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“I quit” is rarely said flatly. Whether it’s said to yourself or others, it’s usually “I QUIT!” or “Ugh. I quit…” (cue *sad trombone*).
And that’s because quitting is rarely done at the height of rational deliberation. It’s usually based on feelings in the moment. You feel fear, anger, anxiety, impatience or frustration and then suddenly you snap and it’s time to call it a day. We talk about grit and other global perspectives on resilience but the minutiae of actually coping with intense negative feelings in the moment is often left vague. And that sucks because it’s usually the hardest part.
We’ve discussed how to deal with problematic thoughts, but that’s just the warmup before the championship match. Negative feelings are much more powerful, harder to question and very difficult to disentangle your mind from. We identify with our emotions so readily. “I feel it, so it must be true” is often our default setting. The whole rational deliberation part gets skipped. Feelings are summary judgment. We usually don’t even second guess them, and even if we do, they often simply overwhelm us.
You can sometimes ignore the Chatty Cathy in the back of your skull criticizing your every action, but feelings grab you by the throat. Literally. Anger, panic or grief can make you feel like you can’t breathe. Heart going like a piston, about to explode out of your chest, and you’re asking yourself, “Oh, this is what a heart attack feels like…” Instead of persisting with our goals, we quit, procrastinate or do whatever the feeling dictates to escape the discomfort. It’s a literal form of “emotional blackmail.” But we need to stay in the game when things get hard.
Often, resilience is associated with being tough and rigid. But that’s not gonna get you very far with feelings. We’re not trying to be invulnerable. That’s impossible. We’re going to be flexible. You cannot avoid or resist all pain in life. You’d have to have a head full of prions to believe that. But we can live with our discomfort better. We can manage it and have a better relationship with it.
So how do we do that?
We’re gonna turn to one of the leading, research-backed mindfulness tools out there: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. We’ll draw from five different books on the subject (Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, A Liberated Mind, The Confidence Gap, and ACT Made Simple) because:
Let’s get to it…
Why do we have such trouble dealing with feelings? Because the problem-solving rules that work for the normal world don’t apply here.
Normally, when a problem comes up we can always avoid it, deny it, or kill it. But feelings are inside that closed system called your mind which has a different rulebook.
If I told you, ‘Vacuum the floor or I’ll shoot you,’ you’d immediately start vacuuming the floor. If I said, ‘Paint the house or I’ll shoot,’ you’d soon be painting. That’s how the world outside the skin works. But if I simply say, ‘Relax, or I’ll shoot you,’ not only would the directive not work, but it would have the opposite effect.
Trying to deliberately control your brain with your brain can be an M.C. Escher-on-shrooms-level nightmare.
From A Liberated Mind:
…in order to get rid of something deliberately, we have to focus on it. If we are working to get rid of something, we need to check to see if it’s gone. When we do that with internal events laid down by our own history, such as memories, we have now reminded ourselves of the events connected with these memories yet again. When we do this with echoes of the past, we increase their centrality and build out the history we have with them.
Any attempt at suppression only amplifies the difficulty. So we avoid, procrastinate or quit which has disastrous effects on long-term goals and happiness. And that means you’re not in control of your life anymore. You’re not doing or achieving what is meaningful to you. Life is no longer a pursuit of happiness and fulfillment, it’s a pursuit of whatever is not-pain.
There is an inherent paradox in attempting to avoid, suppress, or eliminate unwanted private experiences in that often such attempts lead to an upsurge in the frequency and intensity of the experiences to be avoided (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000). Since most distressing content by definition is not subject to voluntary behavioral regulation, the client is left with only one main strategy: emotional and behavioral avoidance. The long-term result is that the person’s life space begins to shrink, avoided situations multiply and fester, avoided thoughts and feelings become more overwhelming, and the ability to get into the present moment and enjoy life gradually withers.
Some people might say they can suppress feelings. Yeah, you’re correct. You can. But research shows you can’t suppress the bad without also suppressing the good. If you want your life to be as numb as your mouth during dental work, by all means, go ahead.
So how do we control our negative feelings? Easy answer:
Control is the problem, not the solution. Any rigid attempt to resist negative feelings won’t work in the Willy Wonka land of emotions. The only way to win the tug of war with feelings is to drop the rope. We must go from avoidance to acceptance.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: acceptance does not mean caving and giving in. You don’t have to like, agree with or obey the feelings. But you can’t ignore, avoid or fight them. Acceptance means allowing them to unfold without judgment, resistance or compliance.
Acceptance, as we mean it, is the voluntary adoption of an intentionally open, receptive, flexible, and nonjudgmental posture with respect to moment-to-moment experience. Acceptance is supported by a “willingness” to make contact with distressing private experiences or situations, events, or interactions that will likely trigger them.
If you wait until you feel good to do what is important, you may be waiting the rest of your life. (In fact, research shows this is exactly why procrastination happens.) To escape the finger trap puzzle you don’t pull out, you have to push in. In fact, studies show the ability to accept negative emotions has bigger benefits than job satisfaction or emotional intelligence.
People who are more emotionally willing to experience negative emotional experiences enjoy better mental health and do better at work over time. The effect is significantly greater than the effects of job satisfaction or emotional intelligence (Bond and Bunce 2003; Donaldson and Bond 2004).
Some might complain that if we can’t change feelings and all we do is accept them, we’ll be trapped in a world of hurt. Nope. Because after we accept, we expand. We can’t diminish the feeling voluntarily, but we can expand our attention to give us greater perspective and dilute its influence. A tablespoon of salt in a glass of water tastes awful; a tablespoon of salt in a swimming pool isn’t even detectable.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Okay, all this sounds fine but how do we do it?
We’re gonna “name it and tame it.” NAME is an acronym, by the way: Notice, Acknowledge, Make Space, and Expand. Let’s get started…
Notice how you’re feeling. Yes, that sounds dumb and obvious. No, it’s not.
When someone says, “Calm down” in the heat of an argument, what’s the inevitable response? “I AM CALM!!!” We often don’t know how we’re really feeling in the moment unless we check.
Scan your body. Consciously notice how you’re feeling. Tense? Breathing shallow? Heart racing? Focus on the raw sensations. You don’t want to identify with the feelings (“I am anxious”) you just want to sense what’s going on (“There are some anxious feelings.”) The feelings are not you, just like an ache in your elbow does not make you “an achy person.” Be like a scientist studying it. Where in your body do you feel the anxiety? Back of your head? Center of your chest? If this feeling was an object, what would it look like?
Observe it. Don’t judge it. It’s not good or bad; it’s just a sensation. Negative feelings actually have a very short half life if we don’t feed them. You know this but you forget it like clockwork all the time.
Now the anxiety or fear or anger is going to try to recruit your brain to help it out. And your brain will play along because brains hate unemployment. They love to start spinning stories. The feeling wants to sustain itself. And it will, by getting your brain thinking, “I can’t stand feeling this way,” “I have to get rid of this feeling.” And then you’re halfway to procrastination or quitting.
The feeling wants you to fuse with it; to go from being “an angry feeling” to “I AM ANGRY!” That basically gives the anger or anxiety the steering wheel, and all your goals go out the window. Once your brain gets engaged it will start spitting out thoughts and weaving them into a story that will fuel the emotion. You’ll wrestle with it or justify it or deny it, and all that does is keep it alive.
Just return to exploring the feeling. Study it, but don’t identify with it. Sensation, not rumination. Remember, feelings don’t last forever if you don’t perpetuate them.
A bad feeling is the single most important thing in the universe… until you realize it’s your feelings that are telling you that.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
It’s hard to stay focused on the feeling without complying with its wishes to run away, to give up or to punch somebody.
The feeling is everywhere, screaming about its importance. You can’t get away from it and it will tell you complying with its wishes is all that will bring you relief. Basically, it’s like the marketing campaign for a Marvel movie.
We’re gonna need help from step 2…
Label the feeling. Anxiety. Fear. Grief. And don’t say, “I am anxious”, say, “I’m noticing anxious feelings.” You don’t want to identify with it and have it hijack your brain. This is what leads to stupid decisions you later regret.
Look at your feelings instead of from your feelings. It’s a thing you’re experiencing, not what you are.
Neuroscientists and hostage negotiators both know about the power of labeling feelings. Giving it a name isolates it and reduces its power. It gets your amygdala to chill and engages your prefrontal cortex to curtail the emotion.
(To learn how to deal with passive-aggressive people, click here.)
You’ve labeled it. It’s contained. It’s not burning quite as strong — but you’re still uncomfortable. Okay, time to…
You want to make space for it inside your mind. You’re not letting it hijack you. You’re inviting it to pull up a chair. Don’t fight or avoid or comply. Let the feeling be.
You may be screaming to yourself, “I DID WHAT THE BLOGGER-MAN SAID, NOW WHY HASN’T IT GONE AWAY YET?”
Wrong. Bad. You’re rabidly pulling on a door marked “PUSH.” Remember the paradox. You cannot kill it or suppress it. And if that’s what you find yourself trying to do, none of this will work. You must accept it.
From The Confidence Gap:
The purpose of expansion is to make room for difficult feelings— to accommodate them, not to evict them. So if you’re practicing expansion hoping it will get rid of your fear, then you’re still in avoidance mode, still trying to avoid or get rid of it. And as you’ve seen already, that won’t work. You can’t reverse hundreds of millions of years of evolution that have primed you to feel fear when facing a challenge. Trying to get rid of your fear will only amplify it.
Remind yourself why you’re doing this. There are wonderful things in this life. To experience them you can’t just run away from anything that upsets you. That’s not the path to resilience.
From ACT Made Simple:
Also remember that acceptance is always in the service of valued action, so we can enhance it by explicitly linking it to values: “Are you willing to make room for this feeling if this will enable you to do what really matters to you?”
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
You’ve noticed the feeling, labeled it and made some space for it. Final step?
We can’t get rid of the feeling or avoid it — but we can expand our attention so that its relative importance shrinks. This happens naturally anyway but we’re actively assisting the process, instead of waiting for some greater problem to supersede it, or it to slowly fade.
Look at it like a stage play. Right now, the theater is dark with a huge spotlight on that feeling. We’re not yanking the feeling off the stage with a hook; we’re bringing up the theater lights so the rest of the play is visible.
Take a deep breath and turn your attention to the world around you. The feeling is welcome to stay where it is. This is not distraction; you’re just inviting more people to the party.
Look around you when you are exposing yourself and observe what else is happening in the world around you. If there are people there, notice them. If there are objects, or buildings, or plants or trees, notice them. Do not do this to diminish the thing you are struggling with. The point is to add to your experience— in addition to these feelings there is also life going on all around you…
You’ll start to get perspective back. You won’t feel the need to be reactive to the feeling, running away or obeying its dictates. You can make wiser decisions in line with your values, instead of raging, wallowing, procrastinating or quitting.
You intuitively know there’s more to life than the one feeling that is seizing your attention. But we forget this when we’re in the grip of it and often make poor decisions as a result. Overfocus on a feeling is like looking at the world through a straw. So accept and expand. You don’t want to miss the big show.
(To learn how to have a long awesome life, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn the proper way to motivate yourself to actually follow through and do all this when the moment calls for it…
This is how to be resilient:
“I don’t want to procrastinate anymore.”
“I don’t want to get anxious and paralyzed by fear.”
“I don’t want to quit when the tension gets high.”
While well-meaning, these goals are lame. They’re “dead person’s goals.” A dead person’s goal is anything a corpse can do better than you can. In other words, they’re defined by a negative, what you’re not going to do. Killing bad habits and reducing friction is great, but what’s it worth if you don’t know where you’re headed?
As Nietzsche said, “Don’t tell me what you’re free from; tell me what you’re free for.”
From ACT Made Simple:
In ACT, we want to set “living person’s goals”— things that a live human being can do better than a corpse. To move from a dead person’s goal to a living person’s goal, you can ask simple questions like these: “So let’s suppose that happens. Then what would you do differently? What would you start or do more of? And how would you behave differently with friends or family?” “If you weren’t using drugs, what would you be doing instead?” “If you weren’t yelling at your kids, how would you be interacting with them?” “If you weren’t having panic attacks or feeling depressed, what would you be doing differently with your life?”
We don’t want to miss all the great things in life because we’re afraid of emotional pain. We want to be able to take more and more of the world in — but have tools to cope with difficult feelings when they arrive. That’s how we persist and grow.
Know what happens when you can deal with negative emotions and keep pursuing “living person’s goals”?
You start really living.
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