Most people enter therapy with the goal of feeling better. Many of my clients tell me, “I just want to be happy.” Makes sense. Who wouldn’t want to feel happy? But what if I told you, that in order to feel happy, we also need to be willing to feel pain. In other words—we can’t “feel better” without first getting better at feeling.
We all have an innate tendency to want to avoid uncomfortable experiences including painful thoughts, distressing feelings, memories and uncomfortable physical sensations. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we use the term “experiential avoidance” for behavioral strategies that are used in the service of avoiding an aversive experience. Most of us have engaged in strategies that help us to avoid unpleasant internal or what we refer to in ACT as “private experiences.” For many, having a glass of wine to relax after a long day at work or zoning out in front of the TV is a harmless form of experiential avoidance. But for others, what used to be an occasional buffer to distress (e.g. drinking wine, binging on ice cream, isolating) has now become a secondary or even the primary source of distress.
Oftentimes experiential avoidance strategies work in the short term. Think about someone who experiences tremendous anxiety in social settings. She becomes increasingly anxious throughout the day leading up to her friend’s party—right up until the time she makes the decision not to attend. At this point, as you can imagine, her anxiety melts away and, in that moment, she feels calm for the first time all day. But what happens when the next social event comes along? This time she doesn’t wait until the day of the event to cancel, instead, she decides as soon as she receives the invite that she won’t go. Soon she engages in this avoidance strategy every weekend, and, as you can imagine, eventually people stop inviting her to events and her relationships suffer. Suffice it to say, it is not uncommon for people with social anxiety to also experience depression.
Every person who steps into my office has made valiant attempts at reducing their distress, and yet, it turns out that the experiential avoidance strategies they’ve used to avoid distress, are what ultimately serve to maintain and even exacerbate their distress. Unfortunately, many therapists unknowingly contribute to this same unworkable agenda by engaging their clients in similar avoidance strategies.
Clearly, pursuing happiness by avoiding pain is getting us no where. So what is the alternative? Rather than avoiding pain, we can learn strategies that will help us to accept all elements of our experience, and we can approach our lives more fully by sticking to commitments made in the service of our values. So let’s start by pursuing meaning, and if happiness is a byproduct of living a meaningful life, we’ll take that too.