A professor of psychology wrote a book about how to overcome suffering and start living a rich life, here’s what I took away from it
May I recommend you “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” by Steven C. Hayes. It was the most insightful book I read this year, and now, half a year after reading it, I can say it has truly changed my life forever. In this article I’m trying to share the main lessons I learned from this wonderful book.
The first core message of the book is that there’s a difference between pain and suffering. When you feel pain, and try to avoid feeling it — that’s when suffering start. Our mind can’t fix itself like it fixes problems belonging to the world out there. If you try to do that, the mind becomes both the fixer and the object to be fixed, and so begins a fight of the mind against itself, which often even augments the pain. Often, then, the strategy the mind uses is to avoid the situation that produces the pain. In turn this creates an even worse kind of pain: the pain of not being able to fully live one’s life.
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
This principle can be seen in an incredible variety of cases, from overcoming addictions, bad habits, worrying and many, many problems we encounter every day. Let’s take, for example, social anxiety, something I’ve struggled with, and at times still do. Being in a social environment can be an overwhelming experience. One feels naked, judged, many strong feelings arise. Questions of self-doubt arise, “Am I not able to have fun? Am I not able to be fun?” The temptation to just go home and be at peace is strong. But what’s to do in that situation?
The first thing to do is to stop the fight, and accept one’s own mental state for what it is.
The opposite of resisting pain is accepting it. Acceptance is a wonderfully effective skill (so much that it sometimes feels a bit like a superpower). By acceptance I don’t mean passivity towards the contingencies of life. What I really mean is acceptance of the contents of one’s own mind. The tools of acceptance are
- Be mindful of your feelings
Pay attention to your feelings and sensations. Move from trying to avoid what you feel to meeting it with full awareness. Recognize your feelings and sensations for what they are in their rawness, as they arise in your body (heat, sweat, pressure, heartbeat…).
- De-fuse from your thoughts
Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking, without identifying with them. Move from “I’m afraid” to “I just had the thought that I’m afraid,” go from “I can’t resist anymore” to “I just thought that I can’t resist anymore.”
These are the paradoxical tools of acceptance. And they work. Because they end the fight of the mind against itself. And they can be trained. For example, with mindfulness meditation (and other exercises you can find in the book).
If you are struggling, be mindful about your sensations and defuse from your thoughts, and you will become aware of a part of yourself that is untouched by the struggle.
Back to the example: if you are in a social situation, and troubling emotions arise, first become aware of those emotions, as they come and go in your body. Then become aware of how you are interpreting those emotions and the situation around you. What kind of thoughts arise. Probably they are forms of self-judgement. Recognize them as thoughts. There’s not even a need to argue with them. Just recognize them for what they are: words, pieces of language, that arise, produced by your brain’s language center, and then go back from where they came. Nobody wants me at this party — oh, there goes another thought.
Paradoxically, what helps me the most in those situations is to think that these feelings are part of who I am, of how my brain works, and will for sure come again, in the future. I might just as well give up on “fixing” them.
Now, if life was all about overcoming suffering, the story would end here. But the second part about this wonderful approach is about committing to action (which is why it is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT).
When you liberate yourself from the need to get rid of all pain, a window of freedom opens up, which allows you to choose what the next thing you do is going to be. But what should you do? That’s where values come in.
A value is like a compass, indicating a direction.
It’s not a destinations you can reach — nobody has “got it”, everyone is on the way, and there’s no missing out or failing to arrive.
It doesn’t tell you how fast you have to move — if the moving is hard, you can baby-step, and celebrate any progress you make.
It never becomes unavailable — as long as you have a breath of life in you, you can make an effort to move towards it.
A value is something that is more important to you than the possibility that you might suffer. Acceptance then becomes “willingness”: You are “willing” to go through some pain, because there’s something you value more than avoiding that pain.
General values I’m trying to apply in my life are: “appreciate”, “be kind”, “learn and apply”, “be authentic”, “enrich other people’s lives”, “be resourceful”. I might be mediocre at all of them, but who cares? The idea to get better at any of them fills me with enthusiasm.
In the case of the party, the value one might want to apply is: “live a rich, deep and meaningful community life”. Following these values requires one to try to connect to others, to express oneself authentically, all of which comes with the risk of being misunderstood or disliked. But we have learned the tools that will allow us, step by step, to overcome them.
A deep insight into human nature
Let’s wrap up. The principles I learned in this great book are:
- Find the values that are important to you and follow them.
- Be willing to meet some pain and discomfort along the way. Learn to meet them with full awareness and acceptance. Move at your own pace.
As I said in the beginning, these principles have really changed my life. Many of the things I avoided, I now feel safe to try out now. Certain things I spent hours obsessing about in my head, now I just accept (and I also accept that sometimes the old habit of obsessing will slip through). It has really taken a lot of the burden it can be to be a human with an evolved brain.
Finally, I believe this book provided me with a deeper understanding of myself and the people around me, by giving me access to a fundamental insight about our nature. I might not have been able to summarize the book so well, so I recommend you go ahead and read it. And of course, I’m happy to have a conversation with you about this topic, so feel free to let me know what you think.