against painful realities:
1. Solve the problem: Struggling against the quicksand is not to be confused with calling for help, grabbing for a branch, or otherwise maneuvering out of the situation. The latter options are all reasonable responses that directly address the problem. When we find out that our spouse is considering leaving, for example, struggling might look like drinking to avoid tough conversations, while problem solving might involve suggesting that our spouse come to couples counseling with us. Which leads us to...
2. Accepting the situation: Some level of acceptance is required to address any distressing situation. We cannot fix that which we do not acknowledge to be real. When no problem solving option is available however, we can call upon the skill of acceptance to reduce the suffering associated with refusing to acknowledge a problem. Sometimes just allowing space for all the feelings that show up with a bad situation helps us to move through the problem more effectively.
3. Change the way you think: This strategy goes beyond deciding that the glass is half full when it seems half empty. When we change our perspective on a problem, we empower ourselves beyond the constraints of the situation. Deciding to see an injury right before a big race as an opportunity for developing self-acceptance may seem superficial, but it can make a tremendous difference in the level of negative emotion we experience. A change of perspective does not mean that we don't acknowledge the painful feelings that might arise from our initial interpretation of a situation, but rather that we choose to water the seeds of thinking that we feel will benefit us most significantly.
4. Stay miserable: The option to keep thrashing against the quicksand is always available to us. It is important to acknowledge that staying miserable is to an extent a choice, and not a direct result of the circumstances. Are some experiences inherently painful? Absolutely! However, the suffering associated with refusing to acknowledge a problem that is already there is avoidable with the three steps above.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has a long history of being the treatment of choice for Borderline Personality Disorder, a highly stigmatized diagnosis characterized by frequent suicide attempts and chaotic relationships. But DBT skills can help anyone engage more mindfully in daily life, as well as communicate and manage stress more effectively. For the next few weeks, I'll present a different DBT skill and discuss how these skills can be applied to everyday problems.
Types of Mind: Emotion, Rational, Wise
We've all had moments when something that we absolutely, unequivocally believed to be true, turned out to be less than true. I like to call this the Santa Claus Effect (feel free to substitute your mythical figure of choice here), and I use it to describe situations in which we mistake feelings for facts or vice versa. This phenomenon can show up when we firmly believe that someone intended us harm by cutting us off in traffic, when we evaluate our abilities based on isolated and typically negative examples, or when we ignore our gut feelings about a taking a job because it was the practical thing to do. When we are impacted by the Santa Claus Effect, we are unable to identify the difference between our thoughts and our experience, but it's possible to learn the difference. Here's where the DBT principle of types of mind comes in handy.
DBT theory suggests that there are three types of mind: Emotion, Rational, and Wise. Emotion mind includes feelings like anger, compassion, and fear, but it also encompasses judgments ("this room is too cold", "I'm not good at math", "the clouds are beautiful", etc). Rational mind describes objective perception after you strip away all the layers of judgment (this room is 67 degrees Farenheit, I got a 40 on the last math test, the clouds are cumulus). From these examples, it's apparent that both of these types of mind are important; without rational mind, we would have difficulty interacting with the world in concrete, practical ways, but without emotion mind, we would be devoid of the experiences of beauty and love. Wise mind offers a combination of both rational and emotion mind. Through wise mind, we acknowledge that both facts and feelings have valid information about our experience, which allows us to hold seemingly opposing realities in the same mental space (I feel like I'm not good at math, and one test is not representative of my overall ability). When we combine facts with feelings, we let go of the struggle for one side of our brain to be right and the other to be wrong.
So how do we engage wise mind? We build awareness. When we practice noticing our thinking and asking ourselves what sort of mind we're using, we hone our abilities to accurately label our thoughts as rational, emotional, or wise. This awareness allows us to make choices about which thoughts we buy in to, and which thoughts we put back on the shelf. When the familiar thought "I'm not smart enough to apply for this job" shows up, we ask ourselves if this is truly a representation of objective fact, or if this is a judgment that is so familiar it feels true. We then ask "what would wise mind say?", which allows me to make room for negative judgments without acting on them compulsively. "I'm not smart enough" may feel true, and I can't get the job I don't apply for. This quick step of thinking about my thinking introduces the space to break out of patterns of behavior build on negative judgment and emotional invalidation.
If you use DBT's three types of mind, please leave me a comment about how it's worked for you. If you're having trouble applying this skill, mention that too!
It's 9 am, you're alarm went off 2 hours ago, and you are lying there, seemingly paralyzed by fatigue despite 12 hours in bed. One voice in your head tells you that if you don't get up now, you'll be late to work for the third time this month, which will likely result in losing your job. But the depression says "I can't." "I can't muster the energy to get out of bed, much less go through all the motions required to get me out the door to work."
Lack of motivation, fatigue, and hopelessness are all symptoms that most folks could rattle off as indicators of depression, but what does that mean on a day-to-day level? Those symptoms translate into scenarios such as the one above and are a complicated mix of biological, emotional, environmental, and cognitive factors. So let's break it down:
Biological: Our brains depend upon a delicate balance of neurotransmitters to regulate our emotions, appetite, and sleep. When these chemical messengers are out of whack due to depression, our appetites may increase or slump, our sleep may become disrupted, and our emotions may take a turn to the dark side.
Emotional: Our emotional experiences aren't just the product of our chemical processes alone however, and are a driving force in depression in their own right. When we are feeling negative emotions such as sadness, grief, or hopelessness, it is actually more difficult to access positive memories and to engage in positive thinking. This creates a nasty feedback loop that makes it difficult for us to do the kinds of things that might improve our mood because we find it difficult to think or feel that anything would do any good.
Environmental: Sometimes, it's not US, it's the environment. In the example above, our friend with depression is fearful that she will lose her job if she is late. This could be a realistic appraisal of the situation and would understandably cause stress. Throw in a passive-aggressive co-worker, long commute to work, and living in an impoverished area and you've got a veritable depression soup of environmental risk factors. If we think of ourselves as goldfish and our worlds as the water we live in, it can help us gain some perspective on how important environments are to our mental health. Just as you wouldn't expect a goldfish to last long if you poured formaldehyde in his little water world, we humans can be just as impacted by the experiences we have in our larger, less watery fish bowl. Identifying environmental toxins (unhealthy relationships, exposure to violence, constant criticism, processed food, etc.) can be extremely helpful in minimizing the impact of depression.
Cognitive: This refers to the way we think, which is very different than the way we feel. While emotions and cognitions have an important impact on each other they are not the same. Depression interferes with our ability to generate positive thoughts or appraisals of situations as they happen. So where a non-depressed person may think "I've been late to work before, and my boss was understanding," the depressed person may have difficulty even accessing the memory of previous positive interactions with her boss, which may result in an assumption that things will go badly.
Recognizing the many layers of depression is an important step in effectively treating it. Addressing emotional distress by learning skills for emotion regulation, relaxation, and perspective taking can help with the often crippling negative feelings. Identifying environmental stressors gives us an opportunity to work towards changing what we can, and and accepting what we can't. It also helps us to let go of some of the shame and blame that often comes with feeling depressed when we can spot some outside influences on our mood. Cognitive change takes practice, but is possible. The more aware we become of the thoughts that cause us harm, the thoughts that help, and ultimately the transitory nature of all thoughts, the more power we have to live in the moment and not get caught up in whatever story our depression is trying to tell us.
As an expecting first time mother, I am becoming aware of a level of worry that I had previously scoffed at. Will my son be destined for diabetes if I eat at Bojangles every now and then during pregnancy? What if I watch The Walking Dead and inadvertently cause him stress-hormone induced in utero trauma!? Whether we are parents, siblings, friends, or coworkers however, we tend to worry for people we care about. But is it helpful?
Worry is essentially anxiety in action. We experience the emotion of anxiety when we feel that a potential threat or loss is imminent, and we engage in worry as a means of managing that anxiety. Worry is the story line for anxiety, filling in the gaps of our present moment experience with fearful predictions of what will happen next. Unfortunately, all this mental effort seldom results in meaningful action. If you check in with your own worry history, how often has it actually helped? The more time we spend talking to ourselves about what might happen, the less time we devote to addressing what is happening in this very moment.
What we may not be aware of when we are caught up in the drama of our worry is that beneath the worry is a well of compassion. Test this out: Have you ever worried about something or someone that you didn't care about? Probably not. Inherent in worry is a desire for some situation involving some person we care about to be better than it is, which is a powerfully compassionate thought. So perhaps we can dig down past the worry to the compassion beneath in a way that both makes us more effective at managing difficulties and more at peace.
When worry arises ("What if I get a flat tire on the way to work?" "What if my marriage fails?" "What if my sister never leaves her abusive boyfriend?"), try to tap in to the compassion beneath. We can do this by first noticing how the anxiety feels in our bodies. Is it a humming energy or a sense of tension in the neck or chest? When we identify the physical elements of the feeling, we can then nurture that discomfort with kind words ("It's hard to care about something or someone and see them hurting" or "I feel this worry because I care for this person or want the best for myself"). We might then ask ourselves in this more aware, more accepting state whether or not there is anything to be done about the source of the worry. If we are worried that our tire will go flat because we haven't had them rotated in 3 years, we can address that worry directly by calling for an appointment with a mechanic. If we are worried that our father is going to relapse on alcohol again, we might remind ourselves that our father's behavior is beyond our control and attend compassionately to the distress that arises from not being able to fix people we care about.
Ultimately, worry is wasted energy--it doesn't change the past and does little to effectively address problems that arise in the present. As an alternative to worry, we can access our compassionate action--making changes mindfully where we can, and gently accepting and nurturing ourselves through those situations that do not allow for change.
Dr. Candice Creasman
Therapist, author, and counselor educator. Articles with tips and tools for living your most authentic and joyful life.