I’m not complaining; others have it far worse than I do. But I mention it because it is occurring to all of us. COVID-19 is trying our patience, our hope and our ability to accept the most uncertain of uncertainties.
Acceptance is almost a dirty word for some people. It smacks of surrendering or conceding. I have always felt that acceptance is simply a decision to see and prepare for things as they are and still reserve the right to be plenty unhappy.
Fortunately, these circumstances provide an opportunity to learn three strategies for accepting the seemingly unacceptable.
Make room for uncomfortable feelings.
There are few things people dislike more than making space for painful, frightening feelings. We prefer to employ escape, denial, resistance, and postponement (this is instinctual, not shameful). It might seem counterintuitive, but the more we employ these tactics, the more intense they become. It’s as if the mind, which cares more about survival than anything (including happiness), concludes that anything that we are so quick to fight or elude must be truly terrible and dangerous.
With rooming, we recognize that shrinking feelings can be unrealistic. But if we can’t reduce the feelings, we can use imaginative visualization to increase the size of the room the feeling inhabits. The more adverse the feeling, the larger the room that is called for.
For example, let’s assume you are afraid of snakes. You have a bad case of snakes; you can’t get rid of them. However, you can be a psychological architect that decides the size of the room that will contain you and the snakes. Would you rather conjure up a small closet or a large banquet hall? The banquet hall, right?
It’s bigger, making it easier to contain and tolerate the feeling. We can sit as far away from the feeling as we wish, as we examine it, converse with it, and acclimate to it. You can expand your room, you can leave the room, and you can even have this on your terms by placing an urgent, desperate feeling in a room eight doors down the hall. You know it is still reading a magazine down the corridor. It is just at a safe distance.
With COVID-19, this might mean sitting in a room with boredom, panic, nervousness, uncertainty, feeling confined, or even suicidality. It’s poetic justice, really. We are relegated to rooms, and we can use rooming to learn to be with any of our emotions.
Treat your mind like it’s an overprotective parent.
Our brain (the physical body part) is a control freak that places a premium on efficiency. The brain uses our mind (which has no physical form) to improve the chances that we will make what it regards as the safest decisions. Essentially, the brain uses the mind to get us to “mind” it.
The mind sends us tens of thousands of messages per day in the form of thoughts. Thoughts basically think themselves, popping into existence without any effort on our part, and without our permission. Some of our thoughts are interesting, some are taboo or weird, and some are ideas behind great advances in civilization.
The vast percentage of our thoughts are negative. We stay alive longer if we see danger first and are “better safe than sorry.” This evolutionary protection can be a real drag.
In response, we inhabit one of two camps (often alternately):
- We are on “auto-pilot” and unaware of our thoughts that seep subliminal negativity within,
- Or we are velcroed to our thoughts, and we flail around as we try to micromanage our thoughts.
We buy (hook, line, and sinker) that our thoughts are instructions, commands or facts originating from an authority, rather than messages from a brain with a hidden agenda.
One way around this is to imagine that your mind is a well-intentioned, anxious, overprotective parent that is insistent on looking out for you. The parent cares about you and wants the best for you. However, the parent also thinks it knows best and is easily alarmed. This is what makes you worry, doubt yourself, panic, and second guess whether or not you turned off the stove before leaving the house.
This works because it’s hard to be too afraid or sore with this well-intentioned part of you that is in this with you for the long haul. We can still make our own decisions and thank the inner parent, knowing that it often (but not always) tends to overreact, maybe even rolling our eyes for good measure as we do it.
Treat your feelings like children.
Emotions have a lot in common with children. They can both be irrational, raw, innocent and impulsive. And, just like with emotions, you don’t want to let children “drive the car,” and we should never “lock them in the truck.”
When we notice a feeling, we can imagine that the feeling is a child experiencing the emotion inside of you. Imagining a child helps us deal, and, just as importantly, makes it more difficult to abandon the feeling. We do not have to be parents or feel comfortable around kids to practice this. We can ask the child what it needs, or we may just sit with the feeling or place an arm around them.
These three strategies require resources we have an endless supply of – willingness, imagination and visualization. They work. As we come off the bench and resume our lives, these techniques can be invaluable.
He has extensive experience working with teens, adults and families in outpatient mental health and inpatient psychiatric settings.
Because of his sensitivity to the possible apprehension involved with anything new or personal, Gordon places a particular emphasis on helping clients and families feel at ease from the very beginning. His relaxed approach is primarily informed by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Motivational Interviewing, both evidence-based treatments. Gordon also is a certified alcohol and drug counselor.