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  • Writer's picturehayneslamottepsych

Unhooking from Painful Emotions: Willingness

In a previous post, I describe a helpful organizing framework for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the Choice Point. In this concept, we all have the natural tendency to do things in line with the person we want to become, but can often be pulled off this track by strong thoughts and feelings that dominate our experience. Learning how to engage in actions that are in line with your values is a major component of therapy in ACT, and is aided by two different types of “unhooking skills.”

When we are unhooked from thoughts and emotions, it doesn’t mean that we don’t still have them, that they don’t ever show up for us, but instead it means that they don’t dominate our experience in the same way they once did, and they don’t sway our behavior in a direction we don’t like.

This post expands upon the idea of unhooking from our emotions (for unhooking skills with thoughts, see here) through the therapeutic skill of willingness.

Thought Experiment

I want you to imagine for a moment that I have with me a perfect polygraph machine. Also known as a lie detector test, you may be familiar with one of these if you’ve ever watched any type of crime show – it shows someone’s physiological markers of anxiety (sweat, heart beat, etc).

So, imagine that you are connected up to one of these machines, and you are also strapped into a chair that is sitting atop a trap door. I tell you that there is a pool waiting underneath the trap door with sharks swimming around inside, they haven’t been fed for quite some time (this scenario is unethical in a number of ways, which is why it’s best as a thought experiment). The moment you get anxious, the machine is set to trip the trap door, and… SPLASH.

BUT! No problem, because you have nothing to worry about as long as you don’t get anxious. If you don’t get anxious, none of that will happen and you’ll be just fine.

The question is: what do you predict will happen in this situation?

Most people when asked this question will predict that they will immediately get anxious and worry they’ll fall into the water. Why is this?

Different Arena, Different Rules

The world inside our bodies and minds operate with very different rules and mechanisms than does the outside world. For example:

If you came to your therapist and said, “I’ve got a problem with my alarm clock. It’s waking me up every night at 3 AM, and it’s wreaking havoc on my sleep” – as your therapist I might say, “hmm, have you tried turning off the alarm, maybe taking out the batteries, smashing it with a hammer, and throwing it out your window??”

If only an issue with our nervous system like anxiety were as simple as solving the alarm clock problem. The reason this doesn’t work with our emotions is that our thoughts and emotions cannot be problem-solved in the same way issues in the outside world can.

This is partly because of the mechanisms that dictate how our mind and nervous systems work. First, one more example:

I want you to go to your timer on your phone or computer and set the timer for one minute. Over the next minute I want you to make it your single and sole objective to not think about a group of newborn puppies playing around in an ice cream cake. Are you ready? Ok, GO!

What did you notice in doing this exercise? Most people who try this notice that their efforts backfire, and they end up thinking even more than they otherwise would about puppies playing in an ice cream cake.

The reason for this is that our brains have an unconscious process that continually checks whether or not we’ve completed a task, and when the task is not thinking about something, this primes the brain to actually think about it. It’s a side-effect of the way that our brains naturally work.

In the earlier shark tank example, the reason it backfires is that trying to exert effortful control over our emotions strongly engages our problem-solving mode of thinking, which revs up the body’s Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism. So when the problem to be solved IS anxiety, the normal problem-solving methods don’t work.

So if trying to exert direct control over our emotions doesn’t work, what’s the answer?

Another Way

Willingness is the ACT skill for unhooking from painful emotions. It is the opposite of our normal reaction to engage in experiential avoidance and try to avoid and end all painful feelings. We tend to push away painful emotional experiences through distraction, setting aside our own needs or desires, or immediately doing what the emotion is telling us to do.

One of my favorite research findings in Psychology is that our actions are most often not guided directly by the emotion that we are feeling but instead by the anticipated change in emotion from doing the action. That is, we often engage in behaviors that are outside of our values (such as yelling at one’s partner, staying in instead of being social, drinking more than we’d like) because we believe that the action will change our emotional state, not as an inevitable consequence of that emotion.

In contrast to experiential avoidance, willingness says: “I can handle feeling this emotion right now. It’s uncomfortable but it can’t harm me.” The lie that our nervous systems often tell us is that “this feeling means that I’m in danger.” This is because emotions are closely connected to the body’s Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism, which is evolutionarily designed to protect us from threat. When we choose to practice willingness, we are in a way calling our nervous system’s bluff.

The concept of Willingness can be a confusing one, and so it is helpful to distinguish it from what it is not:

Willingness is not wanting to feel badly, it’s not wallowing in our pain, it’s not giving up and accepting that things will never change – that would be resignation, which comes from a place of weakness. Willingness instead comes from a place of strength. If struggling against our emotions is like playing tug-of-war with a huge monster, willingness is making the active choice to drop the rope for this particular struggle.

When we drop the struggle to force our emotions to change, it can free us up to choose more towards moves, actions that bring us closer to that person that we want to be.

So how does Willingness work?

At its core, willingness with emotions involves switching from our mind’s problem-solving mode, in which it has the agenda to seek out and fix problems, into its observation mode, in which it has no such agenda. In other words, it means being present with the uncomfortable emotions without immediately trying to change them or lessen them.

Here’s the thing: it’s a bit counterintuitive because if you try to practice willingness with the direct goal of getting your emotions to change, that will very likely not be successful. The reason for this is that, when you have an identified goal (e.g., “don’t be anxious”), this puts you in problem-solving mode, rather than observation mode, and this then revs up your Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism, generating more uncomfortable emotional experiences.

In other words, willingness is not a skill in which you can trick your mind into generating the positive change – it instead comes as a natural consequence of not focusing your energy on a futile struggle (see shark tank example above).

How to Practice Willingness

There are countless ways to practice willingness with emotions, which at their core take an observational stance toward our emotions, counteracting our natural tendencies to try to problem-solve our pain away. Below, I outline a series of steps that one can practice as a guide to get started with willingness. To be clear this isn’t the definitive way to practice willingness – there is no one definitive way (if there was, it would turn it into – you guessed it, a problem-solving exercise).

It should be noted that willingness is typically not a complete solution to one’s problems. However, it can be a cornerstone skill of therapy to be able to strategically give up on what is not working for you. This is ultimately what willingness is all about – it offers the beginnings of a way out of our constant struggle against our emotions, and can free us up to make other, more value-based decisions.

By practicing these and other strategies, willingness can offer a way out of the endless cycle of struggling not to have certain emotions and ending up with more of them. In the process of changing our relationship with our emotions, it can of course be helpful to have the assistance of an experienced therapist (in this case, an ACT therapist) as a guide. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.


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