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Acceptance... and elephants [Jan. 22nd, 2007|01:05 pm]
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One of the things that's brought me a bit closer to wanting to study psychology these days is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This is a new way of looking at treatment that sounds like it's on to something good... at least to me.

The first part, acceptance, is something I understand, somewhat instinctively, but I'm trying to think about how to express it.

You see, a while ago, I realized that, in order to be happy, you have to learn to ignore a lot of things. There's a lot of misery in the world, and there will always be a lot of misery in the world. There's enough to crush even the most bouyant of human spirits.

Now, you don't want to build a wall around yourself, so you don't see the unpleasantness. You don't want to fail to notice when you have a chance to do something good, because you're shutting your eyes to the bad things you might put right. But if you let them, the pains of the world will rip you apart. It's a big world; it's got a lot of pain. It's bigger, meaner, and nastier, than anyone.

So you have to refuse to let those pains rip you apart.

Accept them. They're there; they're real; they're not going away. But until you can do something, accept them, and recognize your own limitations.

There's another reason to look at things this way. If you try to fight a battle that's just too big for you, you get run over, splat, like a pancake. Think Wile E. Coyote discovering that steamrollers are not good weapons to use against the Roadrunner.

That doesn't meant that you won't try to help. It means you're not going to throw yourself into a hopeless battle that just adds to the misery that's already present.

Now, let's do this small. You're depressed, okay? And it sucks. And you're fighting hard not to be depressed, and you're angry and frustrated because you feel like depression is kicking your ass, and it's not right and it's not fair.

Or, maybe you're anxious, and stressing, and trying not to be, but you can't help it, and you've got a massive headache and your neck muscles feel like they could be replaced with steel cables, and they'd be softer and more flexible and a hell of a lot less painful. And you keep trying to beat the anxiety down and keep the stress from affecting you and it's just not working.

What if fighting these things is part of the problem? What if your efforts to "fight" the depression or anxiety are actually making things worse?

What if you accept that you're depressed, or stressed/anxious, and did good things to help yourself feel better, but emphatically did not fight the depression or stress or anxiety directly? What if you just said "I need to heal from those things; I will heal in my own time, in my own way. In the meantime, I will try to eat well, exercise when I can to the extent that it's comfortable, spend some quiet time meditating, and try to live my life the way I want to, in spite of these things"?

"Accepting" these things doesn't mean ignoring them, and it doesn't mean not doing things to help them, but it does mean not fighting them, not in the traditional manner.

For example, if I tell you "don't think of an elephant", you probably will think of an elephant. It's hard not to think of an elephant.

Except... it's not. You might have gone a long time not thinking about an elephant, and it didn't take any effort at all. It's the trying, the fighting, that's causing the problem.

So, how about you think about eating a cheeseburger, or any other food?

Right now, you might flash on an elephant anyway. It's still too close to having heard the word and thinking about not thinking about it. But, if you thought about eating a cheeseburger, and you didn't care whether or not the elephant showed up, but really, you wanted to imagine the cheeseburger, you'd have a much, much easier time thinking about the cheeseburger, and the elephant would slip from your mind.

Accept the elephant. Let the elephant move and change in its own time, in its own way. Don't try to push it, don't try to fight it, and soon, you might find that you're elephant-free. If not, you might find that, you know, you can live with the elephant. It's not all that pleasant sometimes, but hey, we all have our elephants to bear.

(Erm. Pregnant women might not want to think about that last line.)

[User Picture]From: karenkay
2007-01-22 09:17 pm (UTC)

This is what someone on one of my mailing lists said this morning about the phrase "Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional":

"Someone uses that phrasing to interpret the Buddhist First Noble Truth:


"Pain in life is inevitable but suffering is not. Pain is what the world
does to you, suffering is what you do to yourself. Pain is inevitable,
suffering is optional."

It's not the same thing you're talking about, but I think it might be parallel.
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[User Picture]From: johnpalmer
2007-01-22 09:33 pm (UTC)
Nod. ACT uses mindfulness as part of the therapy.

And yes, in a real sense, suffering is what you do to yourself, because your brain is what translates the pain as suffering.

This is a *very* tricky bit of reasoning, because it's very close to "it's your own fault you're suffering!" But it's more that, this stuff comes into your brain; if you knew how, you could reshape it, and while you wouldn't ignore the pain ("OW! Stubbed my toe!"), you'd be able to rule over it, rather than let it rule over you. (Or maybe you'd both live together in peace, rather than one ruling the other. Or maybe it doesn't matter. :-) )
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[User Picture]From: karenkay
2007-01-22 09:45 pm (UTC)
The Dalai Lama has a lot to say about this. In fact, he's the person who finally got me to grok what "life is suffering" means.

This is a bit obscure, but relevant: http://www.etext.org/Fiction/PurpleNotebook/ch310.html

It touches on the point you make about the tricky reasoning.

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From: kightp
2007-01-24 03:43 am (UTC)
The way I think of it is: It's not my fault I've suffered. But it's my responsibility to stop inflicting the same old suffering on myself again and again by giving it all my attention.
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[User Picture]From: hopeevey
2007-01-23 12:30 am (UTC)
That's very well explained - thank you!
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[User Picture]From: ruth_lawrence
2007-01-23 01:02 am (UTC)
Thank you for writing this :-)

For me and my anxiety, you're right.

< self talk >
Being anxious does not mean that I am broken or incompetent (an idea that has an iterative effect and sends me down the unhappy path to perseveration).
< /self talk >

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[User Picture]From: ljgeoff
2007-01-23 02:22 am (UTC)
okay, this might sound awful, but I'm thinking "of course". It would never occur to me to fight against depression or anxiety. For me, it's like it just rolls over me like a bad stomach flu, and all I can do is sleep alot and be gentle with myself. That is just what it's like for me; I can feel it coming on, I kinda brace myself and tell people around me.

Thank you for writing this. It explains some stuff with one of my partners and helps me to see where they might be coming from.

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From: kightp
2007-01-24 03:41 am (UTC)
This is pretty much exactly how my life-saving therapist helped me learn how to cope with the terrors of my own past. She got me to understand that I can't undo the past - bad shit happened, and nothing will ever change that. What I could do is accept it and stop reliving it in my mind - because that meant I was continuing to inflict the same old bad shit on myself, over and over, like ripping a scab from a wound. The person who'd hurt me was long dead, but there I was doing the job for him, over and over, every day of my life. I had to stop doing that to have any hope of healing.

Such a simple concept, but one it took more than a year of work with her to put into practice. And it's made all the difference in, really, everything about my life.

Oh - and sometime after she stopped being my therapist and became a friend I occasionally had coffee with, I learned that she is, among other things, a Buddhist.
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