Emotions and Quicksand: Lessons from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy on Sitting with Difficult Feelings
By: Autumn Gallegos, PhD
Have you ever watched an old movie where the hero is sucked down into quicksand, and struggles to get out before he whistles for his horse to save him? With quicksand, the more you struggle in it the faster you will sink; however, if you relax, your body will float. Of course, it is difficult to act effectively in this situation because every instinct tells you to try to escape! The same principle applies to difficult feelings: the more we try to fight or avoid them, the more they will smother and control us.
In order to sit with difficult emotions, we must first see them for what they are: impermanent. Consider your emotions like a wave, at times increasing and becoming more intense, but inevitably always reaching some plateau, subsiding and finally passing. Emotions move and change, they are not permanent. This is particularly so when you don’t fight against and try to block the emotion. Sometimes just being able to remind yourself that emotions pass like a wave may allow you to better tolerate whatever upsetting feelings you are experiencing.
4 Steps to Emotional Acceptance
- OBSERVE. Bring awareness to the feelings in your body.
- Adopt the stance of watching your emotions, as if you are a third person observing what you are feeling in the present moment. Observe as the emotion increases, decreases, or shifts.
- Label the emotion. It might sound something like, "There is sadness. I can feel heaviness in my shoulder."
- The use of imagery can often be helpful in allowing yourself to foster this detached observer perspective. Different images work for different people.
- Clouds in the sky or Leaves on a stream: Imagine your emotions as clouds in the sky or leaves on a stream. With either image, you can’t stop the emotions, but you can imagine each cloud or leaf as your emotions. As such, you can just watch your emotions floating by you in their own time, eventually passing out of sight.
- BREATHE. Take a few deep breaths. Breathe into and around them.
- Once you feel you have fully watched and experienced the negative emotion, feeling it come to its natural conclusion, it might then be time to gently direct your attention to the present moment. This could be anything sensory, a particular task you are doing, a sound, taste, smell, sight or feeling of touch you may not have realized you were experiencing that you can now tune into. And if you can’t think of anything to be present-focused on, there is one thing you can guarantee will always be present to practice on…your breath.
- EXPAND. Make room for these feelings. Create some space for them. Change the story.
- You’ll notice that the language used to describe your experience has a sense of curiosity and non-judgement. The fear, sadness or anger that you feel is not deemed good or bad, or right or wrong, it is what it is.
- ALLOW. Willingness doesn’t mean you like, want, enjoy, desire, or approve of something. Willingness means you’ll allow it, make room for it, or let it be, in order to do something that you value.
- Other ways to think about allowing difficult emotions:
- allow it to be there (simply because it already is)
- give it permission to be where it already is
- let go of struggling with it
- stop fighting with it
- make peace with it
- make room for it
- soften up around it
- let it be
- breathe into it
- stop wasting your energy on pushing it away
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Eifert, G.H., & Forsyth, J.P. (2005). Acceptance and commitment therapy for anxiety disorders. U.S: New Harbinger Publications
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2009). Acceptance and commitment therapy. American Psychological Association.
Keith Stein |