The mind is its own place and can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.
John Milton, Paradise Lost
In my opening blog post I mentioned the idea that it just doesn’t seem like life is meant to always be easy, or that we’re meant to always feel happy, and offer the simple explanation: That’s just not how we’re wired.
According to Relational Frame Theory (RFT), human language and higher cognition (our thoughts), if not properly understood or related to, can cause us psychological distress. Our mind’s ability to compare, evaluate, predict, relate any thing to any other thing, and fear things that we have never before experienced, has caused it to become our own worst enemy in a sense.
If we look at the situation from an evolutionary perspective, it is easy to understand why. The mind’s ability to relate and predict in this way allowed us to master the external environment and climb to the top of the food chain, despite being a less physically advantaged species than others. If we turn things around, we can also consider how happiness, contentment, and lack of worry, would have been counterproductive for our evolutionary advancement. We would have remained at the mercy of the elements and predators.
Our minds evolved to function this way to keep us safe from harm. This has been very effective in the external world where if you don’t want something most often you are able to find some way to eliminate it. In the internal world of our minds, our experience works by addition. Once we experience something, actually, or vicariously, it becomes integrated. Our thoughts often function like an internal vigilante who has something to say about everything, and who is constantly throwing up red flags. In our internal world it seems that the more we want certain thoughts, feelings, and urges to go away, the more they tend to linger.
What you resist persists.
Rather than seeking to eliminate unwanted content of the mind, the most effective strategy is to simply step back from the mind and notice thoughts for what they are: simply content of the mind. We are also helped by noticing feelings and emotions for what they are: simply clusters of physical sensations often paired with certain impulses to act.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is one of the approaches that I use most often in my work with clients. According to ACT, psychological suffering is caused by experiential avoidance (unwillingness to experience painful feelings), cognitive entanglement (taking your thoughts too literally), and subsequent psychological inflexibility (loss of room to maneuver in life).
These processes can be summarized by the acronym FEAR.
F – Fusion with your thoughts:
– taking your thoughts too literally.
E – Evaluation of your experience:
– good/bad, negative/positive, acceptable/unacceptable, wanted/unwanted
A – Avoidance of your experience:
– unwillingness to have certain thoughts, feel certain feelings, encounter certain events, and all the strategies to accomplish this avoidance
R – Reason giving for your behaviour:
– believing that you cannot have or do certain things if certain thoughts and feelings are present, or until they go away
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy suggests the healthy alternative to FEAR is to ACT:
A – Accept the content of your mind as no more or less than content of your mind.
C – Choose a personally valued life direction.
T – Take action and commit to pursue a life based on your own unique values.
The next several blog posts will discuss each of these processes and alternatives individually and in more depth. Until then, consider what acceptance and awareness can bring to your life.
And keep well…