"Here's the secret: . . . We all have pain. All human beings, if they live long enough, have felt, or will feel the devastation of losing someone they love. Every single person has felt or will feel physical pain. Everybody has felt sadness, shame, anxiety, fear, and loss. We all have memories that are embarrassing, humiliating, or shameful. We all carry painful hidden secrets. We tend to put on shiny, happy faces, pretending that everything is OK, and that life is "all good." But it isn't, and it can't be. To be human is to feel pain. . . .” (Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Steven C. Hayes)
I Feel Helpless
Lately, I've noticed how easily my Mind is kidnapped by my thoughts and feelings. Perhaps I experienced an unexpected slight, a remembered pain, some past disappointment, a terrible loss, a perceived injustice, or some future fear. It is like a mental hijacking, and I feel helpless. Some of the most troubling feelings and thoughts are so embarrassing I don’t like to admit I have them. I just want them all to go away. I want to get rid of them. When these upsetting and unwanted feelings arise, I feel overwhelmed. The more I fight them, or even worse, repress them, the stronger they become; what you attack you attract, what you resist persists.
What to do?
Stand quietly aside – this sounds like surrender and certain death as these upsetting feelings arise and overwhelm me. The best thing I can do is to sit quietly by and start naming them . . . Outrage, fury, betrayal, envy, fear, worry, panic. After a while, the feelings begin to dissipate – satisfied they've got my attention. I slowly gain control of my mental flight deck and bring myself out of this emotional nosedive. Sometimes it takes a few minutes or a few hours, and other times it takes longer.
Do you ever feel this way?
Can you name when you might be more vulnerable to a mind attack?
It Begins with Awareness
It all begins with awareness. When overwhelming feelings and intrusive thoughts arise, I become mindless, lost in feelings of being a victim, feeling outraged or worried or fearful.
"We all get lost in the dense forest of our lives, entangled in constant worry and planning, in judgement of others, and in our busy striving to meet demands and solve problems. When we're caught in that thicket, it's easy to lose sight of what matters most....
We forget our ties to this sacred earth and to all living beings. And in a deep way, we forget who we are." (Let Your Love Rain Down On You, Mindful, February 2020, Tara Brach)
My biggest problem is trying to live up to all of my potential which I can never live up to. This is called – “Ego Ideals.” Ego ideals are dodgy things. They are thoughts without real form or clarity, only a vague sense that I am not living up to some great expectation. I could be doing more. Someone or something is preventing me from achieving the prize meant for me. But what that prize is I can’t identify. I have a picture of what that must feel like - - I have achieved everything ego says is essential – entirely at peace, all my thoughts and feelings under control. No one is annoying me, demanding anything of me. . . . This is happiness. That is the problem: my picture is all wrong. Kristen Neff writes: “Happiness is found when we go with the flow of life, not when we rail against it.” (Self-Compassion; The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself; 2011)
Why Do I Keep Trying the Same Things Over and Over? Even if They Don’t Work
Where did we get this idea that we must always be in control? Stephen Hayes writes that there are four reasons:
Controlling works so well in other areas of our everyday life that we assume it will work for our inner struggles as well.
We were taught that we should be able to control our thoughts and feelings. “Big boys don’t cry.”
When we were very young, the grown-ups around us seemed able to control their thoughts and feelings. So everyone else is managing, why can’t I?
We received a constant stream of messages that good health and great happiness depended on the absence of difficult private experiences – no painful thoughts, no panic attacks, no feelings of depression.
(Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Steven C. Hayes)
A Thought is Just a Thought
A thought is not a call-to-action. Our minds are thought machines, churning out 60,000 of them a day, many of them repeating the same sentiment over and over again. Thoughts arise and disappear like clouds in the sky. The challenge is not to get rid of the troubling or upsetting thoughts but to stay with them long enough to see them for what they are – just thoughts.
"The human approach to solving problems can be stated as, "If you don't like something, figure out how to get rid of it, and then get rid of it. . . . But when we apply this strategy to our own inner suffering, it often backfires. . . .as a rule, trying to get rid of your pain only amplifies it, entangles you further in it, and transforms it into something traumatic. Meanwhile, we put our life on hold, believing that our pain needs to lessen before we can really begin to live again.” (Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Steven C. Hayes)
A Little Willingness
In the midst of one of these mental hijackings, I often believe that there is no way out of the mess I find myself in. There is a lot of blaming — myself for my stupidity and shallowness, or some other dupe for what they said or didn’t say. What I've discovered is that it only takes a little willingness on my part to think about this "problem" or in a different way. I try to open myself up to a different interpretation and then to experience what I’m feeling without trying to get rid of it. And I ask myself, “What if happiness involves periods of suffering, unease, unpleasantness? Can I be OK with that?
Tara Brach (RAIN, Step-by-step Step; Mindful; February 2020) shows us a simple way to pay attention to these painful moments.
Recognize What’s Happening – Take a moment to ask yourself: What is happening within me right now? What sensations? Emotions?
Allow Life to Be Just As It Is – Send a message to your heart to let this be just as it is for this moment.
Investigate with a Gentle, Curious Attention – Ask yourself these questions: What emotions are you experiencing? Where do you feel this in your body? Have you experienced this before? (This is not the time to analyze “cause” but rather to become curious about this moment of your present experience.)
Nurture / Non-Identify with Loving Presence – Now offer yourself a loving message of kind compassion and gentle, loving care. Forgive yourself.
Move Your Hands and Feet
The best thing is to get moving to do something I love. What is something satisfying, something I enjoy? I have to move my hands and feet. Getting outside to take a walk is a great way to get moving and out of my thought prison. Or I walk to my desk to sketch or write. And as I get moving regardless of how I feel I realize I can still do what I love, I don’t need to put life on hold until later, until I “feel better.” I don’t have to get rid of these upsetting thoughts and feelings because they are part of me, part of who I am. Sometimes, on a perfect day, I can step back and look and say with curiosity, "Well, this is interesting, I wonder what's coming next.”
Brach, Tara; Let Your Love Rain Down on You; Mindful; February 2020
Hayes, Stephen; Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; 2005
Neff, Kristen; Self-Compassion; The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself; 2011