Human minds are prodigious problem-solving machines. When faced with a problem in the external world, a human mind will brainstorm, creating novel ideas and alternative solutions, review the ideas, select the one most likely to solve the problem and implement the solution. This process happens when we are solving major problems and also when we are creating “life hacks” that make a small thing just a little easier.
Often when we are dealing with external problems, the solutions will involve either getting rid of something that is unwanted (removing a tumor, cleaning up a spill, chasing away a raccoon that is rooting in the garbage) or avoiding it (taking shelter from rain or snow, wearing clothes to protect us from cold, turning off an annoying song on the radio). When we use these kinds of solutions in the external world, they usually work very well.
Using these problem-solving techniques within our own minds, however, does not work nearly as well. We often have sensations, feelings, thoughts and memories that are unpleasant and therefore unwanted. When we attempt to get rid of depressive thoughts, anxious feelings, unpleasant memories, however, we find that our interventions backfire.
In the physical world, when we get rid of something, it is gone, but in the mental world trying to get rid of something causes us to hold on to it. In trying not to think something, we are thinking about it. For instance, if we say to ourselves “I’m not going to think about that terrible memory anymore”, we have just thought about that memory. When we discover that trying not to think about something doesn’t work well, we may try other methods of getting rid of it. We can drink alcohol, do drugs or gamble to get our minds off of it but those methods tend to cause more problems in the long run – and the thoughts or feelings end up coming back anyway!
Similarly, we may try to avoid situations that cause us to experience unpleasant feelings. If we experience social anxiety, it seems like a good idea at first to avoid the situations in which those feelings arise. Planning to go to a party may give rise to feelings of dread that are relieved as soon as we cancel the plans. The rush of relief is very reinforcing and so the behavior is likely to be repeated. However, if we consistently refuse invitations and stay at home alone, the anxiety we sought to avoid is compounded rather than relieved. At the same time, our life becomes smaller, less interesting, less fulfilling. We have avoided the experience of anxiety that social occasions bring up but at a great cost. We have avoided not only the unpleasant parts of the experience but also the rewards.
In order to have the life we want, we have to be willing to experience all the feelings, thoughts and sensations that go along with it. We often equate happiness with feeling good, a pursuit that is destined to be unsuccessful most of the time, because unpleasant feelings often accompany our most cherished dreams and goals. We are more likely to find happiness if we can think of happiness as vitality, being open to everything life has to offer, what Jon Kabat-Zinn “the whole catastrophe”. If we can take the bad with the good, we can embrace our life and live fully.
Nancy R. Soro, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist