Those painful memories… they’re everywhere! It might be about a breakup. Or something that went wrong at work. It’s likely accompanied by feelings of regret. Perhaps you’re judging yourself harshly, thinking “I really messed up,” or “There’s something wrong with me.” There may be feelings of worry. You might replay it in your head, analyzing it, beating yourself up about it. You might feel all of this in the pit of your stomach. You may find yourself noticing this painful stuff right when you wake up. You’re perplexed when it follows you to work, distracting you from whatever you’re trying to do. It’s upsetting when it’s still present at the end of the day, preventing you from getting to sleep. You try to think about something else – anything else. You struggle mightily to push it away. But you find that the more you struggle with it, the more it remains right there.
Entangled with painful thoughts and feelings
Our painful thoughts and feelings can exert a real pull on us, enticing us, in a sense entangling us. We may spend so much time in this entanglement (trying to make it go away) that we’re not able to think about or do anything else. It’s almost as if our vision is blocked. We become so fused with this stuff that we lose contact with what’s happening in the here-and-now. We miss out on things like the smile on our partner’s face, a beautiful sunset… the joys of engaging with what’s around us. When we’re not in the midst of entanglement, we may wind up reflexively turning to our smartphones, to Netflix, to alcohol, to drugs, to overeating, to excessive sleep, all in an effort to avoid or get away from this stuff. We may let the painful thoughts and feelings guide our behavior in ways that don’t serve us well, such as avoiding or withdrawing from people or situations. This can easily get in the way of our relationships, our work, and our health.
How can Acceptance and Commitment Therapy help?
This is where Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (“ACT”) comes in. How can it help? The simple answer is: by getting you get out of your own way. ACT can give you the skills to deal with painful thoughts and feelings more effectively, reducing their impact so they don’t dominate your life. You’ll learn how to become defused from them, allowing you to mindfully accept whatever comes along. If you’re not working so hard to get rid of what is painful to think about or feeling, that frees up space in your life for what’s important to you. The point is to live life on your own terms, right?
By working with a therapist who utilizes ACT, you can identify what matters to you, what you stand for, the types of relationships you’d like to build, how you’d like to behave. You’ll figure out the painful thoughts and feelings that lead to unhealthy behaviors. You’ll then learn how to commit yourself to take action that brings fulfillment and enriches your life, and be guided by what truly matters to you.
Through some hard work and a sense of resolve, instead of trying to control your thoughts and feelings in a struggle to “feel better,” you can free yourself up to live a richer and more meaningful life.