Society tries to convince us that we can control our internal experiences. We constantly hear messages like “Don’t worry about it. Relax. Calm down.”
That’s dead wrong. Just hearing the words “Don’t worry” can make us anxious.
Telling yourself “Don’t worry” isn’t much different. The more often we think, “Don’t feel anxious you can’t feel anxious don’t be depressed don’t be sad you shouldn’t be upset” the more anxious, depressed, sad and upset we’ll become.
Let’s take a metaphor from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, developed by Hayes and Masuda, as an example of how this process works. Imagine that you’re hooked up to a very sensitive polygraph machine. This polygraph machine can pick up the slightest physiological changes that occur in your body, including any changes in heartbeat, pulse, muscle tension, sweat, or any type of minor arousal.
Now suppose I say, “Whatever you do, don’t get anxious while you’re hooked up to this highly sensitive device!”
What do you imagine might happen?
You guessed it. You’d start getting anxious.
Now suppose I pull out a gun and say, “No, seriously, whatever you do as long as you are hooked up to this polygraph machine you cannot get anxious! Otherwise, I shoot!”
You’d get extremely anxious.
Now imagine I say, “Give me your phone or I’ll shoot.”
You’d give me your phone.
Or if I say “Give me a dollar or I’ll shoot.”
You’d give me a dollar.
Although society tries to sell us the idea that we can control our internal experiences the same way we do objects in the external world, the truth is that we actually can’t. We can’t control our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, the way we can control objects in the world. In fact, the more we try to control or change our internal experiences the more out of control we feel. The more we try to get rid of distressing thoughts and feelings the stronger they become.
This is what many of us do to ourselves when we experience uncomfortable feelings. Our minds, like the polygraph machine, pick up sensations in our bodies. Then we pull out the gun against ourselves and tell ourselves not to have certain emotions. We start struggling with trying to control and eliminate certain thoughts and feelings. The more we try get rid of our experience the more they intensify.
What if we dropped the gun and were kind to ourselves instead? Thoughts and feelings shift and change like the weather. They are temporary. They intensify when we bully ourselves, and fade away with acceptance and self-compassion.
Painful feelings such as loneliness, fear, sadness, deprivation, rejection, and disappointment are an unavoidable part of life. They are just a part of being a human being. Although we don’t have control over having painful emotions that are a part of being alive, we always have control over our actions. We can always choose to respond in ways that are consistent with our values, regardless of how we feel.
We may sometimes think that our emotions force us to act a certain way. We think our emotions are in charge. They’re not. We are. We are never ever truly trapped into actions we don’t want. We can always choose to respond to our emotions in ways that leave us free.
So, how can we drop the gun and embrace all our internal experiences?
- Notice when you’re pulling out a gun on yourself — judging or struggling with your internal experience.
- Drop the struggle. Instead, give the emotion a neutral label. Say to yourself “I feel scared” or “I feel hurt.”
- Notice the sensations in your body that comes with that emotion. Stay present with the sensations. Notice the size, shape, color, and texture of the sensation.
- Drop the story in your head about “why” you’re feeling this way. Focus on sensations and feelings rather than ideas.
- Open up to the emotional experience. Practicing self-compassion and loving kindness helps us soften up to our emotional experience without pushing it away. Put your hand on your heart and speak to yourself as you would to someone you love. You might say, “This is really difficult” or “It makes sense that I feel sad now.”
- Remember we are all in this together. Think of all the people right now in this world who are feeling helpless, lonely, deprived, or rejected. You are not alone. Being human comes with pain.
Those steps are the essence of self-compassionate care. Self-compassion is embracing your humanness.
Choose self-compassion and you will be free to act in line with your values.
For now, please take this message to heart. Much of the time, you’re the one with the gun. Don’t pull out the gun and you will be free.