When patients seek out therapy, they do so with the hope that when they leave, they feel better. This usually means no more anxiety, depression, or general suffering. Generally speaking, therapy does a pretty good job at alleviating these problems, however, expecting that anxiety, sadness, jealousy, guilt, and other difficult emotions never crop up again, is unlikely. While treating clinical disorders is important, equally important is understanding how to live with difficult emotions, instead of anxiously trying to change them. Finding a balance between feeling better and learning to live with emotional discomfort is a fine line but one that may help you live a more meaningful life.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), one of the main tenants is non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of your internal experience. In short, this means noticing what you’re feeling or thinking, not criticizing it, and allowing it to be there. This can be quite challenging, just consider how much avoiding and distracting we engage in on a daily basis. Many get caught up in trying to alleviate their emotional pain (i.e. judging and not accepting their experience) before they pursue what’s important. What if we could let go of the need to always feel better AND still engage with life in a meaningful way?
Here is a metaphor to help illustrate this point. Imagine playing tug of war, it’s you versus your monster (self-doubt, anxiety, depression, guilt, etc.). Consider, as you tug back and forth the time and energy you spend trying to defeat this monster. Now, what if you let go of the rope and allowed your monster to be with you. Suddenly, you can turn your attention to what matters. It doesn’t mean the monster no longer bothers you nor that everything is rosy. However, dropping the rope and allowing your monster to be with you equips you to face the challenges in life with greater confidence.
In practice, this looks like the following: You value making new friends, but you hesitate to reach out due to anxiety or self-doubt. The old approach would be to eliminate all anxiety and doubt before approaching strangers. This often results in a diminished quality of life, since you are not partaking in what you care about. The alternative is to accept that making new friends has inherent anxiety, you allow those feelings to be there while at the same time reaching out to new people. The more you engage in your values, even with your monster present, the more meaningful your life feels. Making room for discomfort is inherently uncomfortable, however, the benefits often outweigh the cost.