In the last post I wrote, I mentioned the concept of acceptance for treating unhappiness and anxieties. I said that acceptance is a tried and true method of recovery – by accepting yourself and all of your anxieties as they are, it paradoxically makes them disappear.

And this is coming from people with serious anxiety disorders – not just your run-of-the-mill occasional nervousness!

However, when people hear the words “acceptance” and “their problems” in the same sentence, it tends to send off alarm bells. The idea of accepting your problems feels like a death sentence. Because it sounds like it means giving up. Giving up – which means your problem will never go away and misery will ensue for the rest of your life.

Umm… no thanks?

But no, that’s not what I mean. It’s not like that!

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Let me explain.

Happiness Doesn’t Mean Perpetual Bliss

Turns out – and this seems so obvious when written it out here, yet it’s so easy to forget – is that being happy doesn’t mean feeling good all of the time. Happy feelings are just emotions, and emotions always come and go.

But we love happy feelings – we just want them all the time!

However, according to Dr. Russ Harris, author of “The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living”, the harder we try to chase and hold onto pleasant feelings, the more likely we are to suffer from anxiety and depression. You see, actual, true happiness (not just happy feelings) means leading a rich, fulfilling life. 

In particular, it means taking actions on things that truly matter deep in our hearts. This includes working towards our dreams and goals. Interacting with people we care about. Helping others. Being healthy. Or whatever it is that it’s important and worthy to you. These things result in a fulfilling, happy existence.

“When we clarify what we stand for in life and act accordingly, then our lives become rich and full and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality.

This is not some fleeting feeling – it is a profound sense of a life well lived.

And although such a life will undoubtedly give us many pleasurable feelings, it will also give us uncomfortable ones, such as sadness, fear, and anger. This is only to be expected. If we live a full life, we will feel the full range of human emotions.”

This isn’t realistic… all the time

Yes, it is true – living according to the things you truly value is not always easy or pleasant.

Yet, this is something we’ve been very mislead about by many a well meaning psychologist, self help guru, and proponent of positive thinking. We are lead to believe that happiness is a perpetual state of bliss – as if we were on a drug high all the time – and that this is achievable and within our grasp.

So people constantly seek and try to hold onto this imaginary state of elation – and in the process of this, we do everything in our power to avoid feeling any sense of unhappiness, unpleasantness, fear, or anxiety.

Unfortunately, the short term gain of avoiding immediate unpleasantries often makes the initial problem worse, enters you into a vicious cycle, and compromises your long term well being. This leads to even more pain and frustration.

Let me give you some examples from the book:

Joseph fears rejection, so he feels overly anxious in social situations. He doesn’t want those feelings of anxiety, so he avoids socializing whenever possible. He doesn’t accept invitations to parties. He doesn’t pursue friendships. He lives alone and stays home every night. This means that on the rare occasions when he does socialize, he’s more anxious than ever because he’s so out of practice. Furthermore, living alone with no friends or social life just serves to make him feel completely rejected, which is the very thing he fears!

***

Yvonne also feels anxious in social situations. She copes with this by drinking heavily. In the short term, alcohol reduces her anxiety. But the next day she feels hung-over and tired and she often regrets the money she spent on alcohol or worries about the embarrassing things she did while under the influence. Sure, she escapes anxiety for a little while, but the price she pays is a lot of other unpleasant feelings over the long term. And if she ever finds herself in a social situation where she can’t drink, her anxiety is greater than ever, because she doesn’t have alcohol to rely on.

***

Danielle is overweight and hates it, so she eats some chocolate to cheer herself up. For the moment, she feels better. But she thinks about all the calories she’s just consumed and how that will add to her weight – and ends up feeling more miserable than ever.

***

Ahmed is out of shape. He wants to get fit again. He starts working out, but because he’s unfit, it’s hard work and feels uncomfortable. He doesn’t like the discomfort, so he stops working out. Then his fitness level slides even lower.

***

There’s a lot of built-up tension between Andrew and his wife, Sylvana. Sylvana is angry at Andrew because he works long hours and doesn’t spend enough time with her. Andrew doesn’t like those feelings of tension in the house, so in order to avoid them, he starts working longer hours. But the more he works, the more dissatisfied Sylvana gets – and the tension in their relationship steadily increases.

***

Does this sound familiar? For us acne victims, the most obvious one relates to Joseph’s insecurities about socializing – we fear people are looking at our skin and judging us. So we stay home and avoid people as much as possible, but it only leads to loneliness and isolation. In the short term, we managed to control the anxiety, but in the long term, we are creating a bad situation for ourselves.

For me, I notice that when I feel anxious about my skin, my immediate urge every single time is that I want to change something in my diet. I want to control my diet as a way of controlling my anxieties. For me in most cases, making my diet “even more healthy” doesn’t seem to make that much of a difference, and just serves to create extra anxiety in the form of worrying about my food.

So what do we do?

Use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (usually just said as the word “ACT”) is a mindfulness based behaviour therapy that’s been shown to be extremely effective in a wide range of conditions including depression, anxiety, OCD, stress, chronic pain, post traumatic stress disorder, anorexia, drug abuse, and even schizophrenia.

The usual assumption of Western psychology is that the human mind is by default “psychologically normal”. Therefore, many traditional therapies focus on changing negative thoughts and behaviours, which often doesn’t work or only makes things worse.

ACT on the other hand makes the assumption that the normal psychological processes of the human mind are often destructive. It recognizes that fighting against how we feel creates even more anxiety. Therefore, instead of getting rid of these thoughts, it aims to teach you psychological skills to help you deal with your painful thoughts and emotions effectively – which in the end will reduce their impact and influence on you and allow you to live a much happier life.

Click here to read an excellent overview of ACT written by Dr. Harris.

The Six Core Processes of ACT:

There are six core processes of ACT (from actmindfully.com.au)

  1. Contacting The Present Moment means being psychologically present: consciously connecting with whatever is happening right here, right now.
  2. Defusion means learning to step back or detach from unhelpful thoughts and worries and memories: instead of getting caught up in your thoughts, or pushed around by them, or struggling to get rid of them, you learn how to let them come and go – as if they were just cars driving past outside your house. You learn how to step back and watch your thinking, so you can respond effectively – instead of getting tangled up or lost inside your thinking.
  3. Acceptance means opening up and making room for painful feelings and sensations. You learn how to drop the struggle with them, give them some breathing space, and let them be there without getting all caught up in them, or overwhelmed by them; the more you can open up, and give them room to move, the easier it is for your feelings to come and go without draining you or holding you back.
  4. The Observing Self is the part of you that is responsible for awareness and attention. We don’t have a word for it in common everyday language – we normally just talk about the “mind’. But there are two parts to the mind: the thinking self – i.e. the part that is always thinking; the part that is responsible for all your thoughts, beliefs, memories, judgments, fantasies etc. And then there’s the observing self – the part of your mind that is able to be aware of whatever you are thinking or feeling or doing at any moment. Without it, you couldn’t develop those mindfulness skills. And the more you practice those mindfulness skills, the more you’ll become aware of this part of your mind, and able to access it when you need it. (The technical term for this, in ACT, is ‘self-as-context’.)
  5. Values are what you want your life to be about, deep in your heart. What you want to stand for. What you want to do with your time on this planet. What ultimately matters to you in the big picture. What you would like to be remembered for by the people you love.
  6. Committed action means taking action guided by your values – doing what matters – even if it’s difficult or uncomfortable.

When you put all these things together, you develop ‘psychological’ flexibility. This is the ability to be in the present moment, with awareness and openness, and take action, guided by your values. In other words, it’s the ability to be present, open up, and do what matters. The greater your ability to be present, open up and do what matters, the greater your quality of life – the greater your sense of vitality, wellbeing and fulfillment.

Read The Happiness Trap. It’s a Good Book.

Well, I wish I could go on and explain in further detail all the different processes of ACT and how to do them exactly (maybe another time?), but this post would be far too epic… so if you’re interested in a happy fulfilling life, I highly recommend picking up “The Happiness Trap” and giving it a read. It goes over all the steps and actions you need to to start Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and finally stop struggling with anxiety, sadness, and depression.

PS – I just noticed he also has another book available called “ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” – I haven’t read that one, but if you’re really interested, it’s probably a great read as well.

Watch this Article as a Video

What do you think? Does this make sense to you? Is it a relief that maybe everyone is just a bit psychologically messed up by default … and that it’s okay to not feel good all of the time? 

photo by the photographymuse and radioher