We’ve talked about the self-defeating nature of our Shit Avoidance Strategies, especially over the long term. Not that they’re totally, 100% bad; they can even be life-savers! But long-term, Shit Avoidance doesn’t help us rise to the challenges of life, fix the problems we’re facing, accomplish our meaningful goals, or grow as a person. At best, they keep us treading water, so to speak.
But if you try treading water forever, eventually you drown.
When we hold ourselves back from taking action, usually the reasoning that goes along with it is something like:
“This isn’t a good time; but I’ll DEFINITELY do this….later.”
“I can’t handle more right now; my plate is full already.”
“I just don’t have the time to do this right now.”
“When I feel better, I’ll start this…”
“I deserve a break. Today was hard.”
“When I’m not so — sick, stressed, broke, tired, stuck in this relationship, depressed, unstable — etc., THEN I’ll do this.”
“First of all, I just have to stop feeling so shitty….”
And things like that. I’m sure you’ve heard these excuses before, both from others and yourself. I’ve said things like this lots of times! And honestly, my heart goes out to people using these self-excuses. Life CAN feel/be overwhelming. We DO get exhausted. It DOES sometimes (often?) feel like we Just. Can’t. Handle. One. More. Thing.
But the self-fulfilling prophecy of this whole thing is, in order to fix our first-order problems (i.e., whatever our immediate emotional, relationship, financial, health, etc., problems are), we have to DO THINGS. Like engage in therapy, reach out to people, work on stuff. We have to set appointments and then show up for them. We have to clean up our house or apartment. We have to choose to be sober. We have to take steps forward with nutrition, or exercise, or sleeping habits. And possibly all of those things. So saying, “I’ll start doing that stuff when I feel better and can do that stuff,” kinda leads…nowhere.
It’s ok to feel shitty
A central tenet of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is that feeling shitty, anxious, depressed, etc., is not the problem; it’s not the obstacle; it’s not the thing to “fix” in order for you to take action. Taking action is the SOLUTION; it’s not the thing-you-do AFTER you have found the solution.
If you feel shitty, that’s ok. I mean, it’s not exactly great, like yay, yippee, I feel shitty! No, but it’s “ok” in the sense that feeling shitty is just part of life. It’s inevitable.
But we have more strength than we are so often willing to tap into. If we HAVE TO, we can overcome those shitty feelings. At least for a while. At least for long enough to get some Really Important Things done.
We all know ‘deep down inside’, that if we were forced to take action, we’d be able to. Heaven forbid, but if some psychopathic dictator took over the world and said, hey, I’m going to kill your family unless you start exercising (for example), then we’d all tap into some inner strength, and go to the gym. (We’d also quickly form a Resistance Movement to get rid of that crazy dictator ASAP.)
Remember the story of my grandparents in WW2? Remember the gifts our ancestors gave all of us? You are strong enough. You don’t have to have already fixed things, in order to fix things. You can get started working on things right now, right in the midst of being tired, stressed, depressed, broke, stuck in a difficult relationship, or whatever. Feeling shitty is the reason TO DO SOMETHING, not the reason not to.
The sneaky thing about telling yourself “Once I feel better”, THEN I’ll take action”, is that it’s a total, 100% bullshit lie, for two reasons. Think about it for a second.
– First of all, the reason you’re not taking action, is because you feel shitty. Waiting to stop feeling shitty is just going to make things get worse, and then, you’ll feel even shittier! That ain’t gonna work.
– Second, IF you do, at some point, start to feel better for whatever reason, then in all likelihood that urgent feeling of “I’ve really gotta do something about this”, will fade. The crisis is over, things ARE getting better, why make changes now? So even IF you meet those criteria you set and suddenly aren’t so depressed, have more time, get a bit of money, etc., then in all likelihood you’ll take that opportunity to GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK. “Whew, that’s over, thank God. Now I’m going to chill for a bit; I’ve earned it!”
The last thing you usually want to do, once you’re feeling better, is to go face all your nasty shit, heal your deep childhood wounds, or whatever. So you’ll convince yourself that “you deserve a break” and you’ll take a little “mental health vacation”.
And you know where that leads.
And then, right back into the shit we slide.
Control vs. Meaning
One thing I really like about FACT is the emphasis on concrete, specific behaviours. When it comes to dealing with shitty feelings, FACT gets us to focus on all the various strategies we use. This might overlap a bit with Exercise #1, and that’s ok. Here we’re opening things up even more, focusing on the myriad strategies we employ specifically to “not feel shitty.”
And, simultaneously, we’re focusing on the myriad POSSIBLE behaviours we could engage in that would lead us in a different direction. Instead of just managing our shitty feelings, there are also things we can do that point us in the direction of “meaning” — such as setting goals that align with our values, behaving in ways that move our lives forward, help us build useful skills, solve problems, gather support, learn, grow.
Ok, enough chit-chat — it’s Notebook Time.
Exercise #2: Moving from “Control” to “Meaning”
Step 1: Draw a horizontal line across the top of a page in your notebook. Label the left-hand side “More Control”, and the right-hand side “More Meaning”.
This line represents the continuum of possibilities between living a life in which you are focused on just “coping”, managing/avoiding shitty feelings vs. a life in which you are Getting Shit Done, living value-aligned, and thriving.
Step 2: Under “More Control” write down all your Shit Avoidance Strategies, all those things you do in order to Control feeling shitty. This is default-mode for so many of us. Not wanting to feel bad, we go through our days bouncing from Control strategy to Control strategy. From wake&bake, to video games, doom-scrolling the newsfeed to laughing at assholes on Twitter. Then there’s having a few drinks, smoking a bowl, cleaning out our closets and junk drawers. There’s “planning”, day dreaming, escape fantasy, focusing on BIG GIANT problems like saving the world, all the “frittering” we have gotten so good at. Etc.etc.etc. So in a big list, write all these behaviours down.
(Again, it’s okay if this reiterates some of Exercise #1. Seriously, you’ve probably spent many years doing all this stuff. Writing it down twice just to make sure you really, really, really become aware of these things, is time well spent. Besides, you might think of some new things you forgot about the first time…)
Step 3: Under “More Meaning”, write down all the BEHAVIOURS that bring you closer to your “better life”. Some of these might be things you intrinsically enjoy doing and feel they are good for you (e.g., go for a walk outside; connect with a friend; cook something). Some of these might be things you don’t particularly enjoy, but you know you’ve gotta do them to move your life forward (e.g., make a list; pay your bills; answer your messages; make a therapy appointment; exercise). Write all of them down.
Note: SOME behaviours might seem to belong under both columns. For example, for me personally, “play chess” is both something I use as a Shit Avoidance Strategy, and also something I deeply enjoy, and I feel like it connects me to people, and like I’m learning and improving myself. For me, chess is healthy, up to a point, but unhealthy past that point. If I’m staring at 30 online games all day, then it’s more Shit Avoidance. If I’m taking a break from getting things done and spending a few minutes making some moves, or if I’m meeting a friend for lunch and a game, then I think that’s healthy.
So, when I did this exercise, I wrote “Play chess” under both columns. Maybe that’s confusing, but personally, it helped me to realize that some of my Shit Avoidance Strategies also, up to a point, brought more meaning into my life. It helped me see that, if I strike a healthy balance, I can keep enjoying these things without getting addicted to them.
Step 4: Control vs. Meaning:
Read both columns; get a kind of “gut sense” of where you’re at, how much time you spend in Control strategies vs. Meaning strategies. At the top of your page, above the horizontal line, put an “A” representing, on average, this ratio of Control vs. Meaning. Wherever that is, that’s where you’re at.
In a month, you’re going to revisit this, and put a “B” representing where you’re at then. The next month, “C”. As you move through the alphabet, over time, you are going to see those letters heading towards Meaning. And THAT is going to feel pretty damn good.
Step 5: Success Indicators:
Now write “Success Indicators” underneath all this stuff, or on the next page. Ask yourself, IF you shift your life in the direction of more meaning, how are you going to know it’s working? What are some of the KEY changes you are going to see, if you manage to make progress choosing Meaning more often, and Control less often?
e.g., My Success Indicators are:
– getting outside for a walk more often
– writing daily, or close to it
– going to bed at a reasonable time
– having less clutter and mess around me
– responding to email & phone messages
– making therapy & doc appointments
– staying sober
– messaging a friend to hang out
Yep, if I choose more meaning, those are some of the obvious changes that are going to happen right away, and show me that “it’s working”.
And I’ll be honest with you — after 1 month of formally employing this (and Exercise #3, which we’ll get to shortly), I can say that 6 of those 8 things are happening regularly, or pretty close. Less clutter & going to bed at a reasonable time? Errr….not so much.
But hey, if “two outta three ain’t bad”, then six outta eight is even better! (Woohoo! Math!)
What are your Success Indicators? How will you know, what will you be able to observe concretely, after a few days, maybe a week or two, that the changes you’re making are having even a little bit of an effect?
Step 6: Anti-Fuck-It Plans:
When you get stuck, when you feel totally shitty and want to quit, how can you give yourself an extra “oomph”, and choose More Meaning, even for a FEW MINUTES?
NOTE: Limit yourself to very, very few things here. Like 1, 2, maybe 3. These are your Anti-Fuck-It Plans. When you are about to say “Fuck it” and succumb to Shit Avoidance, then FIRST, you’re going to try these.
For example, mine are:
A) go outside and walk around the block, no matter what. See if it clears my head a bit. (This will take about 10 minutes.)
IF that doesn’t work, then:
B) get out my notebook, and read over my More Meaning list. Can I choose ONE thing to do from that list?
IF that doesn’t work, then:
C) spend 5 minutes writing a ‘Dear Sandra’ letter about how shitty I’m feeling and how much everything sucks. (Sandra is my therapist.) I don’t have to ever give her these letters; I just have to spend 5 minutes “venting”, before succumbing to the temptation of the Shit Avoidance Strategy that’s tempting me.
And that’s it.
If THAT doesn’t work, and you still feel like choosing “More Control”, then so be it.
It’s ok if you “fail” sometimes.
Seriously. Life IS hard, and sometimes you DO want to just get away from it all. So, fine. Do your thing. It’s not “failure”. It’s exactly the way you have been up to this point; it’s what you would’ve done anyway.
Standing Ovation Time (***the crowd goes wild***)
But you have accomplished one HUGE, and I mean HUGE-like-a-fucking-mountain kind of huge. You have managed to DELAY making the choice to fall back on your Control strategies. For maybe 30 minutes, you chose differently. Sure, you still did the Control things eventually; you still ended up avoiding the shit. But not right away. First, you made a different choice. You went for that walk, looked over your list, and wrote a “this sucks” letter to your therapist for 5 minutes. (Or whatever your Anti-Fuck-It Plan is.)
THAT, my friend, is success. THAT is a change from your prior way of being. THAT is progress. And honestly, well done. I don’t care if you ended up breaking your Quit Smoking pact with yourself, if you Netflix binged for the next 12 hours, or if you lost another day to the bong.
Ok, so, you did. But give yourself some serious credit for the fact that you FIRST managed to delay things a bit, to make different choices. Even if you feel they “didn’t work”, that’s not true. They did work. They worked for 30 minutes.
And that’s the “worst case scenario!” Because, if you do manage to first practice your Anti-Fuck-It Plan, then there’s a pretty decent chance that when you’re done, you might have the strength, the willpower, the clarity of mind, the motivation, or whatever, to NOT fall back on your Control Strategies, but instead, to go back to your More Meaning list and pick something from it, and do that.
So it’s win-win. If you “fail”, you win, because a partial success is a success. It means you are growing, getting stronger, gaining skills.
And if you successfully choose a “More Meaning” behaviour, then for today, you SLAYED. For real.
In fact, it’s win-win-win, because even if you TOTALLY “fail” and you end up saying “Fuck it” to your Anti-Fuck-It Plan, the truth is, you are learning very valuable things about yourself and your plan. Maybe you’re not ready to commit to such a plan, right now, and you would be better off practising a different approach. (We’ll talk about this in another post, soon!) Or maybe you just didn’t pick the right Anti-Fuck-It Plan and you would benefit from coming up with different behaviours to work on.
I had that happen when I first tried. I told myself that when I felt tempted to Avoid the Shit, I was FIRST going to sit and meditate for 20 minutes.
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! Yeah, that worked about as well as Donald Trump’s presidency. I had to realize, when I was feeling super-shitty, that sitting on a meditation cushion, as sensible as that might be, just wasn’t going to happen. So, I needed a new Plan.
And for me, a 10-minute walk was pretty accessible. I like walking. So, ok. And looking at my list, just looking at it? Well, that’s pretty easy. And then, if I still felt like crap, writing a 5 minute “this sucks” letter was pretty easy too. And…things started to shift. At least sometimes, I started to get to that Fuck It point, engage the Plan, and half an hour later, I was able to make different choices. Not all the time. But sometimes.
Step 7: Final Step:
Keep your notebook handy; stick it somewhere you can get to super fast. Or write a copy of your Anti-Fuck-It Plan and your More Meaning list, and stick it in your wallet or purse or whatever. So when you feel tempted to Avoid Shit, it only takes a second to look at your Anti-Fuck-It Plan. Make it as easy as possible.
And, you’re done Exercise #2! Congratulations. You have some powerful tools at your fingertips now. And you don’t have to use them perfectly. Just use them sometimes; get started, and like I said, THAT is progress.
Thank you for reading this.
And if you’re doing these exercises (that is, WHEN you do the exercises…), drop me a comment if you want and share how it’s going. Or don’t. That’s ok too. 🙂