So far, we have established that pain is a part of the human experience and that we hold ourselves to unrealistic expectations when we try not to feel pain. We have also established that our brains naturally lead us towards a negativity bias and ‘unhelpful’ thoughts.
In this blog post, I’ll be discussing how trying to control experiences gives power to our unhelpful thoughts.
3. The Chinese Finger Trap
Carl Jung said, ‘what you resist, persists.’ In other words, when we resist our experiences, we ultimately give them a power that they don’t have in ‘reality.’ Our emotions are like Chinese finger traps. The more we pull and resist them, the more they have a hold on us.
Resistance keeps us in a small, limited mindset and it can lead to tense muscles, and other health problems like ulcers, headaches, teeth grinding, insomnia, and heart disease. When we are resisting our experiences, we fail to truly connect with those around us, or to give compassion to the parts of ourselves that most need comforting and care.
Think of times in your own life when you’ve tried not to feel something or deal with an issue or relationship that needed your attention. Did you experience tightness in your body? Physical sickness? Did you feel close to or less intimate with the people around you?
I shared in a previous blog post that my attempts at resistance blocked me from truly living and healing. When I’ve experienced loss and insomnia, I only made sleepless nights worse by trying to force myself to sleep or by beating myself up for not sleeping. My mind started to race with unhelpful thoughts about my future. I would start to worry that I would ‘never’ sleep again, or that I might literally die from lack of sleep. As most of us do, I engaged with these thoughts. I believed them or attempted to argue with them. In short, I gave them huge power and only contributed to my anxiety and inability to sleep.
When we get stuck in a control mindset, we get stuck in thinking traps, and we don’t recognize thoughts that would be more helpful and enriching. Here are some unhelpful thinking styles we often get stuck in (thank you to psychologytools.com for the letting me share this graphic):
These thought patterns are common, and we engage in them without even realizing it. The suffering that unhelpful thoughts cause, however, and the amount of time we spend stuck inside unhelpful thoughts, adds another layer of difficulty to hardships we naturally face as a result of being alive.
This is why it is essential to be compassionate with yourself as you navigate your patterns of resistance and unhelpful thoughts. As discussed earlier, we are evolutionarily programmed to get stuck in negative thoughts, to want to control our experiences, and to try to explain away what’s wrong by criticizing ourselves or other parts of our lives.
In fact, it is a sign that we are trying to care for ourselves that we avoid pain and seek out pleasure. We are alive, and we are trying to give ourselves the best experiences possible. But we need to adopt a new strategy.
A common technique for treating insomnia is to tell a client to try to stay awake. I only began to sleep again once I simply gave up on trying to force myself to sleep. Instead of lying in bed perseverating and staring at the ceiling, I packed my sleepless nights with fun activities. One night I would re-watch my favorite movies; another night I would plan a 3am call to my aunt who was up at 5am (Eastern time) and on her way to work. I read books I wanted to read and researched topics that I didn’t have time to research during the day.
There was no pressure for me to have a different experience, or to try to control what my body was doing. And when I gave the up the reins of control, I was free to feel what was going on in my body (it was very tired!), and to be exactly where I needed to be.
I slept more and began to feel freer. I stopped pulling on the finger trap, and it loosened. The experience of insomnia and loss moved through me, and there was space, and openness, for new experiences to emerge.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach is designed to foster a sense of strength, understanding, and joy. Her expertise focuses on individual counseling with adults and adolescents suffering from depression, anxiety, self-esteem and identity issues, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.