The experience of acceptance

For the past couple of weeks now I have been trying to live life without fighting my anxieties and other ‘negative’ feelings that may arise. I have been trying to navigate the world with an understanding that all feelings will come and go.

Close to where I live, there is frequently a disabled man in a wheelchair who is begging for spare change. One day when I was walking to the shops I glanced at him and he shouted in an aggressive manner “what the hell are you staring at?!”. Without thinking I snapped back “I’m not staring at anything!”. I really didn’t like how aggressive he was and he made me feel like I was doing something wrong. Anyway from that point on, I’ve always had high anxiety over the idea of seeing him again.

If this was just some random person on a random street it would be okay but as I mentioned this guy is frequently there. I’m faced with a few options, first is to take the long way around the shops so that I don’t have to walk past this guy. Second, avoid going to the shops all together or choose another place to do my shopping (not very practical) or third is to challenge my anxieties.

The method that I’ve had most success with is a DBT skill called opposite action to emotion. The idea is that you do the opposite action of what your current emotion is telling you to do. Eg: anxiety tells me to avoid? I confront! What appeals to me most about this skill is that it is so brutally simple and there isn’t too much thought that needs to go into it. It’s essentially just brute forcing the anxiety into submission in hopes that the anxiety dissipates as you get more exposure to the triggering event.

Brute forcing through opposite action helped tame my anxiety in a number of domains, however it came at a big cost. It was mentally and physically taxing. It reminded me of my time engaging with CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) where I would be tasked to continually challenge my thoughts multiple times a day *groan*. But where I would hit a wall with these techniques is when I was faced with such an extreme trigger which generated a tremendous amount of anxiety. No matter how much diffusion or thought challenging I mustered up, there were some things which I still found myself avoiding. That avoidance led to shame as I was unable to overcome my anxiety, and that led to feelings of frustration and resentment which sometimes led me to engage with other unhelpful avoidant behaviors.

So what was different this next time??? I dropped the struggle. I imagined the anxiety that I was about to face, and accepted that those feelings of anxiety are going to happen, that they have been happening and may continue to happen. As I walked to the shops, the most noticeable change was that there was no inner voice trying to coach me through the anxiety, there was no inner conflict between my anxious self and my determined self. I simply told myself that this was going to suck and went about my day. As a result I think I felt less anxiety over the situation but more importantly that single event did not stick with me for the next hour or so. It simply happened and I moved on.

Advertisements

Dropping the struggle

About two weeks ago in my ACT group, I got introduced to the idea of ‘Clean Discomfort’ and ‘Dirty Discomfort’. Clean discomfort is described as the natural level of physical and emotional discomfort that we feel, depending on who we are and what situation we are in. This kind of discomfort is unavoidable as it is our natural responses to certain situations.

Dirty Discomfort on the other hand is what happens when we struggle with the feelings brought out by the clean discomfort. By reacting to it and trying to remove those feelings, its quite easy to amplify that discomfort by adding feelings of guilt or shame. I especially resonate with the shame part of dirty discomfort. Quite often I feel that I have been in therapy for so long, that I can’t believe that I still get so triggered by certain events… which then makes me pretty angry and upset. So not only am I anxious, but I’m anxious, frustrated, angry and pissed off!

So this idea of ‘clean discomfort’, that is how I’ve been trying to navigate the world for the past two weeks. I’ve been trying to drop the struggle, and really open up to the idea of acceptance, acceptance over the fact that I have social anxiety, acceptance over the fact that anxiety is NOT a nice feeling, but also acceptance over the fact that anxiety levels quite often peak and then dissipate.

It feels pretty good to be the one guiding my actions as opposed to only doing things that my anxiety will allow me to do. But along with the choice to do the things I want to do, often means that I have to experience anxiety. But, isn’t that the point?

Making comparisons of how things used to be.

comparisons

In the height of my social anxiety and depression, I found that I was constantly reflecting on the past. That past may not have been perfect and certainly had its own problems, however I felt that I was in an okay space because I was socialising all the time and I also had a close group of friends that I would see regularly.

But you know that certainly was NOT the case. It may have looked like I was socialising but the truth was that I was just going out, spending a lot of money on over priced alcohol and getting so drunk that I lost my inhibitions and was able to talk to people. Those close group of friends that I would see all the time? I lost contact with them when I stopped going out partying… the term I hear thrown around a lot is ‘Drinking Buddies’, and that was me. Nevertheless, even with all these harsh realities, I still found myself reflecting back to that life because it appeared as if I doing all the things people my age should be doing.

I’ve met a lot of people through therapy and this idea of reconnecting with an old version of yourself is something that I hear often. It probably has something to do with our minds trying to make sense of things and it latches on to what is most familiar. I think I am in a stage of my life where I can begin to accept my situation and further build upon a life worth living, a rich, full and meaningful life.

So what brought this post up? A few days ago I was doing the groceries and I bumped into an old friend from high school. The last time I saw this guy was at the early stages of my therapy and I met him in the same circumstance (randomly at the shops). I remember how small I felt because in our first encounter he was walking with his wife and new born baby, and I was fresh out of hospital and with my mother. I spent a long time comparing our two situations and it made me feel like such a failure, even more so since we were face to face and standing next to each other. It was not a pleasant feeling at all… not one bit.

But this meeting was so different. While I am still struggling with my social anxiety I felt quite comfortable talking to him and more importantly I was willing to share what has been going on in my life lately (a question that I am usually really triggered by). In contrast to our first encounter, I’ve been feeling pretty great since my random meeting with an old friend.

Numerous therapists have told me that comparisons aren’t helpful and that it can further contribute to anxiety and depression. But, I have learned that as with pretty much everything in life. It is always about balance. Everything can be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for you in the right (or wrong) circumstance.

 

Writing Prompts, rejection, and general complacency

For a while now I have been using my group therapy sessions as writing prompts for this blog, and it has been working pretty well. It has been helping me both reinforce and reflect on the various ideas and skills I learned. Most importantly it has helped keep my mind in what I call ‘therapy mode’. Now this part is where things have gotten a little tricky, since last week my group has been on a Christmas/New year break. My university courses have also stopped for the break as well, so I decided to give myself some time off from responsibility and allowed myself to indulge in some television shows. First, it started off with me finishing off a series that I had been watching for a while now. Except rather than watch an episode a day, it turned into a marathon and it felt like I finished multiple seasons in one day! I then started to look for anything to watch, it didn’t matter how engaged I was with it, nor if I had seen it before, I was simply looking for something to watch so that I could pass the time in the day. It was at this point when I realised just how complacent I had become. I had slipped into old habits, habits which were not helpful to my recovery, and were actually unhelpful!! Looking after this condition can be a real full-time job.

Things aren’t so bad when my partner is around, but on some level I have become quite dependent on her when it comes to engaging in life outside of our home. So I decided to reach out to some people. Before the break, I managed to push through the anxiety and ask the other group members to add them on Facebook. Thankfully they all accepted, but this was just step one in attempts to socialise and make some new connections. Every time I thought about contacting one of them, my mind decided to remind me of different ‘rules’ that needed to adhered to, rules to not look too desperate, and rules which would help foster good connection with others. These thoughts prevented me from engaging for a few days (thanks mind!), but yesterday I finally decided to send somebody a message asking if they wanted to meet up for coffee. I had put myself out there, and allowed myself to be beat down with the stick of rejection.

At the time of this blog post, it feels like that stick has struck hard. I noticed that the person posted something on Facebook, but did not reply to my message *ouch*. However I did just check messenger and the message isn’t flagged as ‘seen’, so it is quite possible they have not actually seen it.

And just like that, the mind starts doing its thing and reminds me of all the other times I have put my feelings on the line, reached out and been cut down.

You really don’t know how to socialise

You’re really un-interesting

Nobody will like you

Why do you even try?

Jeeze, thanks mind. Not the most pleasant way to start the day, with these kinds of thoughts occupying my mind. But, I do recognise that they are just thoughts, and I understand why my mind is telling me these things over and over. But no matter how much I rationalise it and unhook from these thoughts. I am still aware of them, and they do tend to cut deep.

 

 

Flexible Perspectives

flex-laptop

In last nights ACT group we were asked to think of three fundamental life issues that we were currently dealing with. We were then asked to choose which issue brings up the strongest feelings, and also what those feelings were. Then we were asked to imagine if that feeling had a shape, colour or texture, what would it be???

Those of you that have been following my blog, probably know that the biggest issue I am dealing with right now is my social anxiety. It manifested itself as shame, sadness and frustration and the shape I came up with was a big circle, dark in colour which was trying to smother me. The next part is where things get interesting!!

We were then asked to put imagine that the shape started to grow and morph into something else, either an object, an animal, a person or character. The facilitator stressed that it was important not to force anything and to see what would occur naturally…. so without further ado, I present you my anxiety.

heart-shaped-thing

When this thing popped into my mind, I smiled and laughed to myself. I couldn’t believe the absurdity of the creature. A heart-shaped thing with eyes, and long thin legs. The next involved us being interviewed from the perspective of the character we came up with. I believe the idea of this exercise was to show us that we can adopt different modes of thinking, that we don’t necessarily have to be ourselves and maintain a rigid point of view.

For example, I currently have a lot of anxiety over this guy who hangs out around my apartment complex. Every time I see him, my anxiety manifests and I do what ever I can to avoid contact with him. The last time this happened, I ended up going back inside my building and took a round-a-bout way, and exited from a side exit. So next time I am in this situation, I could try to play out the situation from the perspective of someone else. Someone not riddled with anxiety, and is capable of handling the situation… like some battle hardened soldier or a regal king.

This skill seems to lend itself to that old ‘fake it to you make it’ mantra. However, this flexible perspective idea takes things further by creating a whole new role for you to slot into, rather than simply telling yourself you can do something.

One thing I love about this exercise is the playfulness of it, there really are limitless possibilities for this and while I haven’t done any acting since my kindergarten school play where I played a duck, I would imagine this task is very similar to the idea of method acting.

Unfortunately we are now on break over Christmas so my next ACT group will not be till the middle of January. At least this gives me time to play with this skill a bit more

/edit

Forgot to include some important insights I gained from this exercise. We were supposed to imagine what the creature would tell us, and my little heart shaped dude told me to

  1. take things less seriously
  2. get shit done
  3. take small steps – ‘keep it simple stupid’

I also started to wonder why on earth the image above came into my head. Perhaps the absurdity of the creature is telling me to take my anxiety less seriously. Worry less. Maybe if my anxiety is represented by such a silly creature, then why do I have to worry about it.

ADVENTURE!

adventure

Last night my ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) group discussed values. Understanding and identifying your values is important for ACT as it helps to create a framework on how we want to live our life and what direction we want to take it. We were asked to write down 5 core values that were important to us. Then one by one, we were asked to give up a value until we were left with a single value.

That value for me was ‘Adventure’.

This really puzzled me as I would not describe myself as adventurous. I’m the type of person that usually goes for the safest option, the comfortable option, the familiar option. However, I think that idea of who I am is largely based around my anxiety. Looking back at the last few years of my life, I have done some pretty wild things and have been to some amazing places. So why is it I carry around this cloud of anxiety, and let it influence how I see myself as a person? I suppose it is because I have carried it around with me for so long that I factor it into almost all of my decisions. I think this is where ACT comes in, because we are taught not to fight the anxiety but make room for it. To try and realise that while the anxiety is still present, it does not have to stop you from doing the things you want to do.

This sense of adventure is certainly an important part of my life, even though I may not always see it.

My mind survived!!

A week ago we were given some homework for my ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) group. That homework was to carry an egg with you for one whole week. Everything you did, you were to do it with this egg. In my previous post, I mentioned how my mind immediately went to the worst case scenarios. Then my mind went into problem solving mode of how I could handle this task in the easiest possible way.

Some ideas included;

  • Making the egg a little cushioned pouch so that it would be protected
  • Breaking the egg intentionally so that at least I had some control of how I was going to fail the task.
  • Only carry the egg with me on some tasks, and leave it at home for the others.
  • Leave it at home and just pretend that I carried it everywhere.

The next morning I picked up the egg and took it with me on my walk. I decided to fully embrace this task and see where it and my mind would take me.

img_0906

So in the spirit of going all-in, I decided to take some photos of egg’s adventures. I think one of the lessons we were meant to gain from this exercise was that despite our reservations and negative thoughts. Carrying this fragile egg was not going to stop us from doing our day to day activities. One thing I really noticed was that how mindful I was at making sure no harm came to egg, but as you can see from some of the photos, egg got into a little trouble.

Despite my hesitancy, I even took egg out and let the world see me carrying around and nursing this egg. The negative thoughts and judgements were present, but I chose not to get hooked by them and continued with the task. Nobody made any direct comments to me, and I didn’t hear any… but maybe they were thinking them? Either way it didn’t cause me any concern.

I am glad to be finished with this assignment as I was getting tired of nursing egg and making sure it doesn’t crack (more than it already did anyway). I keep thinking about the egg as a metaphor for our minds, and how in my anxious state I try to protect it from danger all the time. I am trying to explore different ideas on how I can let that protection down a little bit.

One thing that has helped me tremendously this week has been to focus on the distinction between my minds ‘voice’, and my own actions. While my mind may be telling me to be concerned about things, I do not necessarily have to listen to those warnings.