Open up, be present and do what matters
Have you felt like you have been struggling with a particular issue for many years? Have you been skirting around it? Or, have you been trying to make it better for a long time but with no long-term success? Clearly, it can be hard work trying to overcome life’s challenges. Often we can be trying for a very long time and that thorn in our side just won’t go away; it keeps coming back and showing its ugly face. It can make us frustrated, angry, sad, frightened and hopeless. It’s as if there is something wrong with us, we are too weak or stupid. Why can’t we get a handle on it? Do you recognise these thoughts and feelings?
The experience of battling with stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain, physical illness, psychotic breakdown, trauma, grief or interpersonal problems is global and indiscriminate. Young people as well as old, women as well as men, rich as well as poor can and will continue to suffer with at least one or a combination of these problems at some point during their life time. Human suffering is real and it is here to stay. Does this sound a little morbid or pessimistic? Perhaps, but there is an undeniable truth that life is hard at times and we find ourselves stuck in a hole out of which we just cannot climb.
So what can we do about this? How can we learn to cope with life’s struggles? The answer is in learning to be flexible. By learning to bend and reshape. If we can’t bend, then we break. Part of this bending might be trying to accept what we cannot control – our negative thoughts, feelings and memories. Anything that occurs inside of us is an automatic response and as such cannot be controlled. But this does not mean we are powerless. In fact, to accept that which we cannot control is inherently powerful as it frees us up to focus on what we can control.
What we can control is the way we lead our lives. We can move towards what we believe is good for us in the long-run – our values. Our values are actionable ideas, things that we can do. Our values can be placed at the points on the end of a compass and we can decide whether we walk towards those values or not. Some possible values that you may find important are Personal Development; Honesty in Relationships; Individual Responsibility; Caring for Others; Healthy Living; Humility; Intimacy; Financial Security; Independence; Collaboration; Family Duty; and, Having Fun.
If we commit to living our lives in pursuit of what is important to us, we can be fulfilled. At times, we may be swayed from them or blown off course. Life’s experiences may cause us to fall in to patterns of worry about the future or rumination about the past. And, when this happens we may stop moving forward towards our values. It’s as though we unwittingly become focused on whatever uncomfortable thought, feeling or memory pops up. In these moments we lose touch with the present. In order to recalibrate and get back on track, we have to remain present which involves a process of slowing down and stepping out of automatic pilot.
Maintaining contact with the present moment is achieved through the application of mindfulness. To be mindful is to notice all that is there in the present (both good and bad). It is about allowing oneself ‘to be’ rather than to carry on ‘doing’. And in these moments we learn to let go of whatever it is that we had become set on trying to fix in our heads and bodies.
Being present is not without its challenges and sitting with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings can feel overwhelming. One of the reasons for this is that we can become too fused or joined to the ideas that are running through our heads. We are unable to think of anything other than that which is making us feel so bad. The way we can manage this is to learn to create some separation from our thoughts. This is achieved through a process called defusion. Defusion is about learning to watch your thoughts rather than being led by them. It taps in to our mind’s ability to be aware as well as to think.
Language can be very powerful and can lead to certain associative thoughts and feelings, which might take us down a road that we’d rather not go or to unnecessary dark places. Becoming attached to these thoughts too readily tends to cause greater suffering, which again can distract us from living a value-driven life. The skill is in learning to take an observer perspective with our own thinking.
We often construct many beliefs, assumptions and rules that guide our own behaviour. These may be in our awareness or not. As well as causing us to react in certain ways, our beliefs tend to impact how we feel emotionally and physically. In CBT, the emphasis is on learning to challenge or reconstruct your thoughts in order to alleviate emotional distress and to reduce symptoms. However, when we learn to observe our minds, we can manage our emotions more effectively by merely letting our thoughts come and go as if they were leaves on a stream. Developing and practising this depth of awareness helps us to bend and adapt to our own inner experiences.
The essence of what has been described here is how to become more psychologically flexible. This article has drawn your attention to 6 key processes: acceptance; values; committed action; present moment contact; defusion; and, the observer perspective. These processes are the focus of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT. ACT is a contemporary approach within CBT and the evidence-base for its effectiveness is continuing to grow. In short, ACT practitioners believe that the road to a more fulfilling life, one where we can all learn to cope with life’s difficulties, is by choosing to open up, be present and, ultimately, do what really matters.