How to deal with unpleasant thoughts and feelings – How Sean Connery gets me to the gym on a monday morning
We humans have evolved to do whatever we can to avoid pain, whether it’s physical, emotional or psychological. Obviously avoiding physical pain is a good thing. However, sometimes we behave in unhelpful and unhealthy ways in order to avoid unpleasant thoughts or feelings. For example, making yourself super busy in order to avoid feeling something. Smashing a tub of Ben & Jerry’s after a breakup to ‘eat’ your feelings. Or avoiding social situations that make you feel uncomfortable.
In psychological terms we call this behaviour “experiential avoidance”. I do it myself. We all do it to some extent because it’s a totally normal human behaviour. If it’s not excessive or it’s not really hurting you, it’s ok. But if it’s affecting your health or keeping your life ‘small’ in some way, then it’s unworkable. In which case, it’s probably a good idea to look at how you can stop these unpleasant thoughts and feelings from having so much sway over your life.
I have unpleasant thoughts and feelings every Monday when the alarm goes off for my early morning PT session. I’m guessing you may have similar thoughts. When the alarm goes off my first thought is “Oh gawwwwd I’m so tired. I need to stay in bed. It’s too early to exercise – I’ll hurt a muscle because I’m so tired and stiff. Ugh I’ll get all sweaty. It’s too far”. (Cough… It’s a 10 minute walk princess …)
The truth is that when I’m there I love it and I feel GREAT afterwards. My trainer is really knowledgeable and he doesn’t shout commands at me (unlike other trainers who didn’t last very long). He’s also hilarious and my unofficial dating advisor. So why the resistance? Why the melodrama every Monday morning?
Quite simply, I’m not a natural early riser and a very vocal part of me wants to stay in bed. I want to stay in a place of comfort. I want to avoid the unpleasant thoughts and feelings about having to get up, get sweaty and get out there when I could stay under the covers and snooze.
As I’ve said, these kind of avoidance strategies are ok if they work and they aren’t too costly in one way or another. But if I listened to those thoughts and stayed in bed it would affect my waist line and my muscle mass (very important for us ladies over a certain age). And I’m pretty sure my PT would get fire me as a client, which would mean no Dating High Command.
So every Monday morning I use a ‘de-fusion’ technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which helps me accept my unpleasant thoughts and feelings and gives them less power over me.
To do this, I replay the uncomfortable thoughts over and over in my head using the voice of a famous person/character. My favorite is Sean Connery. You can borrow him if you like.
“Och I’m going to get so schweaty” said Sean, over and over. It makes it sound a little silly and I smile a little. The thought has less power over me. I don’t get so anxious about it and I get out of bed! (If I’m honest it also sounds a little bit pervy when Sean says it).
Here’s how you can do it for yourself:
An easy de-fusion technique for unpleasant thoughts and feelings
- Pick an unpleasant thought or feeling that’s been plaguing you.
- Say it over and over in your head silently for 10 seconds.
- Notice how you feel having done this. How much do you believe the thought (how ‘fused’ are you with the thought?). How does it make you feel emotionally? And what sensations can you feel in your body.
- Pick the voice of a well-known character or actor. Someone you can really ‘hear’ speaking in your head. (Run out of ideas? What about: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Marilyn Monroe, Miss Piggy, Donald Duck, Dr Sheldon Cooper, or even that hideous Trump person).
- Say the same unpleasant thought or feeling over and over in your head in their voice for 10 seconds.
- Again, notice how you feel having done this. Do you feel any differently in your body? Does the thought or feeling have more or less power over you?
It’s important to understand that we’re not trying to avoid or ‘tolerate’ the unpleasant thought or feeling. These thoughts are going to keep popping up into our mind and that’s not something that’s under our control. But what do have control over, and what we’re learning to do, is to ‘accept’ these unpleasant thoughts and feelings. To allow them to have less power over us.
We can do this in therapy with any unpleasant feeling or thought. A particularly common one among my clients is “I’m not good enough”. Not a particularly helpful thought, and probably not true.
Through different ACT techniques we can help you unhook from these unpleasant thoughts and feelings. And in doing so, help you stop avoiding situations or people where this thought might pop up. Helping reduce the amount of experiential avoidance in your life. Helping you live a BIGGER life.
If you want to ask me what Counselling or somatic psychotherapy is all about, I offer a FREE 15 minute discovery session by phone for new clients.
I offer confidential counselling and psychotherapy sessions to people who are going through a hard time, whether that’s because of a mental health issue like anxiety or depression or because of a situation (relationship issues, bullying, abuse, isolation). There is no need for you to suffer in silence.