Sometimes clients come in with the goal of not feeling anxious anymore. On the surface, this seems perfectly reasonable. Why would anyone want to feel anxious? Or sad, or angry, or hopeless, or in pain? The problem with goals that aim to eradicate internal experience is that:
I’d like to elaborate on Problem 3, because I think this is where the biggest problem lies. We mistakenly assume that as soon as X is gone, we’re going to feel more of Y. For example, if we’re not anxious anymore, we’re going to be happier.
The thinking error here is that distress is the opposite of happiness. In fact, some meaningful life experiences may be distressing no matter what we do. Sometimes, the focus of reducing distress actually gets in the way of living a meaningful life.
A personal example for me is the process that it took to deliver my daughter into this world. The experience was both distressing and joyous (and exhausting, and terrifying… the list goes on). If I was unwilling to experience the discomfort and risk of pregnancy and birth, I would never have had a child, and never experienced the heights of happiness and connection that can come from being a parent.
In some disorders, particularly anxious disorders such as Social Anxiety or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, the illness is not so much in the unpleasant internal experience, but the over focus on avoiding or eradicating distress. In these cases, people end up engaging in unworkable, time and energy consuming behaviours. It might start as excuses not to see our friends, or triple checking that the doors are locked. These behaviours exist to provide some short-term relief, but often grow to become unmanageable because, paradoxically, the more we try to avoid distress, the bigger it grows.
Eventually, what starts out as a ‘puddle’ of distress becomes an uncrossable ‘ocean’, and any thought of happiness goes out the window because we are too busy trying to manage the distress.
The solution is easier said than done, which is to learn to accommodate discomfort while working towards worthwhile life endeavours. Valuing, accepting, understanding, reflecting, acknowledging, and compassionately self-caring are alternative ways of interacting with internal experiencing.