This is the fifth installment in a six-part series by Dr. Jeffery Baker. You can start from the beginning and read all six parts by visiting Dr. Baker’s Rebel Storytellers page.
We Homo sapiens have done many brave and wonderful things due to our feelings. We have conversely behaved in the most terrible and outlandish ways imaginable because of our feelings. Feelings, positive and negative, give us valuable information and should never be repressed. They always represent an encounter with something important to us. However, they also can be overpowering and influence us to freeze, run, fight, or submit when clearly it is not in our best interest to do so. Remember, the brain is organized in a hierarchical fashion, such that all incoming sensory input first enters the reptilian brain and moves upward toward the executive region. The reptilian brain produces your feelings and autonomic responses.
Feelings should be on the bus but never drive the bus. Reptiles should not drive. When you experience a feeling because you are involved in something you care about and focus on the feeling, it increases in intensity and will obfuscate your connection to what is valued. Your brain will always magnify whatever you focus on.
When you anticipate doing something very important you can feel the anxiety of taking that risk of failure or rejection. When you anticipate doing something of value and you question your competency then you feel the “energy suck” of hopelessness, helplessness, or worthlessness. When someone or something trespasses on your moral imperatives and it fouls a vital activity, you feel the fire of anger. Negative feelings can derail you from acting in the direction of what you care about. People believe the intensity of a feeling is what gives evidence to it validity. In fact, what is true about your brain is, intensity of feelings is a result of how important the anticipated value is to you and your focus and attention to that feeling when it emerges.
In contrast, when I have habitually participated in a dysfunctional or maladjusted behavior and needed to end that pattern, just when I’m ready to forever stop, deprivation anxiety shows up. My resolve in January will often be met by deprivation anxiety in February. I trained my brain for years to believe that I wish, like, want, and now need this defective behavior’s payoff. I train my brain to believe that this behavior is so important and that I need the payoff so much that I’m willing to sacrifice to indulge it. Now in January I’m going to tell my brain to stop engaging in a behavior that I’ve also told it that I need. Therefore I will experience cravings and urges for what I have trained myself to believe that I need.
So the moment that I’m ready to make a better food choice, and I’m contemplating the menu, I begin to feel the anxiety of depriving myself of the high caloric food items that I need and deserve. When I begin focusing on what I feel, my cravings increase to Mach 1. Once I tell the waitress to bring the meat pizza and beer, my anxiety completely goes away. I am deprived no more, but on the way home I feel terrible guilt for betraying my value of fitness.
My mentor, Dr. Emmitt Cooper, MD, PhD, said that we are “comfort junkies.” The truth of the matter is there is no way to pursue a meaningful life and be comfortable. If we are to live a robust meaningful life then we must make room in our experience for discomfort. If we are pursuing comfort in our lives we will be hollow and vain. Pleasurable activities are often used to avoid negative feelings. We live in a culture that adores pleasure, but our brain is not designed for pleasure to feed our soul. Our brain holds onto the memory of pleasure for no more than three seconds. Whereas, the practice of a signature strength gives us gratification which is sustenance to our core being.
In order to gain such nutrition for my soul I must be able to accept the negative emotion that often coincides with the valued action. The central and vital question is, “What am I willing to experience in order to behave in the direction of my value?” If I am open to let negative feelings be part of the experience and not fight with them, then I can practice a valued behavior consistently. If I’m willing to expose myself to the experience of whatever negative feelings show up, then I can pursue the things that are important to me and not struggle with or overreact to those negative feelings. Then and only then can I keep my attention on that which matters to me most, which is of crucial importance. I can choose what I pay attention to.
I can reduce my reaction and struggle with negative feelings by my willingness to make room for them. My brain pathways are designed in a “use dependent” fashion. Therefore if I’m practicing my signature strengths and letting negative feelings go along for the ride, soon my habit of struggling, drowning, or overreacting will atrophy.
Here are techniques that you can begin to practice today to learn how to accept the negative feelings that go along with value-driven behavior and choose where to focus your attention.
1. Mental Rehearsal – imagine three times a day at five minutes per session that you are acting out a signature strength and allow yourself to feel the feelings that emerge.
2. Behavioral Activation – do what you promised yourself that you would do, but you feel no motivation to do, for five minutes. Allow yourself to feel amotivational. Notice that after five minutes you feel a little better, and after 15 minutes you’re beginning to feel even better.
3. Acceptance – take a sheet of paper and write for three minutes about anything. Then blindfold yourself and write for three minutes about anything. Notice that when you focus on the blindfold and your loss of sight the struggle increases and the flow of your thoughts are hampered. By shifting your attention to your writing you can reduce your struggle.
4. Metaphor – use the metaphor of quicksand, the more you struggle with your feelings quicker and deeper you sink.
5. Noticing – become an observer of your own experience by noticing where the sensation is located, where it’s most intense, does it feel hot or cold, does it feel like liquid or solid, does it feel heavy or light, what shape does it have, and if it was a color what color would it be.
6. The choice – the choice to feel is based on you caring and realizing the only way not to feel this feeling is to no longer care about something that evidently matters to you right now.
Some people sabotage their valued actions by their ultra commitment to unrealistic goals. For those of you who are uber-responsible, driven to achieve while also trying to make sure it is done by a correct, qualitative, right, or safety standard that causes a conflict with others or in completing an undertaking, I will address those exercises and skills in my next article.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Bruce Turner