One of the first questions that just about every anxious client asks me is “Will you help me get rid of my anxiety?” There’s usually a desperate tone in their voice, and I always tell them to brace themselves for my answer.
You see, most things we don’t want in the environment, we can get rid of if we want to. If there’s something in my living room that I either decide I don’t like anymore or perhaps even reminds me of something I don’t really want to remember, I can decide to just throw it out or give it to the Goodwill, and that usually does the trick.
However, for better or for worse, in the world inside our heads, it’s not such a simple thing to get rid of a thought or feeling. For example, right now I want you to NOT think of a black bird. Take a moment. Are you doing it?
What just happened? In order to NOT think of it, you have to think of it. Have you ever tried to NOT think of something? It’s not very easily achieved. So my request seems counterintuitive. In a session, I may ask my client to do something that sounds simple even though we know from experience, it’s not, and that is to be willing to have the feeling and/or accept it.
In the context of the therapy world, the word “accept” has a different meaning than you may think. It simply means to acknowledge that in this moment, and just for this moment, that is what is happening is happening or what you are feeling is what you are feeling. It is an acknowledgement of what is, judgment free.
You may not like what “is” in any given moment, but nonetheless, in that moment one can only be where they are and experiencing whatever they are experiencing. In this moment, as you read this, you may wish with all you heart to be traveling in space, or sitting in a cafe in Paris. I may want the same thing. You may be able to change that at some point, but in this moment...you and I are wherever we are, and however we are. Period.
In order to even think about getting somewhere else, one must first acknowledge where they are: they must make contact with reality in that moment. “But it feels awful!” you might say. I know, I understand, and yet the odd thing about trying to not have what you already have (in the sense of experience), will simple make the problem worse. It is like trying to extinguish a fire by fanning it.
So let’s say I’ve convinced you to just let go of the battle to get rid of anxiety or, in fact, any unpleasant feeling. What then? Here is where things get kind of fun! I ask people to become mindful of everything that is happening in the present moment - and to begin to just observe. That is, go through each of your five senses and just see if there’s anything you notice about when and where you are.
Next, ask yourself if have you told yourself a story about what is going on in your head or how you are feeling? If so, notice that, too. Then gently come back again to the present moment. Hopefully, whatever you are doing in that moment, whatever triggered the thought or the story, is something you really care about. Why? Because … and this is very important … I want you to move toward doing what you really care about and is important to you, even if it’s just at that time. Bring your focus to go toward what you want rather than away from what you don’t want.
This simple practice of acceptance can change your life, if you let it. I’m excited to tell you more about that in my next blog post!