Opening Up to Life: Dealing with Manure
We live in a world of stress, and that comes with difficult, painful, and challenging thoughts and feelings. Many people believe that negative thoughts and feelings should be controlled, pushed away, or avoided. Common sense seems to say we need to “think more positively,” “replace negative thoughts with positive ones,” or “stop dwelling on the bad stuff.”
However, there are three problems with this approach: first, it only works in the short term, not the long term; second, when we hyperfocus on controlling our thoughts and feelings, we miss out on the vitality and joys of life; and third, the people and things we care the most about are the ones most likely to lead to these difficult thoughts and feelings (Harris, 2019; Hayes, 2019).
The good news is there is another way to relate to thoughts and feelings. This way works for both the short and long term and increases your sense of vitality and connection with the people and things you care about (Fernández-Rodríguez et al., 2018).
This alternative approach to thoughts and feelings is called “acceptance” – a willingness to experience some difficult thoughts and feelings in pursuit of a life you care about (Hayes, 2019). This leads to multiple positive outcomes, including less depression, greater quality of life, improved health behaviors, and greater progress towards goals (Shalcross et al., 2010; Stockton et al., 2019).
While people have misconceptions about acceptance (such as that acceptance means being passive or believing all the negative things our minds say), the truth is that when we are willing to experience challenging feelings and make space for them, it is easier to actively move closer to people and things that matter.
Think of it like this: as an agricultural producer, there are all sorts of unpleasant parts of your day: long hours, hot sun, physical strain, and—manure. Everyone agrees that manure is unpleasant; it is smelly, dirty, and, well, crappy. Yet, few of us try to avoid, control, or push away the manure; instead, we notice that it is there, acknowledge that it serves a purpose, make space for it, and expand our attention to other aspects of our production.
In a similar way, most people agree that feeling negative emotions is unpleasant; it is even worse when we get stressed about our stress, angry about our anger, or sad about our frustration about our disappointment (Harris, 2019). Learning how to be open to our experience is a skill that can be taught (Gloster et al., 2020). Russ Harris (2009), a therapist, suggests that these same four steps can help us to allow thoughts and feelings to be there while still pursuing the life we want to live.
- Notice Your Thoughts and Feelings. A good first step in becoming willing is to notice what you are experiencing in the first place. Take a deep breath in and focus on your body. Is there tightness, pressure, pain, or discomfort in your body, such as your back, chest, or throat? Try to look at that feeling with curiosity, as if you had never encountered it before. What does stress feel like?
- Acknowledge That Feelings Serve a Purpose. Much like the “check engine” light on a car, feelings are indicators that, when properly understood, can alert us to actions we should take to maintain our wellbeing. They do not control behavior, but they can inform it. For example, the
- Make Space for the Feeling. A scared horse in a small trailer might kick, damaging itself and the trailer; that same horse in an open pasture is much less likely to injure itself (Harris, 2009). Similarly, when we allow our feelings to be a part of our life, rather than trying to control them or stamp them out, their influence on our life decreases. To practice this, you might take a deep breath in and imagine that, in some sort of way, your capacity to hold the emotion is expanding just the way your stomach is.
- Expand Your Awareness. After noticing the feeling, recognizing that it serves a purpose, and making space for it, you can expand your awareness to take in other things. This is not an attempt to distract yourself; instead, it is like seeing the storm cloud on the horizon and the beautiful, clear blue sky above you. Once you acknowledge what you are feeling, you put yourself in a better position to act effectively—whether that means taking a break, talking with someone, or getting some urgent tasks finished.
- Fernández-Rodríguez, C., Paz-Caballero, D., González-Fernández, S., & Pérez-Álvarez, M. (2018). Activation vs. experiential avoidance as a transdiagnostic condition of emotional distress: An empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01618
- Gloster, A. T., Walder, N., Levin, M. E., Twohig, M. P., & Karekla, M. (2020). The empirical status of acceptance and commitment therapy: A review of meta-analyses. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 18, 181–192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcbs.2020.09.009
- Harris, R., (2009). ACT with love: Stop struggling, reconcile differences, and strengthen your relationship with acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger.
- Harris, R. (2019). ACT made simple: an easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy (2nd ed.). New Harbinger Publications.
- Hayes, S. (2019). A liberated mind: How to pivot toward what matters. Avery.
- Shallcross, A. J., Troy, A. S., Boland, M., & Mauss, I. B. (2010). Let it be: Accepting negative emotional experiences predicts decreased negative affect and depressive symptoms. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48(9), 921–929. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2010.05.025 Stockton, D., Kellett, S., Berrios, R., Sirois, F., Wilkinson, N., & Miles, G. (2019). Identifying the underlying mechanisms of change during acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): A systematic review of contemporary mediation studies. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 47(3), 332–362. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1352465818000553