In a recent article in this magazine, I pointed out that whenever we have a negative thought, we’re either wanting something that’s happened not to have happened or we’re wanting a situation that exists right now not to exist right now.
In other words we’re wanting something to be “already” different. The only exception is worry about the future.
I suggested that wanting things to be “already” different, which we call “resisting what is”, is irrational and generally unhelpful. Nothing can ever be “already” different. We should aim to replace “resisting what is” with “accepting what is” all the time and focus on action to improve the next moment or the future.
I provided a tool called “acceptance” to train ourselves to achieve this. This involves noticing whenever we’re “resisting what is”, recognise this is irrational, drop the thought and refocus on action to improve the future.
Something that gets in the way of acceptance is emotion. Acceptance is a form of rational thinking and it’s hard to engage in rational thinking when we’re experiencing strong emotions. In this article I explain what to do about uncomfortable feelings, and how to gain control over them, so we can then “accept” whatever has triggered them.
The way most people respond to uncomfortable feelings is an example of “resisting what is”. Most people have negative thoughts about any form of discomfort. As with any other form of “resisting what is” this is generally unhelpful. A more productive response to uncomfortable feelings is nearly always to accept them. This means stop wishing the uncomfortable feelings weren’t there right now and be willing to fully experience them as long as they’re there.
An immediate benefit of accepting discomfort is that it puts it into perspective. It counters any automatic thoughts that discomfort is somehow unacceptable and helps us to recognise that it’s OK to feel whatever we’re feeling.
The second benefit is that uncomfortable feelings nearly always diminish when we accept them. By contrast, resisting uncomfortable feelings generally increases them or at least maintains them, such as becoming anxious about feeling anxious or depressed about feeling depressed. There’s an expression that applies to a lot of things in life, but none more so than uncomfortable feelings: “What we resist will persist”.
Here are three questions to ask about any uncomfortable feeling, and some suggested answers, to help us accept the feeling:
- Will this feeling harm me? The answer is always no. Nobody has ever been harmed by a feeling. We may be harmed by what we do as a result of a feeling (depressed people sometimes harm themselves). And we may be harmed by the source of a feeling. Feeling cold is harmless (it’s just a message to the brain), while being cold, the source of the feeling, can sometimes harm us. Pain is always harmless for the same reason, while the source of the pain might be harmful.
- Can I bear this feeling? We usually suggest the only feeling that’s unbearable is extreme pain, probably under torture. We suggest any other feeling is bearable.
- Finally, if this feeling isn’t harming me and I can bear it, what’s the problem with having the feeling right now, other than that it’s uncomfortable?
Here’s an exercise to practice accepting uncomfortable feelings. Next time you’re in the shower, turn the hot water down just enough so you start feeling uncomfortable. Ask the three questions above and apply the suggested answers. Remember the questions are about the discomfort, not the water.
As part of the last question, ask yourself if you could choose to stand there for another 10 seconds. Assuming your answer is “yes”, ask yourself if you could choose to stand there for another 30 seconds. I suspect you could, though you don’t need to. You’re now accepting the feeling so give yourself a treat and turn the hot water up again. For many this might be the first time you’ve ever accepted discomfort.
You can apply the three questions to any other uncomfortable feeling, such as any nervousness you might feel when you’re about to speak to a group. A bonus of the shower exercise is that you need never suffer from feeling cold again. You’ll still experience the feeling but you can now accept it.
But the biggest benefit of learning to accept uncomfortable feelings, is that it enables us to stop allowing our feelings to drive unproductive behaviour. That in turn, enables us to resolve recurring feelings, like depression or anxiety (such as nervousness speaking to groups), or more significant psychological issues such as OCD, addictions, eating disorders and many others. And it enables us to take control of habits we may want to change such as smoking or weight problems. This will be the subject of my next article.