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Every day, we are faced with difficult thoughts and feelings that are uncomfortable.  Whether it’s sadness, fear, shame, guilt, or anxiety, these feelings can take on a life of their own and feel overpowering.  Soon enough, we may start to have other unpleasant feelings as a result of our struggle with the initial feeling.  For example, we may feel frustration over the fact we are anxious, or guilt over the fact we are sad. That’s the problem with many of our feelings – the more that we struggle with having the feeling, the more the feeling takes hold of us.

What if there was an alternative?  What if there’s a chance that these feelings are here because there is something that is meaningful, something that is so important we hurt because of it?

If struggling with the feelings isn’t working, the only other alternative we have is to create space to allow them to be present.  Give this a try:

Take a few breaths.  Notice how it feels when you breathe, and how the air feels as it flows in through your nose when you inhale, and how it feels when it exits when you exhale.  Notice the speed of your breath, and how your rib cage moves slightly up as you inhale, and falls again when you exhale.  Now see if you can locate the difficult feeling.  Is it in your stomach?  In your chest?  In your heart? Your head?  Notice where you feel it.  Notice how big it feels – does it feel large and heavy, like it’s weighing you down?  Does it feel small?  Notice if it feels like it has any movement – is it pulsing, or vibrating?  Is it still?  If it had a colour, what colour would it be?  What kind of texture would it have – would it be smooth, or spikey?  See if you can create a picture of a creature for this feeling using these qualities. 

You don’t have to like the creature or want it there, but see if you can allow it to just hang out.  As ugly or undesirable as this creature may be, it is telling you that something is important.  We hurt where we care, and this creature’s presence is a sign that something is very important to you.  In other words, struggling with the creature is only struggling with an essential part of yourself.  What’s more, struggling with the creature ties up energy and resources that you could be using to do things that bring you closer to the life you want.

creatures

So, next time you see the creature, see if you can hold it lightly.  See if you can soften a little around it, and provide yourself with self-compassion like what you would feel for a friend experiencing the same thing.  Notice that you are always larger than the creature.  And maybe, it is okay to have this little creature along for the ride with you after all.

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You’re at home in the evening, and all of a sudden a wave of sadness creeps in.  You find out you didn’t get the promotion you worked so hard towards, and you feel shame, wondering how you’ll tell your family.  You arrive at an event, notice you’re significantly under-dressed for the occasion, and instantly feel embarrassed, wishing you could just disappear.  We experience a multitude of emotions each and every day, and yet we dread and try and avoid this experience as best as we can.  But why?

Were you ever told as a child, “Big boys/girls don’t cry”, “Snap out of it”, or “Don’t worry about it”?  From a very young age, many of us were taught to do our best to avoid emotions, to not think about them, or to use distraction techniques.  We learned that some emotions were “good”, and some were “bad”, and that we will only be happy in life if we avoid the “bad” or “negative” emotions.  As such, we start to become masters at avoiding emotions, whether it be holding them in, harshly judging ourselves for experiencing them, or trying to dampen our emotions with substances or other avoidance techniques.  Although this can sometimes be effective in the short term, there are many long-term implications for treating our emotions as enemies, such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), our emotions are viewed as a part of our experience that are neither good nor bad.  Instead, ACT takes a radical stance that we must learn to universally accept all emotions, no matter how they make us feel.  Acceptance does not necessarily mean that we want the emotions or like them, but rather that we are choosing to allow space for them to be a part of our experience.  When we allow space for our emotions, we are fostering self-compassion by allowing ourselves to be here, as we are, right now.  Dr. Joan Rosenberg, a psychologist based in Los Angeles, argues that emotions actually help us to feel more comfortable in our own skin.  In her TEDx Talk, she discusses how we must embrace our emotions, as they are the path back to being more fully you.  In other words, to deny our emotions is to deny a part of ourselves and perhaps the very thing that makes us human.

So how can we end this battle with our emotions?  Next time you experience a strong emotion, pause.  Notice where you feel the emotion, and any thoughts that show up with it.  Notice if any rules or judgements about your emotions appear.  Notice if you experience the urge to run away and escape this uncomfortable feeling.  Then, instead of doing the escaping – just let it be.  Open up and allow space for the emotion, granting it permission to be there.  Physically, emotions hurt, but they cannot harm us.  We are always bigger than any emotion we may experience.  We hurt where we care, and experiencing an emotion is a sign that there is something we care deeply about.  What is it?  How can we honour this part of ourselves?  Can we thank ourselves for caring so deeply and passionately about something?  It is through this last step of gratitude that we can slow down, connect, and centre ourselves in what’s really important.

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You can view Dr. Joan Rosenberg’s TEDx talk by visiting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKy19WzkPxE

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24/Mar/2017

Through my work with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), I have always found having the discussion regarding primary pain versus secondary suffering not only useful, but usually eye opening for many clients (as it also was for me when I was first introduced to the concept).

As symptoms and uncomfortable thoughts and feelings arise, it is almost second nature for us to try and palliate or rid ourselves of these symptoms as soon as possible!  A problem usually arises, though, if there isn’t a simple and easy fix to our unpleasant situation.

When someone has been dealing with symptoms on a chronic basis and they find they feel stuck in their suffering or that their suffering is getting worse, it can be important to begin to decipher the difference between their primary pain and their secondary suffering.  So let’s start with that:

Primary Pain:  This is the root of the problem.  These are the actual unpleasant feelings you would experience inside your body, whether it be feelings of chronic pain, depression, anxiety, etc.

Secondary Suffering:  This can be looked at as the havoc/problems the primary pain can cause in your life.  This is the additional pain that arises when you resist and react to your primary pain.  For example, if your primary pain is anxiety and you cope by avoidance (i.e. not spending time with friends, avoiding your regular gym class, avoiding family events), your secondary suffering would be the loss you experience by not spending time doing these things that bring fulfillment to your life.

Because we live in a quick-fix culture, and things like chronic pain, depression and anxiety may not always be helped by a quick fix, ACT’s approach is to help to reduce and eliminate the secondary suffering.  One may not be able to quickly or efficiently reduce their primary pain, but many have found that by reducing secondary suffering by working on completing daily behaviours that bring them closer to the life they want (i.e. still going to spend quality time with friends or attend your favourite group gym class), the volume of the primary pain may eventually turn down, and the even bigger bonus is that doing so guarantees a decrease in their secondary suffering!

This may sound easier than it looks – and that is true – it takes an individual’s commitment and acceptance every day to make choices that bring them closer to the life they want.  Strategies like mindfulness can help keep you grounded and accepting of each moment.  Continued reflection of your daily choices and committed actions will also help with keeping you on track.  Use patience and perseverance to work through making committed actions daily because the reduction in secondary suffering will definitely be worth it!

life-is-the-sum-of-all-your-choices

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J Marlin and Associates Inc. offers Cognitive Behavioural Therapy services to help individuals increase their sense of vitality, well-being, and fulfillment.

Head Office1100 Burloak Drive, Suite 602 Burlington, ON L7L 6B2

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