Living a Rich, Full and Meaningful Life During a Pandemic: The Power of Acceptance in Turning Pain to Purpose

by Ally Fischman, MS, LCMHC, NCC

“Ever more people in the world today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” -Viktor Frankl

Netflix. Cleaning my house. Baking lots of cookies (and then eating them). More Netflix. Convincing myself over and over that eventually I will get to see my clients in person again. Video games. Planning. Blasting 90’s grunge to make my thoughts stop racing. Even more Netflix. These are just a few of the ways I’ve tried to escape the pain I’ve recently experienced from being a person living during the COVID-19 Pandemic. My clients are the most brilliant avoiders and teach me endless new ways of attempting to get rid of their own difficult thoughts and feelings. With compassion, I joke with them that they could earn a Doctorate in Avoidance (if that was a thing). I relate to my clients on a personal level each and every day when I have that little moment of awareness that none of the strategies I’ve used to free myself of my pain have worked. The pain always comes back. There is no Nirvana song that is loud enough to get rid of my racing thoughts. There is nothing I can tell myself to fully get rid of feeling angry. So now I’ve still got anger, AND I’ve got a lot of time spent in my life trying to get rid of it.

I invite you to do a little two-part experiment if you’re choosing to read on. Grab the nearest object that you can hold in your hand. For most of us, that’s our cell phone. For the next moment or two, let’s pretend that your phone represents all of the difficult thoughts and feelings you try to escape from on a daily basis. Push your phone as far away from you as you possibly can. Go ahead, push it all the way out in front of you, and once you have it there don’t move. While you’re pushing, see if you can reflect on the following: What’s happening to your arms? What is it like to engage with the world around you and the people you love? How connected do you feel to your body and what matters to you? Do you have more freedom to move your body, or less? Perhaps the first thing you noticed was that your arms became tired really quickly. Imagine pushing all this pain away for a day, a week… your entire life!? I’m also betting you experienced firsthand that all of your focus and attention became the very thing you were trying to push away. Your overall ability to move your body became less flexible, and you felt less connected to yourself and those around you.

Now for part two: Place your phone on your lap. It still represents the painful thoughts and feelings you try to push away. Take a moment and just notice what this is like. Then I invite you to reflect on the same questions you explored before. You may notice that we didn’t actually get rid of the thoughts and feelings- they’re still sitting on your lap. However, I’m guessing that your focus is more flexible as well as the range of motion you have in your body. I’m also betting that if you had to converse with a friend or loved one, you’d be able to be more present with them.

In part two of this experiment, you were practicing something called acceptance. Acceptance involves allowing our thoughts and feelings to be as they are, regardless of whether they are pleasant or painful. It’s when we stop struggling with the reality of the present, no matter what the present is giving us. Usually, people use the word “acceptance” in ways that are extremely invalidating, such as “you just need to accept (insert literally anything uncomfortable here).” I’m sure you have your own examples of moments from your life when someone preached to you about how acceptance was what you needed to do in a particular situation. When seen as a period at the end of a sentence, acceptance isn’t all that appealing. Why in the world would anyone want to accept and make room for the things that are incredibly painful? Let me then ask you this: What if acceptance was seen as a comma instead? When you allowed your phone to rest on your lap a moment ago, you created wiggle-room in your mind and body. Would you be willing to drop your struggle with painful thoughts and feelings as a means to use that wiggle-room to show up in your life in ways that mattered to you?

What Acceptance Is Not

Let’s make a few things clear about what acceptance is NOT. Acceptance is not tolerance, or rather, gritting your teeth and putting up with something you don’t want. Have you ever been to an event where someone you really dislike also showed up, and you spent the entire time tolerating their existence? That takes a lot of energy trying to avoid making eye-contact with them or avoiding their presence (think pushing away your phone). Acceptance also doesn’t mean that you like or approve of what’s happening inside or outside of your body. This is where a lot of us have felt invalidated by others who tell us that we must accept something because we internalize that as “I must be okay with this.” Most importantly, perhaps, is that acceptance doesn’t mean that you’re against making change in the present moment. The practice of acceptance can help free up our arms and legs to take action that is meaningful in the NOW. Put simply, acceptance is when we decide that we’re not going to fight with reality, and allow it to rest on our lap (much like you did with your phone). Unfortunately for all humans, dropping our struggle with something painful can actually bring awareness to whatever pain is present, which can feel… you guessed it… PAINFUL.

When I turn down the volume on the greatest grunge hits of the 90’s, I come face to face with the anger that I feel about the state of our country. However in choosing to drop my struggle with anger, I’ve got more options in how I respond to anger. For many of us during this Pandemic, we are choosing to continue to push the phone away- whether that looks like throwing yourself into your job, cleaning your house, binge-watching shows, using drugs and alcohol, or working out- which can lead to living a life that feels meaningless. What follows are some ways that you can live a richer, fuller, more meaningful life rather than continue to pour all your energy into pushing away all of the pain that comes along with living in a Pandemic.

Know the Ways You Escape Pain

Baking a cake might be an example of me avoiding how angry I am, or it could be an example of me practicing my value of creativity. In other words, baking a cake can bring me closer to meaning and purpose, or it can take me out of my life and further away from what matters to me. This is why it’s important for you to know the ways in which you escape from your own difficult thoughts and feelings, because guess what… it can still look like actions that are positive or “productive.” One way to begin exploring this is to make a list of things you do each day that give you a sense of purpose, and things you do that don’t increase your sense of vitality. Awareness of actions that take us away from our values within itself can offer space to make a choice to do something that is more meaningful.

Turn Your Mind and Body Towards Acceptance

Think about a fork in the road with one road leading to acceptance of pain, and the other leading to avoidance of pain. One thing that we can do at the beginning of our acceptance journey is be aware of which road we’re on. The choice to take the acceptance road does not within itself equal acceptance, it just helps to put us on a helpful path. We may have to turn our mind and body towards dropping our struggle with difficult thoughts and feelings quite a bit as we begin to adopt acceptance as an alternative to avoidance. Once you’ve identified that you’re avoiding pain and have committed to acceptance, try the following:

When feelings and body sensations are what we are looking to drop our struggle with:

  1. Change your body posture. When we avoid pain, our bodies do the same thing by tensing up and adopting a closed body position. Take your palms and rest them on your legs so that they are facing the sky. Move your lips, gently curling the edges of your mouth upwards as if you were giving a half-smile. Open your shoulders and gently allow your head to rest on your neck.
  2. Notice and name emotions as they show up in your body. Here is sadness. Here is anger. Here is confusion. Take one of your hands and gently place it on the location where you feel this discomfort the most. See if you can imagine opening up and making space for the feeling to be there.
  3. Imagine a circular dial on the back of your neck that corresponds to willingness. The higher I turn the dial up, the more willing I am to have the painful feeling. The lower I turn the dial, the less willing I am. See if you can experiment with turning your willingness dial up. If acceptance of a feeling with your whole body feels overwhelming, practice turning the dial up for just your feet, and then slowly moving up until you’ve turned the dial up for your whole body.
  4. Physicalize your feelings. I know, this one sounds strange. Let’s pick anxiety. If anxiety had a shape, what would it look like? If it had a sound, what would it sound like? If it had a texture, what would it feel like to the touch? What would it smell like? What color would it have? Imagine that you reach into your body and place this shape out in front of you. See if you can explore that object with curiosity. Is it moving or still? If it’s moving, in what direction?

When thoughts are what we’re looking to drop our struggle with:

Practice looking AT your thoughts. Many of us resort to excessive planning or rumination as a way to escape difficult thoughts and feelings about the Pandemic. If you’re one of these people, watching your thinking can be a nice alternative. Here are two ways to do this:

  • a. Call out your thoughts by saying “I notice that I’m having the thought that _____________________.” Do this for as long as you’d like. While this doesn’t get rid of thoughts, it does allow them to come and go in their own time, and gives you the choice of how you respond to what your mind is giving you.
  • b. Imagine a stream with leaves flowing on the surface going in one direction. Every time your mind has a thought, place it on a leaf and let it float by. Do this regardless of whether your thoughts are pleasurable or painful. Allow the leaves to float away at their own pace. Don’t try to make the stream flow faster or slower. If your mind stops giving you thoughts, just watch the stream. Sooner or later your mind will have something to say. If the same difficult thought shows up again, place it on another floating leaf.

Know What Matters AND Take Action

If we’re going to go out of our way to drop our struggle with difficult thoughts and feelings, we need to know for what purpose. We need to find North on our compass so we know in what direction to take action. Take a moment to ponder the following: 25 years from now, what do I want to be able to tell the people I care about that I stood for during this Pandemic? How did I treat myself and others during this difficult time? Values are aspirational ways of behaving that flavor the actions we take throughout our lives. Unlike goals, they cannot be checked off a list, and can always be practiced regardless of whether or not we reach the goals we set for ourselves.

Unlike morals that are chosen for us by religion or family, values are freely chosen by YOU and are truly how you wish to behave in your life. Here is a very short list of values you may (or may not) have:

Kindness   Fairness   Compassion   Intimacy   Supportiveness   Authenticity   Connection   Fun   Love   Awareness   Adventure   Gratitude   Creativity   Kindness   Persistence

Have your actions during the Pandemic been consistent with what really matters to you? If not, what is one baby step you can take today that would bring you closer to behaving more like the person you want to be?

Your Pain is a Window to Your Values

We hurt the most about the things we care about the most. Read that sentence again. When we avoid our pain, we also avoid awareness of what really matters to us, as well as taking action toward those values. Think about this: What would I have to stop caring about in order for the pain that comes along with living during this Pandemic to go away? For many of us, that’s connection with others, and adventure. My anger reminds me of my values of fairness and justice. It is only when I notice that I’m angry and commit to turning up my willingness dial that I can choose something meaningful to do, like seeking out more information, making a donation to an organization that is consistent with my values, or having a conversation with friends/family/colleagues about how to support causes I’m passionate about. During a time in history when it makes sense to tune out, I invite you to tune back into your pain and see if you can treat it as an ally. Your hopelessness, fear, confusion and anger all can be important guides to meaningful action. Which valued direction will you choose next?

 

This blog is based on ideas from Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT)
For more information about ACT, please visit: www.contextualscience.org/act

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