“Accept what is out of your personal control,
and commit to taking action that enriches your life.” – Dr. Russ Harris
Jenny, a junior attorney in a large law firm in Western Tennessee, recently discovered how to be her best friend instead of her worst enemy but not allowing the negative thoughts to stay in her mind producing negative feelings.
It was working. She wasn’t as down on herself as she had been. She was learning how to change her negative critical inner voice to make it more positive.
It had been several weeks since she turned her first solo case over to her supervisor because of emotional distress and fear of losing the case for her client.
She was in the law library poring over documents to find precedence for her current case, another solo case.
Irene, the librarian, who had helped Jenny work through her negative self-talk, walked up to the table where Jenny was working and sat down across from her. Jenny was so engrossed in her research that she didn’t notice.
She reached out and laid her hand on Jenny’s arm. Jenny jumped. With wide eyes, she looked up at her.
“You scared me,” she said holding her hand to her chest. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you sit down.”
“I know,” Irene said. “I’ve been over here several times during the last eight hours and you didn’t notice.”
“I know, but I have another solo case and I can’t blow this one,” Jenny said lowering her head to indicate she needed to study.
“How many times have you been over that information,” Irene asked.
“Not enough,” Jenny snapped. “Oh, I’m so sorry.
“What’s your inner voice telling you right now,” Irene asked.
Jenny closed her book and looked up at Irene who had taken a chair across the table.
“It’s telling me I’m going to blow it again,” she said as she rested her head in her hands.
“What have you been answering?”
“I guess I’ve just been letting it talk, actually talk non-stop.”
“And how is it causing you to feel?” Irene continued.
“I am very anxious and scared.”
“No, you are feeling very anxious and scared. There’s a difference. You don’t need to be controlled by anxiety and fear. You don’t have a choice in the emotion, but you do have a choice in what you do about it. Your emotions are not your identity. You are a very good attorney on your way to being a great attorney and a partner in this firm. Once again you need to do the opposite. Say, “I feel very anxious but I’m not going to be anxious I am going to do great in court,” “I feel scared, but fear is not going to interfere with this court case.”
“I’ve tried to not think about it, but it doesn’t work.”
Irene reached out and took Jenny’s hand, “Dear, you can’t eliminate a thought or an emotion, when you try it makes it stronger. The more you think about it the worse you are going to feel. Your feelings come because you continue to mull it over in your mind. You are stirring your emotional pot, so to speak, and it’s getting worse.”
“I just can’t stand this feeling that I’m going to blow the case. It’s getting worse and I don’t know what to do about it.”
When your mind seems to be out of control, running wild, like in Jenny’s case, accept what is and commit to taking an action to do and think about something different.
Negative thoughts or emotions in itself is not necessarily distressing. They become distressing when we identify with the distressing thought and choose a corresponding action. We go out of our way to avoid them or, in Jenny’s case, become more and more distressed. In the post about Jenny’s first solo case, her emotions and negative self-talk became so intense that she had to transfer the case to her supervisor.
Strategies to avoid uncomfortable situations such as heat, cold, pain, hunger etc, work to alleviate the discomfort. But similar strategies applied to alleviate the emotional discomfort seem to backfire. For example, the more we fear, struggle with, and try to avoid any form of emotional discomfort, the worse it gets. Our fear and avoidance of the emotional discomfort actually magnify it.
Emotions like sadness, anger, and fear are actually useful to us. Fear is useful in our survival, like in the ‘fight or flight’ response. It’s very helpful when it kicks in at exactly the right time to protect our safety when it’s proportional to the danger.
Anger is also a helpful emotion. When you are faced with a wrong or injustice, you want your anger to kick in. But, once again, we must choose appropriate action.
Irene took a deep breath, “Let me give you an example. Close your eyes and take several deep breaths. Allow your body to begin to relax. Last time you had a solo case you had so much anxiety that you had to call Herman in to take it to trial, correct?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Are you going down the same path on this case?”
“I guess I am. I’m getting so tired everything is blurring together. I’m getting confused,” Jenny answered.
“Last time did the anxiety and fear go away once you turned the case over to Herman?”
“Yes. After that, I felt fine. Except, I felt a little ashamed because I got so upset,” Jenny replied.
“So, your intense emotions did go away, they weren’t permanent.”
“You’ve taken several deep breaths and we’ve been talking. How do you feel right now?”
“Better. Why? Nothing has changed. I still have the court case to do tomorrow.”
Irene smiled, “Because you stepped away and talked about something different. When you are distressed and you bury yourself in your research your distress builds and builds. Your emotions act like a wave. They increase and become more intense, but inevitably they will reach a plateau, subsiding and finally passing away. Right now the wave has subsided because your mind is busy elsewhere. As you get back into your research it will build again.”
“So if I continue to study and immerse myself in the case it builds and builds? I tried saying the opposite like, but it didn’t seem to help.”
“You are too immersed in the case. It’s like you are in the middle of the wave and it’s swallowing you up. You need to come up for air. Walk away from it for a while. Do something different. If it doesn’t work to do the opposite or you can’t push the anxiety and distress away accept it.”
“Accept the anxiety and distress? I don’t understand.”
“Accepting it is not liking the emotional discomfort or resigning yourself to being miserable. Instead, it’s about seeing the negative emotion for what it is and changing how you react to it. It’s learning to watch your emotions “mindfully,” being present at the moment, paying attention to what you are experiencing at the moment. In this way, you are an observer and you won’t be sucked into the chaos. You are aware that it will happen but you aren’t surprised into reacting impulsively. You’re a watcher. You’re like a third person watcher, watching from a distance – detached. As such, you don’t have to engage, react to or try to stop your emotions. You are aware that it is going to happen and you give it space until it passes. Does that make sense?”
“Actually, it does,” Jenny said as she settled back into her chair. “Since you’ve been here talking the wave has subsided. Can you go on lunch break?”
“As a matter of fact, I can,” Irene said as they started putting Jenny’s papers and books away.
Steps to Accepting Distress
Below are some steps or guidelines for accepting emotional distress. You will need to experiment to find what works best for you. It will take practice and trial and error.
Watch or Observe
Picture yourself standing on the beach watching the waves roll in and out. Observe your emotions rolling in and out like the waves. Observe the intensity increase then decrease. Sometimes the intensity will hold steady for a while then it will decrease or shift to a different feeling.
Important Point: You are not your emotion. You are only the watcher of your emotions (Tolle, 2010).
Label or Describe
Label or describe the emotion you are feeling as you watch it roll in and out. You assume the role of commentator or journalist reporting on the emotion. The self-talk would go something like “My heart is beating fast, that means there is fear, but I’m just an observer,” or “I feel heaviness in my shoulders, which indicates sadness, but I’m just an observer,” or “I feel my jaw starting to tighten up indicating anger, but I’m just an observer.”
Curious and Non-Judgmental
The language you use to describe the emotion indicates curiosity without judgment. Your self-talk could go something like, “That sensation is interesting, but it’s not bad or good, not wrong or right. It just is.”
The use of imagery or visualization can often be helpful in becoming just an observer. Different images work for different people
Some people find an ocean wave helpful as discussed above. Some people imagine panicking as a wave rushes over them or treading water and thrashing the arms against the wave fighting hard to get to shore. Don’t’ fight the wave. Instead, allow the wave to carry you to shore as in body surfing or ride the wave on a surfboard allowing it to carry you to shore. (adapted from Eifert, Mckay & Forsyth (2006)
Another image is that of a non-stop express train carrying your emotions through to the next stop as you watch from the sidelines. (adapted from Wells 2006)
Other people like to imagine their emotions as clouds in the sky floating by or leaves floating downstream in their own time until they are out of sight. (adapted from Wells 2006 and Eifert & Forsyth 2005)
Another image is of you sitting in a room with a front and back door. The emotions come in the front door and go out the back. Some will stay awhile where others exit quickly. Still, others will re-enter the room a number of times before permanently leaving. (adapted from Eifert, Mckay & Forsyth (2006)
You may think of different images that would work better for you. The point is to find an image that you can observe from a distance so you don’t get sucked into the emotion. You can pay attention to them in a helpful way, then watch it move out.
“Jenny,” Irene said. “Learn to use your anxiety as a motivator to do the preparation you need for your case, but recognize when you are finished with your research and you are prepared. Then let the anxiety float on by.”