I’ve been going to counselling for a while now. We started off with weekly sessions, moving on to fortnightly, and now we’re hopefully migrating into monthly. It’s the free service offered by the university, so it’s not designed to be continuous, but rather a stop gap for exam stress and the like. I’d love to go weekly for a few more months, but there’s a lot of pressure on the counsellors from up high to only do short interventions.
Which is a bloody nuisance because my counsellor is amazing. She also has a chronic pain condition so she understands, and she’s been imparting some glorious knowledge.
But the biggest, and most amazing piece of knowledge she has imparted on me is the concept of “Acceptance and Willingness”. They’re not quite the right words, because ‘acceptance’ has connotations of resigning oneself to something, but it’s the closest we’ve got. She’s suggested I read “Get Out Of Your Mind And Into Your Life” by Stephen Hayes, and “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris, as they explain the core concepts around the whole thing. It’s kind of like an extension of mindfulness, only in a way I can understand and take on board and use.
So here’s the way I see it. Your first thought, in any given situation, is your conditioning. I’ve been conditioned to be judgemental of fat people (courtesy of the narcissistic ex). Society has also conditioned me to be judgemental of people’s appearances in general – too much makeup, too little makeup, weird hair, weird outfit, etc. So my first thought is often not a kind one. My second thought, however, is who I want to be and what I want to think, and it’s usually something along the lines of “he/she is fat and gorgeous” or “that outfit is so weird and they’re rocking it” (NO BUTS HERE!). I turn my initial nasty judgemental thought into something complimentary of the other person, because the person I want to be is someone who is kind and supportive of other people. By accepting my initial thought (“he/she is fat”) and transforming it (“and gorgeous“), I change the entire tone of my thoughts, and by extension of that, the entire tone of my body language. It is unlikely I will ever not be judgemental (especially on bad days), because the conditioning runs so deep, but every day I will make the extra effort to move it to a thought I want to have.
Now that we’ve established that thought pattern for external things, the whole ‘acceptance and willingness’ modality is applied to internal things. Not just thoughts of ‘ohmygod look at that maHOOSIVE forehead’ (like the total asshole my brain is sometimes), but also the thoughts of ‘I am not good enough’.
This is where it gets really hard, because part of acceptance is acknowledging the thoughts behind the feelings. It involves diving into your dirtiest mental laundry to identify what, exactly, your brain is telling you when you feel a certain way. Sometimes it also involves identifying why your brain is telling you this, and that can lead you to some very unpleasant places. You can’t shy from it, though, or suppress it. You have to look at the feeling, tell yourself ‘this is what my brain is telling me’, and then take a step back and say ‘I have identified that this is what my brain is telling me, and this is why’. Then you take a further step back, ‘and now I must act in a way that aligns me most with who I want to be’.
For an initial example, one that many people with chronic pain will be able to identify with, I’ll tell you about yesterday. I’m having a bit of a fibro flareup right now with all the stress of a friendship breakdown, mum visiting, and exams looming (with me having done no work at all, because I have issues around seeking adrenaline to enable me to complete tasks – which is another topic altogether!!). When I have a fibro flareup, I don’t lie in bed, but rather on the couch. I can prop myself up on cushions, I have my animals around me, the heat pump going, and a view of the garden. Except once I lie down it’s painful to get back up. It’s more painful to exist in any other position, though. So once I lie down, I don’t want to get up. I want to avoid pain because it’s not a nice thing to experience at all. I don’t like it. But I have to get up to get to university to borrow a book I said I would borrow from a lecturer that day, who is doing me a favour by letting me borrow this book.
Normally I would think ‘ugh, I am in pain, and I know I will be in more pain when I get up. I do not want to experience this, so I will postpone borrowing the book until tomorrow when hopefully I am feeling better (but I will feel anxious about this action as well)’. The acceptance and willingness modality is different. It is ‘I am in pain and I know I will be in more pain when I get up. This is an uncomfortable feeling. Even though I will experience this uncomfortable feeling, I will act in a way that aligns me with who I most want to be, and I want to be someone who is considered well enough amongst my lecturers, and not some lazy ass student who asks to borrow something and never turns up. So I will get up.’
The same goes to emotions. I’m dealing with a lot of unpleasant emotions I don’t like dealing with right now because of this friendship breakdown. I feel incredibly sad and just generally awful, which stems from the fact that my brain says I am responsible for it, I am in the wrong, I always do something to fuck things up, I am inadequate. My initial response is to shove all those feelings away without bothering to identify the thoughts behind them, and distract myself with murder documentaries or podcasts. It doesn’t stop me from feeling those feelings, and it can make me very anxious. I’ve been in full on meltdowns because of this shit, where I can barely cope with cooking dinner because I’m so frazzled. All I felt capable of was sitting on the couch, wrapped up in a blanket, stimming like crazy on my laptop with murder documentaries going on the TV.
This past week has been different. Really fucking hard, don’t get me wrong, but different. Instead of beating the feelings away with the mental equivalent of a baseball bat, I’ve stopped, taken a deep breath, and let myself feel them. While feeling these things, I’ve tried to identify the different aspects, and the different thoughts behind them. I’ve discovered a lot of thoughts I didn’t think I had – such as the one about inadequacy. Then I mentally say (or say out loud if I really need to hear it) “my brain is telling me -” and here’s where I put in whatever thought I’m focusing on “- that I am inadequate.” I’ll take it further: “this thought stems from being ignored as a child, passed over for things during school, and never having any of my efforts acknowledged.” As a child I was super awkward, and tried really really hard in school but only in short bursts, and there was no consistency or support structure in the home. So I was the typical really smart but fails to apply kind of child. Ergo, inadequate.
Once you name your thought and where it comes from, it’s easier to distance yourself from it and its associated feeling. It gives you more clarity to see the situation for what it is. In my case, not my fault at all, and actually a very controlling friendship.
Once you’ve got that small bit of distance you can then look at where you are and think about who you want to be, and what action will align you most with that person. For me, in this situation, I want to be an independent woman who does not take abuse from a friend. I also want to be a kind person, both to myself and to her, which means that I will not respond to her anger. I will not tell people we know the details of our argument, unless they ask, and then it will be the most bare bones and factual. I will not hold things over her or against her. I will always be courteous to her. But our affiliation is over.
It’s bloody hard. I don’t want to feel these uncomfortable things. I don’t want to see her, I don’t want to interact with her. I want to avoid her and these feelings. I want to hide away and never poke my head out. But none of these actions align with who I want to be, which is the calm, confident, independent woman who does not take abuse from a friend and is kind, to both herself and others.
So I painstakingly open myself up to those unpleasant feelings and take that step towards who I want to be.