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Want to change the world? Start by connecting to you: Part 3

Want to change the world? Start by connecting to you: Part 3

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It’s not about proving to yourself that you can do it, it’s about figuring out how you can make it happen.

This is the last blog of a 3-part series on self-care. If I can summarize our self-care formula in 3 parts it would look like this:

1. Know WHY. Get in touch with your personal reasons for prioritizing your self-care. (See part 1)

2. Know WHAT. Figure out what self-care is for you (not what someone tells you to do or what other people are doing). Find what truly nourishes you. (See part 2).

3. Figure out HOW. Find the formula or routine that will allow you to keep practicing self-care even when life wants to get in the way.

We’ve discussed #1 and #2 in previous posts. So today I want to talk about the things that can help you make self-care sustainable (rather than a 1-week stint).

Here are a few tricks.

1. Find a daily connect to your WHYs. This is something that will remind you of what is important to you on a daily basis. This could be a daily prayer, night time reading ritual, morning meditation, a daily snuggle in the morning with your partner, anything that helps you see the big picture. Try making it something you like doing or already do so that it doesn’t take much effort. Mine is waking up earlier than everyone in the morning to have my “me time” before the day starts. If I don’t have that daily connect to myself it’s much harder to choose how I want my day to go.

2. Find your lead WHAT. Or your lead domino [as Tim Ferriss (1) might call it] or your keystone habit (as Charles Duhigg calls it in the Power of Habit (2). This is the habit that, if acted out, will make all of the others fall into place, or at least come easier. For example, many of my clients find that if they exercise in the morning they are more motivated at work and feel like eating healthier during the day, and in order to make the morning exercise happen they drink less alcohol in the evenings and go to bed earlier. So, they just have to get that morning exercise habit to happen and it has a self-care domino effect on the others.

3. Make an action plan and write it down. A lot of evidence suggests that writing down the what, where & when for a new habit will help you actually do it (3)! One thing that works for me is getting in my exercise by running or biking to work (or home from work). But, this takes a lot of planning because it means remembering a change of clothes at work, organizing with my husband drop offs or pick ups of the kids, etc. So if I sit down and plan out my week in advance I can decide which days I’m running to and from work & plan accordingly. Some other plans that help people get their exercise in are packing their gym bag the night before, or writing their exercise in their agenda.

4. Try temptation bundling (4). This is a term coined & researched by Katherine Milkman, Associate Professor of Operations, Information & Decisions at The University of Pennsylvania. She finds that if you bundle a hard to do behavior (like exercise) with an instantly rewarding behavior it can help you get motivated to do it. For example, you might decide to only watch your favorite TV shows at the gym (like she does) or reward yourself with a day off of work when you finally get your mammogram.

5. Try telling someone about your self-care habit or eliciting the help of a buddy. You can think of it as accountability, but I prefer to think of it as building self-care into your identity. “This is me and this is what I do to take care of me”.  Keeping it to yourself will not make it happen and it will not make you believe it is important to you. Tell your friends or loved ones what you’re doing, make it real, and elicit their help if you can. For example, find a morning running buddy. Join a walking group with friend. Start a recipe swap with a family member and try a new meal together each week.

The hardest part of self-care habits is keeping them going. If you see it as a healthy challenge rather than a task or a threat it is almost fun figuring out how you can make self-care work for you!! Come join our network of self-care warriors :) Follow us on Instagram @connectepsychology for your daily connect to self-care.


Jodie Richardson 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 @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

1. Borrowing this term from Tim Ferriss and The 4 Hour Workweek.

2. Great book by Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.                                    

3. Read more about Professor Katherine Milkman’s research on temptation bundling here. Listen to Professor Katherine Milkman talk about temptation bundling (among other behavioural tools) in this Freakonomics episode, When willpower isn’t enough.

4. Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999). Implementation Plans: Strong Effects of Simple Plans. American Psychologist, 54 (7), 493-503. 

WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD? START BY CONNECTING TO YOU: PART 2

WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD? START BY CONNECTING TO YOU: PART 2

This post is a continuation of my last post, which can be summed up nicely by this quote my colleague Andrea recently posted on Instagram:

“You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.”

In that post I asked you to get in touch with all of the reasons WHY you want to keep your cup full. These are your WHYs for taking care of you: the values and people you want to nourish in your life. If you haven’t read it, it’s short, please take a moment to do so: Want to Change the World? Start by Connecting to You.

In this post I’d like to talk about WHAT self-care is for you? I think a common misconception is that self-care is all about tea and massages. These are great ways to recharge if they work for you! But personally I find going for a run or sitting around a dinner table with my friends just as nourishing as going to the spa. Last post I also suggested that you should not start with what other people tell you you should do to take care of yourself or what your inner bully tells you your “lazy butt” should do to take care of you. I think the most nourishing self-care moments are actually when we connect our actions with our values (our WHYs). So, let’s look back at those lists we created last time. Here’s my short list:

My WHYs

Who is important to me? (1)

  • My family

  • My friends

  • My colleagues

What is important to me? (1)

  • Growth

  • Hard work

  • Authenticity

  • Creativity

  • Connecting with people

  • Feeling part of something bigger than me

  • Taking care of my body

  • Being in nature

  • Freedom

  • Fun

I’ll try to give you an example of how you might try to connect your self-care actions with your WHYs in the area of health. Most of us know that exercise is an important piece of self-care, but for many of us it feels like a chore. I was in this boat for a long time. When I was a kid I played many sports, mostly just for fun, because my friends were doing them. But as I got older my friends did fewer team sports and by the age of 18 I was left sport-less. My husband is a professional athlete and when we met at the age of 20 I was inspired to get back into exercise. So, I tried to jump on the gym bandwagon. My husband spent his days at the gym, there must be something good about it right? And so I would go to the gym a few hours a week to work out and it was fine. But then slowly but surely the gym would creep down my priority list and ooops I would find myself months without going to the gym at all. Anyone recognize this pattern? And the pattern continued for years and years until near the end of my 20s when I decided I was tired of feeling bad about not going to the gym and gave up on exercise altogether. Phew what a relief! But then months later, feeling sluggish and unfit, I asked myself “is there another way?” Can I personalize this exercise thing so that I actually like it and it might stick? So I looked back and asked myself what I used to like about exercise? For many sports it was just the social aspect but there were no sports that all of my friends were doing anymore (and I’m not that good at making new friends) so that might not work. But then I realized the two sports I really loved, just for me, were horseback riding and cross-country skiing (neither of which is done in a gym, Aha!) So why did I like them? 1) Because they were both done outside, often in the forest (which connected me to nature), and 2) taking off for hours of trail riding or skiing totally disconnected me from “real life” and rejuvenated me (which gave me a sense of freedom). And so, with less time in the schedule as an adult I decided to try out something similar but more practical: running. I loved it and haven’t looked back since. What I learned is that if you turn exercise into something is meaningful to you, the motivation will come much easier.

Since then I have tried this with different aspects of my life. I’ve broken down self-care into 4 domains for myself: Health, Leisure, Work, and Relationships (1). And asked myself in each of these domains what is a meaningful self-care activity for me? Remember we can find meaning by looking to our WHYs.

Here are some of the self-care activities that work for me (my self-care WHATs):

Domain: Health
Self-care WHAT: Running
WHY: Connection to nature; feeling of freedom

Domain: Leisure
Self-care WHAT: Dinners with friends (especially outside)
WHY: Connection with people; feeling part of something bigger than myself; fun

Domain: Work
Self-care WHAT: Blocking off hours in the morning once a week for writing
WHY: Freedom; creativity

Domain: Relationships
Self-care WHAT: Long weekends up north with my husband
WHY: Connection; nature; growth as a couple, as parents; authenticity; (and freedom from the children!)

If you like the idea try it out and see how it works for you!

“Make a chore into a meaningful decision, and self-motivation will emerge.”
From the book Smarter Faster Better, by Charles Duhigg

I know I promised to talk about finding your lead domino (2) and making daily commitments to action. I did not forget. So stay tuned for part 3 of Want to change the world, start by connecting to you!


Jodie Richardson 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 @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Great book by Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

Check out this fun video by Dr. Russ Harris: Values vs Goals     

Intrinsic motivation is proven to help us reach our goals long-term. See: Koestner, R. (2008). Reaching One’s Personal Goals: A Motivational Perspective Focused on Autonomy. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 60-67. 

Also see: Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Edward L. Deci

1. These are really great questions that Benjamin Schoendorff asks in his ACT matrix training to get at what’s truly important to people and to break down life into important domains. You can find out more about the ACT matrix here. Clinicians can check out his book: The Essential Guide to the ACT matrix.

2. Borrowing this term from Tim Ferriss and The 4 Hour Workweek

Want to change the world? Start by connecting to you

Want to change the world? Start by connecting to you

I’m a psychologist and I help people make changes in their lives. I’ve long wondered why I’m so fascinated with things like eating habits, physical fitness and sleep. A very good friend of mine once called these types of self-care behaviours self-indulgent and I felt ashamed. Is helping people eat, exercise and sleep better really perpetuating self-indulgence? It doesn’t feel like that to me and yet when my yoga teacher says “thank yourself for taking the time to practice self-care today” I feel an aversion to this statement myself. So what’s going on here?

I think I’ve figured it out… people (including me) sometimes associate self-care with selfishness, but they are not the same thing. Selfishness is putting my needs above others, but self-care is simply acknowledging that my needs need taking care of too. Self-care can, in fact, help us be less selfish since when our needs are satisfied we are better able to meet the needs of others. It’s the put on your oxygen mask first thing. Self-care is not just a personal endeavor; it’s about being the best human I can be for myself and others, my family, my friends, my clients, and hopefully the world.

Keep your big dreams for yourself, others and the world… and care for yourself enough to make them happen.

With that preamble, I'm hoping you might be thinking, ok then maybe I would like to practice a little more self-care. You've probably been thinking about it anyways, who doesn't think they should exercise more, sleep better, or eat healthier? I'm just asking you to see these things as self-care rather than "things you should do" and to see self-care as a worthwhile endeavor for not only yourself, but also the world around you. Oh yes, and as something you can do right now (not at some utopic moment when you have the time and energy to do so in the future). You still on board?  

Ok, so here's where we do not start... with what other people, like your mom or your co-worker have told you you really should do to take better care of yourself, or with  what your inner critic tells you your lazy butt should do to take better care of yourself. Instead start by connecting to YOU (in a nice way) and the things that are truly important to you. From that place (and maybe that place only) you can make real, lasting changes in your life. In psychology we call this intrinsic motivation. It’s motivation that comes from inside of you, like “I’m doing this because it’s inherently pleasurable” or “I’m doing this because it’s truly important to me” (1).

So, first question I'd like you to ask yourself is "WHO is important to me in my life?" (2) My husband, my children, my parents, my friend Jane, my boyfriend, my children, my dog, etc. Make a list and write it down.

Second question, "WHAT is important to me in my life?" (2) Not as easy as the first one right? So, think personal values here. One way to know what your values are is to think about someone you admire and ask yourself what it is about that person that you so admire? Is it their tenacity, their strength, their kindness, their authenticity, their connection with their family, their love of learning, etc. Write down 5-10 values that are important to you.

So, you might have a list like this:

Who is important to me?

  • My husband
  • My children
  • My best friend Jane
  • My sister
  • My colleagues
  • My dog

What is important to me?

  • Learning new things
  • Love
  • Relationships
  • Kindness
  • Nature
  • Feeling free to make my own choices
  • Being present in the moment
  • Health

Now, why have I asked you to make this list? These are your WHYs. All of the reasons to take care of you: For the people who are important to you and the values that are important in your life. You'll be better able to connect to those people and live out those values if you have your oxygen mask on. Does this make sense?

If so, please take the time to connect to your WHYs. In trying to keep blog posts readable I've decided to make this into a few part series. Stay tuned for our next post in which we’ll talk about how to choose your lead domino (3) for self-care, that is the habit that will have the biggest impact on your life and help other habits fall into place.  We’ll look at how you can tap into your WHYs to increase your motivation to follow through on your goals and we’ll help you make daily commitments to action.

It’s not about proving to yourself that you can do it, it’s about figuring out how you can make it happen.


Jodie Richardson 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 @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

1. Intrinsic motivation is proven to help us reach our goals long-term. See: Koestner, R. (2008). Reaching One’s Personal Goals: A Motivational Perspective Focused on Autonomy. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 60-67.  Also see: Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Edward L. Deci

2. These are really great questions that Benjamin Schoendorff asks in his ACT matrix training to get at what’s truly important to people. You can find out more about the ACT matrix here. Clinicians can check out his book: The Essential Guide to the ACT matrix.

3. Borrowing this term from Tim Ferriss and The 4 Hour Workweek.

BE HERE NOW...BUT HOW? 3 STEPS TOWARDS EXPERIENCING LIFE MORE FULLY

BE HERE NOW...BUT HOW? 3 STEPS TOWARDS EXPERIENCING LIFE MORE FULLY

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The first year of mommyhood was a bit of a blur for me. Forget my lofty Pinterest-inspired aspirations—I was in basic survival mode for the better part of my first year with twins. My general recollection of that period is fuzzy at best. But somewhere in that intensely sleep-deprived haze, there are a few indelible moments that still shine so clear and bright. Little beacons of light in a foggy mommy mind. Moments when time stood still...or at least the blurry whizzing abstractions of the everyday-hustle seemed to pause and come into sharp focus.

Interestingly, the most compelling, graphic memories for me aren't the special events or never-ending list of firsts that one might expect on a classic first-year highlight-reel. They're not the moments I recall just because someone snapped a photo that I've seen multiple times since then. Nope. The few clear, specific moments that come readily to mind are mainly just vivid little slices of average everyday stuff. Like this one:

I'm holding one of the babies and I see her look at the window with fascination. The gauzy white curtain is fluttering gently with the breeze. Sunshine is streaming through the folds of fabric and everything looks ethereal. I approach the window so she can touch the soft material for herself and she squeals and laughs with delight. Her face lights up like she's having some kind of revelation.

Contact with the present moment

This high-definition memory stands out in that first year as a moment where I wasn't just a mombie on survival-focussed auto-pilot. Instead, I had the wonderfully contrasting sense that I was fully present in the moment as it was unfolding. In the NOW. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) (see Brent's blog post, The Skinny on ACT) refers to this core aspect of mindfulness (see Natsumi's blog post, Mindfulness: An Introductory Guide) as “contact with the present moment.” Being fully here and now, consciously and flexibly aware of our inner and outer world, as opposed to being lost in our thoughts. For me it felt like I had brushed away some cobwebs and could see clearly again for a time. Like I was taking part in my experience rather than the creeping feeling that I was somehow missing out on my own life. And in those days, I was missing out—I was typically too tired and overwhelmed to notice all of the rich detail that makes everything so interesting.

That's the thing about “contact with the present moment”. It's so easy to miss even though it sounds like a given. Of course we exist here, now. We realize that, cognitively. But experientially, in any given moment, you have the choice between engaging with this one specific “here-now” or getting sucked into the infinite other time points, places, and experiences that your mind can conjure up. One VS. INFINITY, folks! The odds are stacked heavily against the singular present moment, even before we factor in the prevalence of fatigue, ill health, stress, depression, anxiety, and other states that can impact upon our capacity to focus. So instead of experiencing the present moment, understandably, more times than not, our minds take us elsewhere.

Do I need this in my toolbox?

You might be fascinated to observe how often your mind pulls you out of the present moment in your everyday life. Your body might be taking a shower, or driving a car, but your head is off figuring out dinner/tomorrow's meeting/yesterday's fight. At times, escaping the present moment (through daydreams or TV shows, for instance) may be useful or enjoyable. But let's say you spend some time with a loved one while stewing in frustration and anxiety about all the work you need to do. Or you totally miss out on what a friend is saying while thinking about what you'll say next. When our checked-out moments accumulate, we wind up feeling disconnected and missing out on what's right in front of us. You might be especially rusty in terms of contacting the present moment if:

  • you're frequently preoccupied with thoughts or feelings related to the past or the future
  • you often feel psychologically numb, tuned-out, or like you're on auto-pilot
  • you act impulsively or mindlessly
  • you feel disconnected in key relationships

Fortunately, you can practice and improve your ability to be here, now. Learning to better contact the present moment can bring about some majorly life-enhancing benefits. Basically, the more you tune-in and get an accurate real-time reading of what's going on in your inner and outer world, the more you can make well-informed choices that move your life in the direction you want to go. Higher quality input yielding higher quality output, all while feeling more engaged, more satisfied and more fulfilled in your life. Nice.

How do I contact the present moment?

Sometimes even zombies get a wake-up call. Months seemed to crawl by yet whiz past. Then suddenly I realized that my babies had grown a lot because they didn't fit in the same clothes anymore. Putting away the tiny onesies, I knew that time was gone—there's no re-do. I became aware of how blurry the memories were, how faraway I felt. I didn't want to miss out on these moments—I wanted to be more present in the present! That turning-point realization got a much needed signal boost when I had more energy and was sleeping relatively well again. I dusted off my inner clinical toolbox and got to work renewing contact with the present moment. I'll share a few simple exercises below.

STEP 1: Make a conscious commitment to be here, now.

STEP 2: Do what you can to maximize your physical and mental energy. If you want to be here, now, I can't overstate the importance of sleep (see Ava's blog post, Getting Back to Bed) or getting treatment for anemia, hypothyroidism, depression, anxiety, and other draining, attention-zapping conditions.

STEP 3: Practice, practice, practice making contact with the present moment, and don't wait to finish Step 2 to do it. Start now. Of course, you can just wait for a moment so special that it will pull you into the present. But YOU can also pull the present moment into you. As we do in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy:

  • Really notice what is happening here and now. When you stop and observe with all your senses, you will notice all sorts of internal and external stuff. The Zen concept of “beginner's mind” can be especially useful here. Like an infant, when you explore something with openness and curiosity as though encountering it for the first time, even a white curtain can be fascinating.
  • Differentiate between noticing (simple conscious awareness) and thinking (going off on a mental tangent). You can notice thoughts and feelings as though they are floats in a parade, letting them come and go past.
  • Pay attention to both your inner and outer world and work on shifting your attention flexibly between the two (like noticing a painful thought or feeling while also noticing what you see and hear around you).

You may have heard of mindful breathing in which you practice bringing your awareness here and now for a period of time by noticing when you breathe in, when you breathe out, and the sensations that accompany each inhalation and exhalation. Experience it for yourself with Professor Mark William's “Three-minute breathing space” guided meditation.

Here's another useful but perhaps lesser known way to practice contacting the present moment:

            Notice Five Things (adapted from Harris, 2009, p. 171):

This is a simple exercise to get present and connect with your environment. Practice it throughout the day, especially any time you find yourself getting caught up in your thoughts and feelings. This exercise relies on the senses, so if you have any serious sensory impairments you may want to omit that sense, swap in another (like the sense of smell), or go a bit further in noticing things with the senses you do possess.

  1. Pause for a moment.
  2. Look around and notice five things that you can see.
  3. Listen carefully and notice five things that you can hear.
  4. Notice five things that you can feel in contact with your body (for example, the shirt on your back, the air on your face, your feet upon the floor).
  5. Finally, do all of the above simultaneously.

Conclusion

Whether you're totally overwhelmed and the days are a blur, or whether your brain is relatively functional but you're getting caught up in your head, you can choose to practice contacting the present moment. Better engaging with the here and now won't make you less sleep deprived, finish your projects for you, or babysit your children (dang!). But it will add a richness and fullness to your experience. Less zombie. More cowbell! Or more gauzy curtain, as the case may be. So forget Pinterest. These aren't pictures snapped from the outside. This is my lived experience, and when I make contact with the present moment, I feel like I am truly living it.


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 @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, 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 self-help workbook and there are others in the series, e.g., for depression.]

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

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.]

All about Emotions! Accepting Difficult Emotions and Feeling Strong Feelings without Acting

All about Emotions! Accepting Difficult Emotions and Feeling Strong Feelings without Acting

Have you ever felt so strongly about something, but then it turned out not to be true? Has your “emotion brain” ever clashed with your “rational brain”? Or maybe you have witnessed a friend fall madly in love with someone who clearly is an illogical choice? In therapy, I often help people identify what can be referred to as “unjustified emotions” (from Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy). Unjustified emotions are emotions that don’t fit the facts. For example, feeling like you’re incompetent and the worst at your job when in fact you’re a solid employee, feeling like something terrible is going to happen when the probability is low, feeling like a friend is mad at you when really they’re just super-busy and forgot to respond to your text, feeling like you’ve gained a ton of weight after eating one big meal even though that’s actually not possible, etc. When I point out to a client that an emotion they are experiencing may be unjustified, I’m often understandably met with a, “Yeah, but, Lisa, it feels so true.” Fair enough. How can we ignore an emotion that feels so real, and should we? In this blog post I’ll explore how we can “listen to” our emotions, but then thoughtfully decide what to do about them.

Justified vs. unjustified emotions

Why do we have emotions in the first place? Emotions serve important functions and give us information. For example, they allow us to react quickly in important situations, and they let us know if a situation is scary, dangerous, unfair, etc. Sometimes, however, they may not be accurate, but we treat them as if they’re facts anyways. The stronger the emotion, the more likely we are to assume they’re true. Although it’s always good to pay attention to our emotions, it’s possible they might lead us astray, so it’s also good to explore where they’re coming from and check them with facts.

Imagine a situation recently when you felt a negative emotion. Perhaps you felt judged, like a failure, or were experiencing anxiety or anger. For this exercise, try to entertain the idea that this emotion may be completely inaccurate, a little accurate, medium accurate, mostly accurate, or completely accurate. Once you have the situation and emotion in mind, read through these tips on how to check your emotions with facts, adapted from Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Manual (2014)

  • Ask yourself, what are the events that prompted my emotion? Try to describe the events objectively and non-judgementally.
    • For example, “I sent my boss a draft of a report for feedback and she hasn’t responded yet (it’s been 4 days). “
  • Ask yourself, what are my interpretations, thoughts, and assumptions about the event? Are you making assumptions, thinking in an all-or-nothing way, or catastrophizing (assuming the worst). How likely is it that the expected outcome will occur? We all make assumptions and catastrophize sometimes!
    • For example, “My main assumption is that my boss thinks the report is terrible and doesn’t know where to start when it comes to giving me feedback, so hasn’t bothered to respond.”
  • Think of other possible interpretations and outcomes. Practice looking at all sides of a situation and all points of view. You might get a trusted friend or a therapist to help you do this.
    • For example, “It’s possible my boss is really busy and hasn’t had a chance to look at the report.”
  • Think about the “middle path” that takes into account what your emotions are telling you and what your rational mind is telling you. What’s a balanced perspective of the situation? What would you tell a friend? Check out my colleague Michelle’s blog post on taking the middle path
  • Keep in mind that sometimes the intensity of your emotions doesn’t fit the facts. One way to figure out if the intensity of your emotions matches the situation is to ask yourself how important the outcomes are. For example, perhaps you feel intensely angry because your parcel hasn’t arrived in the mail yet. How bad is it that the parcel hasn’t arrived yet? Are the consequences little-to-none, small, medium, big, or really big?
  • Develop guidelines for when emotions fit the facts. For example, intense fear matches the situation when your safety or the safety of a loved one is in danger. A feeling of guilt may fit the situation if your behaviour violates your own moral code. A feeling of anger may fit the situation if you are being treated unfairly. For more guidelines, check out Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Manual (2014)

Why do our emotions sometimes “trick us” and not fit the facts?

Our emotions might be “too big” for a situation because we’ve had negative experiences in the past where this emotion was justified. For example, we might often feel like people are being dishonest or are going to betray us because this actually happened to us at some point in our lives. Our brains are really great at remembering negative experiences. Another reason for unjustified emotions is that maybe our big emotions have been positively reinforced. For example, maybe important people in our lives only really listen to us when we have big emotions. Or maybe our emotions were often invalidated growing up; for example, being told we shouldn’t feel a certain way (“You’re being too sensitive”; “You have no right to feel anger because you’re a spoiled kid.”). If we’ve grown up in an invalidating environment we may not have the skills to identify and regulate our own emotions (Linehan, 2014). Last but not least, maybe we haven’t eaten enough or slept enough that day, maybe we’re not taking care of our bodies or exercising, or maybe we’ve been using substances such as alcohol or other drugs. We often overlook these behaviours when it comes to managing our emotions, but sleeping well, eating well, exercising, and avoiding excessive substance use do wonders for our emotional health.

It’s important to remember that there is always an understandable reason for why our emotions might not fit the facts and resist the urge to judge ourselves for having a certain emotion. If we judge ourselves for having a certain emotion, we’re adding another layer of negative emotion on top of the initial emotion, making us feel worse and making it more difficult to identify what we’re feeling. For example, if we feel angry, but then judge ourselves for feeling angry (“I shouldn’t feel angry, look at me indulging in my first-world problems.”), then we’ll feel shame or guilt in addition to the anger.

Accepting difficult emotions and feeling but not acting

Once we’ve determined our emotions might not fit the situation, what do we do? How do we accept a difficult emotion but not react to it? Acceptance of difficult emotions means we acknowledge their presence, let them be (i.e., not push them away or avoid them), and make a deliberate decision about how to react. Acceptance does not mean we like the emotion or that we are helpless to it, but that we are committing to deliberately changing how we typically pay attention to our emotions (see Zindel Segal’s blog post: Three Ways Acceptance Helps You Work with Difficult Emotions). To facilitate acceptance of emotions, we can take what is known as an “observers’ stance” (e.g., Hayes et al. 1999), which is paying attention to an emotion (thought, or physical sensation) in a neutral way, as if it were something separate from us, thereby giving ourselves the time and space to notice it, be with it and not push it away, while decreasing our chances of getting overwhelmed by it. It is about seeing the emotion for what it is, observing it without judgement and with curiosity, and “making room” for it until it passes.

Given we can’t actually see our emotions, in order to “observe” them it is helpful to get creative and use some imagery, especially imagery that allows us to have some space from the emotion and time to observe it.

Try this exercise: Think of a time recently when you felt disappointment and try to really remember the event, where you were, who you were with, what your surroundings looked like, and what you were thinking and feeling. Take a few moments to really remember the situation and the emotion. Once you are feeling the feeling, imagine you are standing at the top of a mountain, and your emotion of disappointment is like a leaf on a stream far down below. You watch that emotion way down below coming and going. Keep watching it pass by you way down below on the stream, coming and going. Don’t judge the emotion, but be curious about it. For example, ask yourself, what is this emotion telling me? Where did it come from? Keep watching the emotion floating on the stream way down below you until you feel like it’s passed by or until you feel like you’ve fully acknowledged it.

By attending to your emotion in this way, you’re not turning away from it or avoiding it, but you’re giving yourself some time and space to observe the emotion without quickly reacting, thereby lessening your chances of behaving in a destructive or unhelpful manner. For more useful imagery, check out this handout: Facing Your Feelings - Module 2: Accepting Distress

Noticing and describing where the emotion is happening in our bodies is another way to access the observers’ stance. Each specific emotion tends to be associated with typical biological changes and experiences. For example, anxiety often comes with a racing heart and maybe tightness in our chest, whereas anger might come with feeling hot and a clenched jaw. Describing where our emotions are happening in our bodies gives us that third person perspective that allows us to take the time and space to thoughtfully observe our physical sensations without feeling overwhelmed. To practice getting into the observers’ stance with physical sensations, try this body scan meditation.

Be kind and curious

An important part of acceptance of difficult emotions (and their associated physical sensations), but perhaps the most difficult part, is learning to pay attention to them with kindness and a gentle curiosity. This might sound silly or strange, right? Why would we pay attention to our emotions with kindness and curiosity? By being kind and curious, we change our relationships to our negative emotions, we feel less threaten by them, we prevent the reinstatement of old habits, and we’re therefore more likely to respond to them in a way that’s helpful and healthy. So, when you notice you’re feeling a negative emotion, try to acknowledge it and label it, and notice where it’s happening in your body, without judgement and with kindness. For example, you might nicely say to yourself, “Ah, anger is here. I notice it in my chest. It’s tense and hot.” vs. “I’m so stupid for feeling this way; I need this to go away right now.”

Why is acceptance important?

Instead of thinking these physical sensation are terrible and such a pain, through acceptance and the observers’ stance we’ll start to form a different relationship with them, seeing them for what the are, a part of our emotion and experience, something that will come and go.

Trying to escape, avoid, or deny negative thoughts, feelings, and sensations is problematic because the struggle against these negative internal experiences often leads to more distress (“I can’t stand this.” “I must get rid of it now.” “I’m stupid to think like this.”), and maybe even unhelpful behaviours like binge eating or excessive drinking. Plus, emotions give us information, so if we’re not acknowledging them we’re potentially missing important information. For example, if we don’t acknowledge our anger and shove it away we may neglect to see that a situation is unfair and thus we might miss an opportunity to change it. Also, as mentioned earlier, the more we’re able to “be” with our emotions (as well as thoughts and physical sensations) in a non-judgemental way and hopefully with kindness, the more we will learn that we can have unpleasant internal experiences and still be okay, and move away from our habitual and destructive ways of responding. Last, negative emotions are in fact part of a meaningful life, so learning to be with them is an important factor in building a life worth living. For more on this, check out my colleague Brent’s blog post for a discussion on how living a meaningful life includes negative, unpleasant emotions.

Conclusion

I think it’s common to think our emotions are just happening to us, and we don’t have much choice in what we do about them. Luckily, as humans, we have the ability to observe ourselves in the third person, to think about our thinking, to think about our emotions, and to make a well thought-out decision about what we want to do with them. This is easier said than done I know, but just like learning any new skill, accepting and getting into the observers’ stance with our emotions is a skill that can be practiced and learned. Instead of avoiding or fighting against our emotions, we can learn how to welcome them into our lives and act on them when we choose. 


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 @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.



References

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. Guilford Press.

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. Guilford Press.

Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT® skills training manual, second edition. Guilford Publications.