What we do to avoid bad feelings, and what to do instead

What does an enjoyable and effective life mean to you? And what are the things that come up that get in the way of you living that life?

For many people, the barriers aren't so much about things that happen in their external worlds, but much more about what is happening for them internally, their feelings and thoughts - anxiety, worry, stress, negative thoughts, low self-confidence, and so on. Sometimes they can feel like they are taking over.

Say you get home from work feeling uptight and on edge. Maybe all you want to do is hide from your family. The last thing you want to do is talk about what happened at work, and you end up being snappy with your spouse - even though you know they don't deserve it and feel bad about it immediately afterwards. Maybe you can't stop thinking about work, even when you're at home.

What do you try to stop thinking about it? A lot of people say that they just try to block it out. But they also say that it doesn't really work. Perhaps it works for a while, but then somethings pops back again, making them feel snappy all over again. Some people say they engage in distracting, engaging strategies, like cleaning. Their houses end up really clean, and sometimes they even get up in the early hours to clean. And it works while they are cleaning. But even when they are cleaning the house, other worries can pop up, as well as the original thoughts about work.

And was cleaning really part of what you thought an enjoyable and effective life would be about? If you think the example above applies to you, maybe you should add it to your enjoyable life list?

We humans are peculiar animals. We have a whole host of stuff we do to try to reduce this undesirable internal stuff that can interfere in our lives. Take your pick. Just for starters, we have:

  • Blocking it out
  • Hiding
  • Not thinking about it
  • Cleaning
  • Trying to get it in perspective

Sometimes, we get quite sophisticated or creative and employ strategies like irony, or unfettered 'positive thinking'. They work for a while, for sure, but like the other strategies over time they don't really stop the undesirable thoughts, worries, feelings from showing up. Does that sum up the picture for you? So, it's odd. We use all these elaborate strategies at one time or another to avoid feeling bad or thinking negative thoughts, and yet in the long-term, they don't really work. Sometimes, the strategies can even make the original situation work.

So why do we do it?

One theory goes something like this. Human language and rational thinking has given us a tremendous advantage as a species. We can solve complex problems, plan for the future, and other such fantastic things. And for 95% of our existence, in the world outside our skins, our minds have worked miracles. Just look at what we can do - computers, complex organisations of many kinds, rocket ships that can send robots to Mars, smartphones and tablets, beautiful monuments and buildings, and other such stuff. Throughout our history, we have been remarkably succesful because we have been working to a rule that goes something like this:

"If we don't like something, figure out how to change it or get rid of it, and then do it!"

If our ancestors didn't appreciate being cold, they worked out how to keep warm. If being hungry didn't sit well with them, they worked out how to store food, and grow it too. In the world outside the skin, the rule still works well for us today. This is all about control. We humans have been very successful at controlling the environment around us. It works very well for the world outside the skin.

BUT - there is another aspect to our lived experience. The other 5% of our lives that is lived inside our skins. This is a very important but strange land. There are no solid things - no chairs, table or iPhones. It is a virtual world of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. It can often seem like the real world, but it is not the real world.

Despite how successful we are in dealing with problems outside our skin, we humans tend to run into difficulties from the way we deal with problems inside our skins. Often, we try to apply the control rule that works so well in the real world, outside our skins, to the virtual world inside our skin. We try to change, remove, or avoid the thoughts, feelings and memories that we don't like. But this doesn't really work inside our skins. It's not easy to just stop thinking about something we don't want to think about. In fact, don't you find that trying not to think about something just makes you think about it even more?

The problem is that when we try to control thoughts and feelings, we embark on a no-win struggle with whole chunks of our own experience. And this internal struggle costs us. Ironically, he stuff we struggle with is likely to become more, not less, important. And the struggle will continually draw us away from the present moment, from the here and now. The struggle may also involve us avoiding situations or people, and can reduce our ability to meet our goals in life.

Because of these costs, in the world inside our skin, our efforts to control it becomes the problem, not the solution. Don't take my word for it though - have a think about whether this applies to you.

The alternative to control attempts is acceptance. That is, if we are willing to experience an emotion or thought for what it is, without struggling with it, then we can escape all the inevitable problems that come with internal struggles, such as more stress, anxiety, worry and a reduced ability to be in the here and now. Practicing mindfulness techniques help us to catch a glimpse of thoughts as thoughts, and emotions as emotions. When we see our internal world for what it is - we are much less likely to engage in unhelpful struggles with our experience inside our skin and our experiences are much less likely to interfere with your desire for an enjoyable and effective life. You can try this 'leaves on a stream' exercise to see how mindful techniques can help.