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The Art of Not Knowing

The Art of Not Knowing

Having goals, dreams and desires implies looking forward and planning ahead. However, focus on the future is often accompanied by worries about hypothetical situations. Indeed, the things we care about the most are often ambiguous and unknowable. Because humans are hard-wired to prefer certainty to uncertainty, we experience this ambiguity as highly uncomfortable, even distressing. Considering that the future is uncertain and that being faced with the unknown is uncomfortable, we tend to develop strategies to avoid or reduce uncertainty. These may work in the short term. When intolerance to uncertainty becomes the rule, however, striving to eliminate it altogether paradoxically contributes to increased anxiety and suffering, and ultimately impedes our ability to reach our goals (Dugas, Gosselin & Ladouceur, 2001).

According to Kelly Wilson and Troy Dufrene, authors of Things May Go Horribly Terribly Wrong (a perfect title for a book on uncertainty), the first step to changing the way we relate to the unknown is to become aware of the myriad strategies we engage in to neutralize ambiguity (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).

The list below may be helpful to begin thinking about which intolerance to uncertainty tactics we engage in the most and to prompt reflection on what uncertainty means to us.

1. Observe: How do I relate to uncertainty?

Approach Strategies:

  • Worrying to “solve” uncertainty. Worries are often plans, predictions and preparations for hypothetical situations that are ultimately ambiguous and unknown. It may feel “productive” to worry, but when the topic of worry is out of one’s control, such as for future events, worrying about it becomes an “intolerance to uncertainty strategy” and only leads to more worry.

  • Reassurance seeking. Asking for reassurance and seeking advice are also common ways to dispel uncertainty and to attempt to “feel certain”. Ex: Asking a loved one if they love you multiple times a day, asking multiple sources about an upcoming decision, getting second and third opinions…

  • Searching online. Digital and social media technology provides the luxury of quick and easy access to unlimited answers to our innumerable everyday questions. Through immediate and constant access to information, technology use in many contexts can take the form of reassurance seeking and, ultimately, reduces spontaneous daily exposure to uncertainty. Recent research actually shows that intolerance to uncertainty is a rising phenomenon that correlates with the rise of digital technology such as smartphones. Ex: Googling health questions as they occur, searching through someone’s or one’s own social media, excessive online-researching before making a decision (Carleton et. al, 2019).

  • Double checking. Double-checking may also easily become triple-checking or more. Ex: Repetitive checking of one’s bank account and email, repetitive-checking that the door is locked, double-checking the route to get to a destination.

  • Perfectionism, not delegating and overprotecting. To reduce uncertainty and to gain a sense of control, some may try to do everything themselves, over-prepare and not delegate to others. This may also take the form of perfectionistic tendencies relating to the idea that if everything is perfect, the outcome will be predictable and positive. People may also apply these strategies in the context of their relationships with significant others by being overprotective and doing things for them.

Avoidance Strategies

  • Procrastinating, choosing not to choose and indecisiveness. Putting off beginning a task that has uncertain outcomes. Will I be able to succeed? Am I good enough? Having trouble making decisions that have unclear outcomes and that include uncertain elements. These strategies may serve to minimize one’s experience of the discomfort of not knowing (Rassin & Murris, 2005).

  • Avoiding new opportunities. Avoidance of the experience of uncertainty may take the form of avoiding new experiences altogether. Ex: turning down a promotion for fear of not being good enough, not going to a party with new friends, not travelling to unknown places.

  • Cognitive avoidance. Efforts to not think about uncertain topics until it is absolutely necessary.

Beliefs about uncertainty

  • It feels irresponsible or dangerous for there to be uncertainty in life.

  • Uncertainty means that something bad will happen.

  • Belief that you cannot tolerate not knowing how things will go (“I will not be able to manage”).

  • Feeling that it is preferable to be certain that an outcome will be bad, than to not know the outcome.

As mentioned, everyone uses some of these strategies some of the time. Intolerance to uncertainty becomes most problematic when reliance on these types of strategies interferes with what’s most important to us.

2. Observe and notice: What are the costs?

The second step is to become aware of how regular use of these strategies interferes with one’s goals, relationships and general wellbeing. We may ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Are worries about the future getting in the way of my enjoyment of the present moment?

  • How much time am I spending trying to “solve” uncertainty? What else could I be doing?

  • What meaningful experiences am I avoiding or putting off due to intolerance to uncertainty?

  • Does my intolerance to uncertainty affect my relationships with loved ones?

3. Observe, notice and feel: Sitting with it. The final step implies doing the opposite of efforts to move away from uncertainty. In fact, it involves leaning into it and requires the willingness to experience its discomfort. If the only thing that is certain in life is that life is fundamentally uncertain, then acceptance of uncertainty, in all its discomfort, is necessary. Allowing oneself to simply experience ambiguity is not to love it, but to learn that it is both uncomfortable and tolerable.

  • How to sit with uncertainty? When resisting the urge to engage in strategies to reduce uncertainty, take a moment to explore your internal experience. Identify what you are feeling. Observe the sensations in your body, notice the feeling of your breath. Notice your thoughts. Remember, no matter how intense your thoughts and emotions become, they are temporary and they will pass. It may be helpful to remind yourself of the following coping statements: “This too shall pass”, “I do not know and it is okay”, “It is uncomfortable and I can feel it”, “It is uncertain, I do not need to solve it”.

  • For more information on sitting with difficult emotions, see this blog post.

4. Be flexible. The objective of these steps is not to eliminate our response of discomfort towards uncertainty. It is alright and normal to worry and feel anxiety at times. Rather, the objective is to become aware of how consistent efforts to not feel discomfort get in the way of engaging in experiences that are unknowable and likely to also be highly meaningful such as connecting with others and moving towards goals (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).

Building tolerance to uncertainty is like strengthening a muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger it becomes!


Rhea Marshall-Denton is a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and a therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Carleton, R. N., Desgagné, G., Krakauer, R., & Hong, R. Y. (2019). Increasing intolerance of uncertainty over time: the potential influence of increasing connectivity. Cognitive behaviour therapy, 48(2), 121-136.

Dugas, M. J., Gosselin, P., & Ladouceur, R. (2001). Intolerance of uncertainty and worry: Investigating specificity in a nonclinical sample. Cognitive therapy and Research, 25(5), 551-558.

Rassin, E., & Muris, P. (2005). Indecisiveness and the interpretation of ambiguous situations. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(7), 1285-1291.

Wilson, K. G., & Dufrene, T. (2010). Things might go terribly, horribly wrong: A guide to life liberated from anxiety. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Getting Grounded and Showing Up for You

Getting Grounded and Showing Up for You

Photo by  Jen Loong  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jen Loong on Unsplash

Whether it’s our to-do lists, a frustrating conversation we had earlier in the day, the constant nagging temptation to check our phones, the guilt over not exercising enough, worries about our loved ones, etc., our thoughts and feelings may be pulling us in various directions all day long. I find it’s easy to get lost among all this chatter, and when I say lost, I mean lose myself and lose sight of what is important to me. Instead of acting based on what I really want and what’s healthy for me, I feel like I have no solid centre and am stuck in reacting mode.

I try to counter this reactive, uncentred way of being by “getting grounded”. I hear the term “getting grounded” often, and to be honest, I’m not sure if it means the same thing to everyone. I’m defining here what it means to me, and hopefully it’s helpful to you too. I think of getting grounded as getting out of the ruminating/worrying/spinning/not constructive thinking that is happening in my head, pausing, and paying attention to what is happening in my body, without judgment. By getting out of my head and dropping into my body, and noticing the sensations that are there, not only do I have more of sense of a centre, of being grounded, but I am more likely to be in touch with what is going on with me, the emotions I’m feeling, the motivations that are driving me, etc. By paying attention to myself in this way, I’m able to get unstuck from distractions and negative thought patterns and show up for myself in a mindful, and maybe even loving manner.

There are plenty of tips out there for “getting grounded” or what clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach might call “the sacred pause”. For example, you might meditate, go for a walk in the forest, or do some yoga. I’ve outlined a simple “getting grounded” technique here that you can do in your every day life, during your busy day.

Pause and Pay Attention

  1. Pause

  2. Drop into your body and notice what is happening there. Notice the sensations in your body (e.g., muscle tension, tingling, heaviness, pressure).

  3. If you have trouble getting in touch with your body, simply try noticing your breath as it travels in through your nose, down your throat, and into your lungs.

  4. Keep breathing and noticing, without judgment and with curiousity.

  5. Proceed

This is a pretty “bare-bones” technique, but I’ve kept it that way intentionally. The purpose of this technique is to simply get us to pause and notice, to check in with ourselves. It may take some practice, but from this place of groundedness and attentiveness, we will likely be better able to recognize what we need to move forward in a way that is healthy and nourishing for us and for those around us.


Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Baer, R. A., & Krietemeyer, J. (2006). Overview of mindfulness- and acceptance-based treatment approaches. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications (pp. 3–27). San Diego, CA: Elsevier

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy to read primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

Resources

3 Simple Mindfulness Practices for Coping with Difficult Experiences and Emotions in Day-to-Day Life by Dr. Natsumi Sawada

A Shout Out to Simply Noticing by Dr. Danit Nitka

Be Here Now… But How? 3 Steps Towards Experiencing Life More Fully by Dr. Maryann Joseph  

Stressing Out? S.T.O.P. by Dr. Elisha Goldstein

Back to the Present! One Time-Travelling Hack To Be Here Now

Back to the Present! One Time-Travelling Hack To Be Here Now

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Do you remember the DeLorean travelling through time in the Back To The Future movies? This post is going to be just like that...only different.

In my last post, I wrote a bit about how my experience as a mom to newborn twins was, um, how shall I put this, an effective new form of psychological torture not quite how I had pictured it was going to be. My mind slipped into functional zombie mode and I felt like I was flipping past chapters of my own life.

Time rushed by but I was tangled up too far away to notice all the casual magic unfolding around me. I needed to find my way back to the present. Back to the NOW.

Contact with the present moment

Contact with the present moment is a core aspect of mindfulness and a key skill we practice in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It's about being fully here now, even for a moment. It's being consciously and flexibly aware of our inner and outer world, as opposed to the very common state of being tuned-out of our experience or caught inside certain thoughts and feelings.

You can check out my last post about contacting the present moment to see if you might benefit from this skill. It also covers three basic steps to get you started, plus a brief practical exercise that you can do anywhere, anytime to reconnect with the moment using your physical senses. That exercise is essentially a “bottom-up” approach; we start with all the little sensory building blocks of experience to build up to a more richly detailed picture of here-now.

Presently, I'd like to share a complementary “top-down” approach; we start with whatever is precious to you in the big picture of your life to come into closer contact with little elements of the current moment that may otherwise be flying under the radar.

To The DeLorean!!!

To practice this “top-down” way of contacting the present moment, we can start by packing for a little time-travelling exercise. We can travel light. Start with your intention to make better contact with the present moment and just add the following 3 concepts to your inner carry-on bag:

1) Hedonia and Eudaimonia

Think of hedonia and eudaimonia as two separate but interconnected paths to well-being. A hedonic orientation involves seeking happiness, positive feelings, life satisfaction, and reduced negative feelings. On the other hand, a eudaimonic orientation includes seeking meaning, authenticity, excellence, and personal growth (Huta & Waterman, 2013).

Basically, there are many difficult moments in which you might not feel happy, but in which you might find some sense of personal meaning (Frankl, 1963). In ACT we explore this by not getting too hung up on a perpetual search for pleasant feelings (nor a constant mission to avoid unpleasant feelings), asking instead, “Who and what is important to you?”

2) Acceptance

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”
--Eckhart Tolle

For me, this quote captures something essential to mindfulness and the capacity to be present in the here and now.

In ACT, acceptance is the idea that instead of playing tug-of-war with challenging elements of your experience, you can choose to “drop the struggle”. The key idea here is to accept and then act so that you work with the moment and not against it.

3) Shift Perspectives on the Present Moment

One way to shift perspectives on a situation is to wonder what it looks like from a different point of view, taking on the vantage point of a different person, a different place, or a different time.

ACT encourages us to shift perspectives as a means of increasing psychological flexibility (i.e., having awareness and responses that are more adapted to a given situation and more in line with your values). Compassion-focused therapy (CFT; Gilbert, 2010) encourages shifts in perspective as a means of increasing self-compassion (relating to yourself with kindness and non-judgment).

That's why this next video blows my mind. It's an incredibly poignant perspective shift:

“We take it for granted that life moves forward. But you move as a rower moves, facing backwards—you can see where you've been, but not where you're going. And your boat is steered by a younger version of you. It's hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way…” – John Koenig, Avenoir, Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Koenig's brilliant video points out that we naturally look at where we are in relation to where we have previously been. He offers a seismic shift in perspective by wondering what the present moment would look like to your older future self, with all of your additional life experience already within you.

 

Well. The DeLorean is fully charged now and you have all you need to hit 88 miles an hour. So let's put it together and experiment, shall we? Drawn from ACT and CFT, may I present:

The Back-to-the-Present Time Travel Hack!   

Imagine that one day, far far ahead in the future, there is a much older, much wiser, more compassionate Future You. Future You has lived your whole life and knows every page, every chapter, start to finish. Intriguingly, Future You can time travel (!) and specifically chooses to come back to this very moment, right here, right now.

What challenging elements of your current experience can Future You see with wise, compassionate understanding? (e.g., difficult thoughts/feelings/sensations?) 

What important sensory elements of the present moment does Future You want to experience one last time? (e.g., what is meaningful or precious to you in this moment and how do you experience that with your senses?)     

What does Future You want to do right here, right now? (e.g.,Is there something Future You wanted to tell you? Perhaps there is something Future You wanted to do again? Perhaps there is something Future You needed to go back and do differently?)

I challenge you to give it a whirl yourself right now or anytime you want to practice contacting the present moment, especially in a moment that is a bit challenging for you on some level. Notice what might shift in terms of your sensory, mental, and emotional focus of attention.*

I was trying not to let this post get too long, so consider that the end of the official post!

You've got the goods now. But of course you're welcome to read on if you'd like an example of how it all played out in my case:

Original Experience of The Moment: Scene 1 Take 1

It's the middle of the night and I feel like I've been awake for eons. I'm standing in a dark room just big enough for two cribs, trying to block out the grating sonic loop of two babies bawling in tandem. The twins are a few months old and it's a particularly difficult night.

It goes like this: I pick up baby 1, eventually soothe her, put her down, pick up baby 2, eventually soothe her, put her down; meanwhile baby 1 is crying again, and rinse, repeat, on and on. I feel hopelessly inadequate to mother these two at the same time and I just want all the crying to stop.

Sensory focus of attention: 

  • hearing crying
  • seeing darkness
  • feeling physical exhaustion

Mental/emotional focus of attention: 

  • trying to block out the crying and wanting it to stop
  • thinking I will be stuck here for ever
  • thinking I'm failing them during a critical developmental period
  • thinking I'm not meeting the needs of either baby and it will screw them up for life
  • feeling hopeless and inadequate
  • feeling the heartbreak and guilt of not being able to give each of them my undivided time and attention in their time of distress

Back to the Present! Scene 1 Take 2

Then I imagined Future Me choosing (whaaaat?!) to come back to this very moment and everything started to shift. Wise Old Future Me saw my exhaustion and feelings of inadequacy with compassionate, understanding eyes. Then she just went straight to drinking in what she knew to be the ephemeral beauty of the situation: me standing upright in my relatively young, strong body, holding the girls in their temporarily tiny form.

Sensory focus of attention via Future Me:

  • the soft warmth of baby skin, especially the top of their heads
  • the tiny dimensions of their small delicate bodies, especially their hands
  • a decrease in my muscle tension
  • noticing the vitality still coursing through my middle-aged body and holding me upright
  • special shout out to the strength in my arms and legs

Mental/emotional focus of attention via Future Me: 

  • feeling a strong sense of surprise and wonder at how tiny the babies are (after all, I was used to seeing them as the biggest they have ever been relative to The Past)
  • feeling waves of gratitude for another moment with my babies
  • thinking the cries no longer sound so loud and so laced with reproaches--rather they have a certain nostalgic sweetness somehow

Soaking up all the parts of the present experience from Future Me's point of view, my harsh judgments dropped away. Instead of wasting my time struggling against feelings of inadequacy or trying to block out the crying, I instinctively shimmied a little closer to what is truly precious to me.

It was the difference between pulling away from the discomfort of a challenging moment and the willingness to lean in and experience it.

From the outside not much looked different. The epic crying relay continued on. But on the inside, if only for a limited time, it made all the difference in the world. It was a radical gear-shift out of zombie auto-pilot and back into my own experience. Back to The Present!

 

(*Figurative DeLorean and flux capacitor included. Some psychological flexibility may ensue. See your own experience for details.)


Maryann Joseph is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

Forsyth, J. P. & Eifert, G. H. (2007). The mindfulness and acceptance workbook for anxiety: A guide to breaking free from anxiety, phobias, and worry using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. [This is a great ACT self-help workbook and there are others in the series, e.g., for depression.]

Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Washington Square Press. [A poignant classic, as relevant today as ever.]

Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy: Distinctive features. New York: Routledge. [A richly theoretical clinician's guide to CFT.]

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy to read primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. [This is an excellent, accessible resource for any clinician.]

Huta, V. (2015) The complementary roles of eudaimonia and hedonia and how they can be pursued in practice, in Positive psychology in practice: Promoting human flourishing in work, health, education, and everyday life, Second Edition (ed S. Joseph), Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. doi: 10.1002/9781118996874.ch10. [Conceptual, research-based aspects of well-being.]

Polk, K. L., Schoendorff, B., Webster, M., & Olaz, F. O. (2016). The essential guide to the ACT matrix: A step-by-step approach to using the ACT matrix model in clinical practice. Oakland, CA: Context Press. [Clear, concise, and wonderfully practical ACT resource for clinicians.]

“Life therapy”; what the &%$!@# is that?!

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“Life therapy”; what the &%$!@# is that?!

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“Life therapy”. The term or expression came about when talking with a couple of my colleagues a few months ago. I had recently been away for the weekend and mentioned having really enjoyed going for long walks on the beach while looking for sea glass: “It felt so good; long walks outside in nature really are MY therapy.” We started talking about the importance of finding something that you enjoy, that nurtures you and helps you to feel your best as being one’s “life therapy”. This idea of “life therapy” isn’t meant to replace traditional therapy in the office; what we refer to as “life therapy” are simply actions or things that you can do that allow you to care for yourself with kindness and help you feel your best. In other words, these are small things (they add up!) that can help us to be in a better position to enjoy life and navigate through its occasional challenges.  Essentially, the idea of life therapy is what is often referred to these days as self-care; something we are hearing more and more about in the media. The term self-care is sometimes misinterpreted, however, as being indulgent, and can have a negative connotation, as was well explained by Brianna Wiest in this article: “True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from".

We believe that traditional psychotherapy (what happens in the office) is most often best suited on a short-term basis (not for life!); and one of the things we strive to assist our clients with during therapy is to help them to identify the things in their lives that allow them to feel their best. We like to call this “life therapy”. “Life therapy” refers to anything you do that helps you to feel well, healthy, balanced and generally happy. It’s a series of actions or behaviors that contribute to your overall health and well-being. I like to encourage my clients to experiment, and try different things until they find whatever it is that works best for them and helps them to feel their best.

I’m not suggesting that “life therapy” can protect anyone from experiencing harder times; challenges and ups and downs are a natural part of life (and some are more difficult than others), but the idea is that there are things we can do to care for ourselves that help us to navigate through the tough times and can help us to cope better. Ideally, we have a number of things we do that help us feel our best; things that are accessible and sustainable. Naturally, these things may change over time based on our needs, interests, etc., but the idea remains the same - taking time on a regular basis to prioritize yourself and to slow down, showing yourself kindness and connecting with yourself so that you can be attentive to your needs and honor them in a way that feels right for YOU. Of course, this will vary enormously from one person to another, because we all have different needs, interests, etc. The idea is to find what works for YOU and that whatever you choose as your “life therapy”, that it will be something you can realistically fit into your routine and commit to making happen fairly regularly as a practice (and YES, it’s totally normal to get off course; the idea here is that we catch ourselves when we get off our regular course of action and then choose to come back to our practice). Whatever that action may be, it will be something that has the effect of helping you to feel balanced, gives you a sense of well-being and a sense that you are working towards living your best life. There will be times when it is tougher to commit to our practice, when we might neglect to actually do the things that help us feel our best, (like when life gets tougher or busier, which is often when we could probably most benefit from it, - but this is LIFE!). The idea is to try and commit to noticing and catching this happening, and then choosing to restart your practice even when you fall off your “self-care wagon”. At Connecte, we encourage our clients to take time to connect with what’s important to them, with their needs and to honor them in whatever way is appropriate for them. For some, this may mean taking regular baths while reading a good book and for someone else it might be going for regular walks in nature or even getting outside to enjoy a long run. For more on helping identify what self-care/life therapy means to you and on how to make your self-care sustainable, check out Jodie’s blog post, Want to Change the World? Start by Connecting to You.

Thanks and Credit for use of photo : @ keswickandweldon

Thanks and Credit for use of photo : @ keswickandweldon

Keep in mind that our needs are likely to change over time, and it’s important to be flexible and in tune with our bodies, ourselves and to adjust and adapt as needed. Explore this idea of being flexible when it comes to our self-care further in Maeve’s blog post, Those Times When “Being Healthy”…. Isn’t. How To Integrate Self-Care Into Our Exercise Goals.

We want to hear from you!!

Some readers may not like the term “life therapy”; our idea was to find a word to refer to the thing(s) that one can do to help care for themselves and feel their best. It refers to what others tend to call self-care, but perhaps has a less negative connotation as being something indulgent. The idea of including the word life in our term “life therapy” is essentially that “life therapy” is something we intend to do over the course of our lives. It refers to something we prioritize and are committed to making happen (sort of like taking care of our teeth throughout our lives with regular visits to the dentist and daily brushing and flossing, etc.,). We would love to hear your thoughts about this idea of “life therapy” and hope you will share with us!

  • What sorts of things do you consider to be your “therapy”?
  • What do you think of the idea of “life therapy”?
  • What do you think of what we have chosen to call it (for now!)?

If you have suggestions for what this could be called; something other than life therapy or self-care, we would love to hear from you below in the comments or you can hop on over to Connecte's Instagram and leave your suggestions there, or tag a picture of your #lifetherapy moment!


Andrea Martin is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


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 Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head

Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head


Guest post from Dr. Natsumi Sawada, Registered Psychologist (originally published here).

Dr. Natsumi Sawada is a psychologist in private practice in Vancouver, B.C. Natsumi is passionate about using psychology to help people live meaningful, peaceful, connected, and joyful lives. For more of Natsumi's transformative tips check out her blogFacebook or Instagram


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A central feature of one of my favorite therapies, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (aka ACT) is the idea that identifying our “values” and moving towards them even when we are experiencing emotional pain is crucial for psychological health and wellbeing.  

What are values? They are the things in life that are most important to us. They are what we want our lives to be about. They are different from goals in that they are not things that we can achieve or complete and they are not future destinations. They are the the things that are most important to us in life and in the now. Examples might be: Helping, creativity, our relationship, emotional closeness, caring for others, kindness, independence. One way to tap into your values is to ask, “Who or what is most important to me?” I will write more on identifying values in an upcoming blog post.  

So why move towards values even when we feel terrible? 

Well, ACT proposes that pain is an inevitable part of being human (or sea slug for that matter). To experience physical and psychological pain in the form of difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations is to be human. It is not pathological, abnormal, or something to be changed. Our lives cannot be separated from pain. We inevitably experience loss and disappointment; feel sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and shame; experience self doubt and self judgment. We don’t often recognize that everybody suffers especially in the Instagram era when all we see is everybody else’s glowing faces and smiles on our screens while we struggle through the slop. But the idea that everyone is happy is bogus. The truth is, every person feels emotional pain and will feel pain throughout their life. Values are important because moving towards them orients us and give life meaning (and all the positive things that come with it). If we want to create meaning in our lives we cannot wait for the skies to clear because being human can at times be a little like living in Vancouver in November.  

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This sounds grim but it’s actually great news because to be psychologically healthy we need to experience positive AND painful emotions. For one thing, it’s natural to feel painful emotions. Imagine you never felt sad or afraid. I don’t think I need to explain why that would problematic. Painful emotions and thoughts serve important protective functions. We need to experience fear, sadness, and guilt to function in the world and to be human (more on this later). Some people argue we need to embrace this vulnerability that we all share, to connect with and be of service to others. Some research even suggests experiencing too much positive emotion is bad for our health and well being. It can cause us to engage in more risky behavior, impede our performance, and hinder our ability to empathize and take others’ perspectives (something that is crucial for good relationships). Research also suggests pursuing happiness can do more harm than good because the more people pursue happiness the less they seem to experience it. See this article for more. So forget the “don’t worry be happy" stuff. Ideally we have a little of both.  

However understandably, humans don't like to experience pain (and don’t even like to experience the possibility of future pain) so often when we experience it we struggle against it like a fish on a hook and line. We think about it, we worry about it, we dread it, we anticipate it, we question it, we obsess about it, we try to mentally problem solve our way out of it. A large part of the war we fight against our painful mental experiences (such as sadness, anxiety, anger, worries, doubts, obsessions, rumination) often takes place in the form of a why question: Why can't I be happier? Why me? Why am I so weird? Why am I messed up (or insert another insult of your choice here)? Why does life have to be this way? Why is everybody such a [bleep]?  

According to ACT, while this is a totally understandable response to pain, this mental war is problematic because whether you experience a little psychological pain or what seems like a lot, the struggle against it makes things so much worse; It creates pain 2.0 otherwise known as suffering. This is similar to an idea found in Buddhist philosophy, illustrated by the story of the two arrows:  

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“…When touched with a feeling of pain, the ordinary person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows…”   

The idea here is that when we experience pain (it could be physical pain as described here or emotional), we often react to it by fighting against it. We feel anxious and we get mad at ourselves for feeling this way, we feel sad and we feel ashamed, we feel depressed and we ruminate on the question “what is wrong with me?” and then ruminate on the answer, “you are deficient.” This causes us to, in effect, shoot ourselves with a second arrow: We add suffering to pain.  

One goal of ACT is to teach us how to reduce this suffering by learning to let go of the automatic habit of shooting the second arrow when we experience pain and instead move towards our values. Rather than getting caught up in the net of pain and suffering, we engage with and move towards what's important to us even when we feel pain. The idea is that we can experience painful mental events such as sadness or anxiety or the thoughts, “I can’t do it” or “I don’t want to” or “I’m a failure”  AND we can go on bike rides, work in the garden, do our work, paint a picture, act in a loving way, meet a friend, and do other things that create meaning and value in our life. The experience of a painful mental event cannot stop us from doing these things. The idea in ACT is that we recognize these thoughts and feelings with mindfulness AND then we move towards what's important to us with pain in hand.  

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Does it sound hard? It can be! The experience of sadness for example can organize our whole being to want to lie in bed, cry, eat cheetos and ice cream, surf the internet mindlessly for hours, and ruminate about what went wrong. Does this mean this is our only option? No. As difficult as it might be we can mindfully recognize our emotions with kindness and then, with the same attitude of love and care, ask ourselves, “Does acting on my urges take me farther from or in the direction of who or what is most important to me?” We can then do our best to take a small step towards what is important. It is not always easy but with a lot of practice we can learn how to do this. We can learn how to respond more flexibly to emotional pain instead of always going with the knee jerk reaction of resisting it, hiding from it, smothering it, and turning it into suffering. Some of the mental skills that can help us learn to do this are mindfulness, self compassion, and distress tolerance. I will talk more about these skills in future blog posts.    

I’m writing this post because I find this idea of moving towards values with pain particularly valuable and I use it a lot in my own life. When I feel despair, sadness, or anxiety, for sometimes what seems to be no reason at all, one of the most helpful things I've learned to do is to mindfully take note of the emotion and accompanying urges that arise in me, remind myself of my values, and encourage myself to take one tiny step in the direction of my values.  

For example, if I feel despair I might notice the urge to listen to sad music, lie in bed and watch Netflix, or ruminate about the things that are not going well for me and what I’ve done wrong. However, while understandable, these behaviors are designed to numb or escape pain and take me further from my values of learning and teaching, caring for others, developing my skills as a psychologist, being an engaged and loving partner, and creative expression. So, I do my best to notice these emotions and urges with kindness, acknowledge how painful they are, and then if all goes according to plan, I take a tiny step in the direction of my values. I repeat TINY. This is crucial because when we feel anxious or down even “small” steps can seem overwhelming. My tiny step might be washing the dishes in the sink, reading a page of a book, going for a walk around the block, or send a half dozen friends a cat meme (someone usually responds). Although it’s important to note that the point of moving towards values is not to get rid of pain, I sometimes find that after I have made a move towards my values, my difficult emotions loom less large or sometimes even pass. And, at the very least I’m sad but at least I’m sad AND I went for a walk and took a step towards health.  

If you want, try this out for yourself. Write down a few of your values and the next time you find yourself caught up in painful thoughts or emotions, see if you might remind yourself of some of your values and ask yourself the question, “Does acting on these mental experiences or thoughts take me closer to or farther away from what is most important to me?” If the answer is farther you might ask, “What tiny step might I take towards my values?” If this seems really difficult get in touch with a counsellor or psychologist for help. 

It's important to note that what feels tiny to me might feel microscopic to you or it might feel huge. Take a step that feels tiny to you. It might be doing five jumping jacks or washing three dishes or it might be reorganizing your house or running a marathon.  Meet yourself where you are at. The main point is to take a tiny step towards your values, notice that you did it, and see what happens next and repeat. Let me know what happens.