Compassionate Psychological Care

Complicated Emotions

Our emotional lives as humans can be complicated. On the one hand, we thoroughly enjoy our experiences of the emotions such as joy, love, and excitement. On the other hand, when we experience the “negative” emotions, such as sadness, anger, and anxiety, we tend to try to run from or avoid these emotions. Makes sense, huh? Out with the bad, in with the good! What a very rational approach to being a human!

Here’s the rub, though: ALL of our emotions are 100% natural. Regardless of the ways in which we tag and categorize emotions (e.g. good vs. bad, positive vs. negative), the reality is that all of our emotional experiences are natural and therefore innately part of what it is to be human. However, this does not mean that the ways in which we experience, or respond to, our emotional lives are always effective.

We humans tend to approach our emotions in much the same way that we approach other things in our lives that we have labeled as “problems”: we seek to eliminate or avoid them. This is especially the case for anxiety. I feel anxious when I go to the mall – so I’m going to stop going to the mall. I feel anxious when applying for a job – so I am going to hold off on that for right now. I feel anxious when I experience an odd body sensation (such as a fluttering heart, or a tight chest) – so I am going to do my darndest to NOT feel this way…”

However, do we actually ever accomplish this? Is it possible for us to establish complete control over our thoughts and feelings? Or perhaps a more provocative question: is it possible that much of our psychological distress is actually brought about due to these very attempts to avoid, eliminate, or in some way control the mysterious, and sometimes scary, world within our skin?

Throughout the next couple of weeks, I’d like to examine this question more in depth through the lens of one approach to psychotherapy that I utilize within my work with individuals who find themselves in an almost constant struggle with anxiety. The lens I’ll be using is known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (pronounced “Act” as opposed to A-C-T) and it has been shown to be highly effective in treating a wide variety of mental health problems. Put simply: I’d like to engage with the following question: what might we accomplish in our lives if we give up on attempting to iron-out our emotional wrinkles, and instead cultivate an active willingness to experience our internal lives, fully, and even in the presence of distress, directly move forward pursuing meaning and purpose?