What Do You Believe?
It's one of the great ironies of dealing with mental health issues that often the most effective strategies are also the most counterintuitive. Case in point: the willingness to experience pain without running from it.
In self-help circles, you'll often hear talk of "acceptance." It's the idea that we can allow negative feelings to arise without doing anything about them. I'm a believer in the underlying idea here but don't like the word; too much baggage.
To me, acceptance connotes a level of passivity or resignation. When I'm in the grips of severe anxiety, the last thing I want to do is lay down and take it. This is to say nothing of social situations, where most of the advice you hear is wholly impractical—pardon me while I step away from this meeting table to sit cross-legged on the floor and do some breath work.
The problem is that most of us aren't just refusing to accept negative feelings, we're actively running from them. We feel discomfort and we want to fix it. So we take action. But here's the thing: action is usually just avoidance by a better name. Pick your flavor: Social media. Compulsive work habits. Drugs and alcohol. Reading your 179th self-help book. Online shopping. Whatever takes the edge off.
So if this isn't about passive acceptance and it's not about running away, then what is it about exactly? It's about raising your threshold for pain. It's seeing things clearly while under duress. It's about not getting overwhelmed. It's about forging the mental discipline to see negative thoughts and feelings for what they are—neurological patterns and somatic experiences that come and go. Nothing more. Nothing less.
It's about recognizing that the voice in your head likes to tell stories. Sometimes those stories are helpful. More often, they're rife with hyperbole and gross cognitive distortions. In this sense, one might say it's about being less gullible.
The Stoics had a phrase for this that I love; they called it the Discipline of Assent. In short, it's the idea that we get to choose what we believe, and as with many of the world's best ideas, its simplicity masks its profundity.
We all experience negative thoughts and feelings that seem to arise from nowhere: What I just said was stupid. She hates my outfit. My heart is pounding out of my chest right now, there's clearly something wrong with me. The Stoics recognized that these initial flashes—which they sometimes called "proto-emotions"—are out of our control. But how we respond to them is not.
It's in these moments that we should neither lay down and passively accept our fate nor turn tail and run. Instead, learn to face the negativity head-on. Don't try and push the feelings away, but don't let them take control either. Learn to keep your head on straight under pressure. Question the narrative. Inspect the sensations as you might the results of a scientific experiment. Be aware of what's going on under the hood. Your fears are trying to convince you of something. But don't forget, the choice to assent is yours.