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"You're a person to be met, not a problem to be solved"

15 June 2019 | , Mark Baxter | Mindfulness Practice ,

I don’t know who wrote the quote, where I read it or if I dreamt it but this is the quote that won’t leave me alone this year. It keeps clarifying my approach as a psychologist helping people with their suffering. It has helped me contemplate my own journey with sadness and melancholia. It is an onion with many layers and has illuminated what I believe is at the core of recovery, growth and change – the willingness to accept and embrace our inner experience.  

We are so inclined to want to fix ourselves, and of course, to want to fix others. When we stand in a patch of wild rainforest we are surrounded by equal parts growth and decay, equal parts living and dying, equal parts green and brown. We stand there and admire the perfect chaotic beauty. We don’t try and re-arrange it with our mind, organise and plan improvements, criticise the fallen leaves or the rotten branches. Yet, when we stand amidst our internal rainforest of thoughts and feelings we find ourselves categorising and comparing; pushing away unpleasant experiences and yearning for pleasant ones. We don't want sadness, we want happiness. We don't want to feel anxious, we want to feel relaxed. We don't want self-critical thoughts, only self-confident ones.  

This stance we take is so normal that it’s known as our default mode. Our brains and bodies are built to compare and contrast, to move towards “good” things and away from “bad” things. This makes sense with things from the external world but when it comes to the internal world of thoughts and feelings this approach becomes a trap. What happens when we push away painful thoughts and feelings? They gain energy and fight back. What happens when we avoid difficult emotions – they eat away at us. This is something we’ve all experienced.  

Every few years a black dog comes to live with me. He’s big and heavy and follows me from home to work and back again every day. He gets in my road and makes everything harder. When he’s around I have no energy, I lose interest in things and my mind beats me up. I have to force myself to do the things I know are good for me - exercise, mindfulness meditation, nutrition, outdoor time, time with people, gratitude and appreciation, and sometimes counselling. I do these things, as best I can, just to keep my head above water. They feel like chores. And the whole time I’m trying to stay afloat my mind is saying, “Why am I depressed? What is wrong with me? I shouldn’t be feeling like this.” Sometimes I just sleep sleep sleep to escape from everything.  

The last time this black dog came to stay I woke up one morning and he was laying across me, long and heavy. I realised in that moment that the term depression had become a trap. It was a feeling I was against, a feeling I was trying to get rid of, and a source of struggle. In that moment, I made an intentional choice to accept and embrace this feeling and all that came with it. To accept the cement body, the guilt, the sadness and the endless cycle of self-criticism. Not as an act of tolerance or resignation, but to accept them with a spirit of open-heartedness; to welcome them in. That black dog just kept laying there, long and heavy across me, but I didn’t mind so much. I got up that day and started to change. The psychological and physical energy I had been expending keeping that dog at bay could now be used to make changes in my life. Changes that were guided by values rather than self-criticism. So, I peeled back a layer of the onion and moved onto other feelings, like anxiety and trepidation! Values-based decisions (like changing jobs) can bring uncertainty and fear along with satisfaction and meaning.  

When we accept and embrace our inner experience we realise that change is on the menu. And change motivated by self-compassion is a whole lot more effective than change motivate by self-criticism. Kelly Wilson, one of the creators of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy captures this stance well when he writes:  

‘In this very moment, will you accept the sad and the sweet? Hold lightly stories about what is possible, and be the author of a life that has meaning and purpose for you, turning in kindness back to that life when you find yourself moving away from it?’  

Acceptance of inner experience is not a one-off deal. Willingness to accept the sad and the sweet takes ongoing practice. It’s tricky inside this brain and body and I often forget and remember many times every day.  

So, what about problem solving? There’s nothing wrong with identifying problems and coming up with helpful solutions. Many situations benefit from this. Very simply, we need to wisely move towards things that are good for us and away from things that are bad for us – and people often need help putting this into practice. And, I’m not saying acceptance is a “cure” for personal suffering. Nor am I suggesting that all problems with low mood can be remedied with psychological tools. I do know that a battle with our thoughts and feelings is lost from the moment we take up the struggle. And that energy spent fighting ourselves is better spent committing to values-guided action.  

How do you respond to your thoughts and feelings when they are uncomfortable, relentless and painful? What stance do you take to your own suffering? What spirit do you listen with? Do you listen for problems to be solved? Or do you listen like standing in a rainforest?