Avoiding Avoidance (Part 2)

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I begin Part 2 by including verbatim my final paragraph of Part 1 (see previous blog):

“Earlier, I mentioned Steven Hayes, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Dr. Hayes is one of the key developers of what is known as “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy”(ACT), which is very much in line theoretically and therapeutically with David Barlow’s approach. In the “Men’s Health” article, Hayes is cited as saying: “Your ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotions is probably the broadest single psychological concept we know how to change, and with the biggest impact I know of. People’s willingness to sit with uncomfortable emotions and find some meaning in them–feeling, learning, moving on–predicts positive outcomes in their ability to lose weight, quit smoking, stick to an exercise program, learn new software, do well at work, and survive burnout. And it correlates with all these other things like reducing depression and anxiety.” Dr. Hayes has MUCH to say about the problem of “avoidance”; so much in fact that I’ve decided to talk more about it in my next blog: Avoiding Avoidance (Part 2).”

After seeing the book and passing it by at my local Barnes and Noble numerous times, I finally broke down and bought it; on sale, in fact, for about $10. The book is Get Our Of Your Mind and Into Your Life; The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (2005) by Steven C. Hayes, PhD. To my delight, it has become one of my best–and most economical–book purchases. It’s actually a workbook, and now ranks in my top five most recommended readings to clients. For anyone with a few extra dollars and desiring some life skills help, I strongly recommend its purchase. It wasn’t long before I bought and read Hayes’ more academic treatment of ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; The Process and Practice of Mindful Change; Second Edition (2012).

First, a word about the dual theme of “acceptance” and “commitment.” From the workbook (2005), Hayes writes:

“ACT draws a clear distinction between pain and suffering. Because of the nature of human language, when we encounter a problem, our general tendency is to figure out how to fix it….In the outside world this is effective 99.9 percent of the time….(But) we try to use this same ‘fix-it’ mentality when it comes to understanding our internal experiences. When we encounter painful content within ourselves, we want to do what we always do: fix it up and sort it out so that we can get rid of it. The truth of the matter (as you have likely experienced) is that our internal lives are not like external events….The ‘acceptance’ in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is based on the notion that, as a rule, trying to get of your pain only amplifies it, entangles you further in it, and transforms it into something traumatic….(The) alternative is to accept it. Acceptance, in the sense it is used here, is not nihilistic self-defeat; neither is it tolerating and putting up with your pain. It is very, very different than that.” Later in the book, Hayes equates “acceptance” with “willingness”: “willingness and acceptance mean to respond actively to your feelings by feeling them, literally, much as you might reach out and literally feel the texture of a cashmere sweater. They mean to respond actively to your thoughts by thinking them….To be willing and accepting means to respond actively to memories by remembering them, much as you might take a friend to see a movie you’ve already seen. They mean to respond actively to bodily sensations by sensing them, much as your might take an all-over stretch in the morning just to feel your body all over…The goal of willingness is not to feel better. The goal is to open up yourself to the vitality of the moment, and to move more effectively toward what you value. Said another way, the goal of willingness is to feel all of the feelings that come up for you more completely, even–or especially–the bad feelings, so that you can live your life more completely. In essence, instead of trying to feel better, willingness involves learning how to feel better.”

The theme of “commitment” in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is based on the notion that “we often put life on hold, believing that our (psychological) pain needs to lessen before we can really begin to live again. But what if you could have your life be about what you want it to be about right now, starting this moment?” ACT embellishes the “commitment” theme further by distinguishing between the “pain of presence” and the “pain of absence.” The “pain of presence” refers to current issues we wish would go away. The “pain of absence” refers to the life we’re not living because of current, painful psychological issues; activities we would engage in were matters different. For example, we think of the socially phobic person who declines that party invitation for fear of being evaluated by others. Hayes writes: “You have pain on top of pain, suffering on top of suffering. Not only must you deal with the immediate pain of your thoughts, feelings, and physical ailments, you also must deal with the pain caused by the fact that your pain prevents you from living the kind of life you want to live….Generally, the more you live your life trying to ward off the pain of presence, the more pain you get, particularly in the form of the pain of absence.”

Sound good? Absolutely! Hard to do? Absolutely! To illustrate this hardness, Hayes (2012) uses the imagery of Odysseus in Homer’s classic tale, The Odyssey. As the story goes, Odysseus and his men are returning to their homeland of Greece after the Trojan War. To get there, they must sail past the treacherous island of Sirens; creatures whose melodious songs entice travelers to their death in the depths. To hear the Sirens’ songs but not die, Odysseus instructed his men to tie him to the ship’s mast.  Hayes’ point? “AVOIDANCE” IS ONE OF THE SIRENS’ SONGS! “Experiential avoidance is the process of trying to avoid your own experiences (thoughts, feelings, memories, bodily sensations, behavioral predispositions) even when doing so causes long-term behavioral difficulties  (like not going to a party because you’re a social phobic, or not exercising  because you feel too depressed to get out of bed). Of all the psychological processes known to science, experiential avoidance is one of the worst” (2005).

To illustrate the almost irresistible, but deadening effects of avoidance behavior(s), Hayes (2005) offers a “Coping Strategies Worksheet” with the following four column headings:

Painful Thought or Feeling      Coping Strategy      Short-Term Effectiveness      Long-Term Effectiveness

Under both the short-term and long-term columns, rate the effectiveness of your coping strategy(ies) on a scale from 1 (not effective at all) to 5 (incredibly effective). Chances are that your short-term effectiveness number will be higher than your long-term effectiveness number. In other words, your coping strategy(ies) temporarily works and gains momentum,  but diminishes over time – showing the powerfully impotent Sirens’ song of avoidance. Stated differently, some of our coping strategies turn out to be nothing more than avoidance strategies that threaten our quality of life.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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