When something feels out of your control, what do you do? How do you respond? Do you avoid or deny? Do you get angry? Do you feel helpless or hopeless? Do you turn many of these feelings inward on yourself? I have worked with many people on managing unpleasant or painful experiences and today I got to delve into this very thing myself when I encountered a situation that was out of my control. I then had to decide how I was going to cope with it, and let me tell you — my first response wasn’t pretty. I learned so much about myself during this process; I learned that I have a tendency to internalize, self-blame, and worry. All of those things getting stuck inside of me doesn’t feel great.
BUT, the experience also gave me an opportunity to practice some skills I have learned using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I recently attended a workshop presented by two colleagues Brenda Bomgarder, MA, NCC (whose has a counseling and coaching practice, Creating Your Beyond) and Christine Allison, MA, LPC (www.ChristineAllisonTherapy.com) who are trained in ACT principles and therapeutic methods and who help both professionals and clients in following ACT’s message on coping with emotions.
ACT’s core message embodies “accepting what is out of your personal control (such as emotions, feelings) while committing to action that will improve your quality of life”. What did I learn during this training? Using mindfulness as a guide, three of the basic ACT concepts include:
1) defusion: distancing from, and letting go of, unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and memories
2) acceptance: making room for painful feelings, urges and sensations, and allowing them to come and go without a struggle
3) contact with the present moment: engaging fully with your here-and-now experience, with an attitude of openness and curiosity (taken from The Happiness Trap by Dr. Russ Harris).
Applying these techniques to the way that we manage emotions allows us to “deal with painful feelings and thoughts effectively” while “helping us to clarify what is truly important and meaningful to us - ie our values – then use that knowledge to guide, inspire and motivate us to change our lives for the better.”
So, because I am a human and swim in the same sea of emotions as every other person, I practiced what it would be like to sit with the worry and distress without pushing it away. I realized as soon as I tried it that the practice of acceptance and open awareness was much less exhausting than trying to avoid or contain feelings that I believed were “not okay”. It’s okay to worry and to really feel it. But I needed to check in and ask myself: what does the worry accomplish? I noted that the worry about this situation kept me away from the bigger thing that I really valued in the grand scheme of things — spending time with a loved one. By accepting the worry and anxiety, it didn’t have such a hold over me and by letting it sit, I was able to move forward and focus on valuable experiences that create a full and happy life.
I am reflective on how ACT can be helpful to those who are struggling with eating disorders, anxiety, depression, or loss. In working to accept and sit with painful or unhelpful thoughts or feelings, my clients have noticed that they do not feel the need to “cope” in a destructive way — i.e. cutting, disordered eating, purging — and that it is easier to allow the feelings to be felt. By diffusing thoughts that seem unhelpful and by distancing themselves from identifying strongly with these thoughts, clients feel more empowered to make choices that create a life they desire.
Find out more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy at the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science or The Happiness Trap. You may be surprised how stuck we get in the struggle — and how easy it is to move forward from that place!
Here’s a great metaphor for ACT:
Have you ever woken up on a given day and felt that you were being pulled in several different directions? Perhaps a part of you wanted to stay in bed; but another part of you was eager to accomplish the tasks you had set out for the day. A third part of you felt upset about a conflict with a loved one the day before. As human beings, we are complex and complicated animals and we have many things that motivate us: fear, joy, pain, anxiety. How do we decide what to listen to?
If you could sit down at a table with all of the unique parts of yourself, what do you think would ensue? Would there be conflict, arguing, anger, avoidance? Would there be efforts to connect, heal, soothe, and find understanding? Who would be at the table?
With the web of experiences that create the beings we are today, it can feel overwhelming to try to comprehend how the aspects of ourselves interact on a daily basis. That we are made up of so many parts is a beautiful aspect of the human condition. Sometimes, however, these parts of ourselves — perhaps a child that is hidden within and her adult counterpart — come in conflict with one another or are pitted up against each other in a way that can cause destructive behaviors in an effort to cope with this discord.
Eating disorders, such as bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder, along with other issues that create destructive behavior patterns such as substance abuse, addictions, and severe depression and anxiety may be indicators of internal conflict. Some of us might feel like there is a “dark” part of us, or a “bad” part of us that needs to be hidden from the world and which can elicit feelings like shame and guilt. Denying or avoiding an aspect of ourselves might only intensify the self-destruction that the feelings may cause.
I invite you to try to get to know all parts of yourself, those that feel scary and dark as well as those that bring light and energy. In truth, these parts of ourselves are trying to communicate something to us and by embracing them all — even the dark and scary ones — we can free ourselves from unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Here are a few ideas to get you started on exploring the parts of yourself:
1.) Imagine you are at a play date with yourself when you were a child. What sorts of activities are you engaging in? What do you notice about yourself as a child? Do you play with others, or mostly with yourself? How does that child connect with who you are now?
2.) If you were to write a chapter book about your life, what would you name each of the chapters? Would they be about experiences you’ve had, or things you’ve learned? What do you notice about the way(s) you portray yourself in this book?
3.) Draw a round table with chairs all around it. Invite parts of yourself to come to the table for a peace talk. Who is invited? Is it the timid daughter who avoids conflict? Is it the strong willed man who stops at nothing to achieve success? Is it the little girl who blows bubbles and runs freely in the park? What about the dark shadow who looms behind, above, sometimes within you? What would it be like for all of these parts of yourself to have a conversation?
If you did have a peace talk, what would be the outcome?
I invite you to imagine what it would feel like to have a truce between the aspects of yourself that sometimes create conflict — the little girl being able to shake hands with the dark shadow, who, when brought into the light isn’t so scary anymore.
On Saturday, May 5th from 11:00am-3:00pm, Kate Daigle, MA, NCC, eating disorder and body image psychotherapist and Carolyn Jennings, poet and writing guide, will spend the afternoon guiding workshop participants to get to know the various parts of themselves through writing exercises, dialoguing, embodiment, and discussion. We will see what really happens when we sit down and hold court with all of the parts of ourselves. To register for this low-cost workshop please visit www.eatingdisorderfoundation.org.
Just as “it takes a village to raise a child”, community support is vital to recovery from an eating disorder as well as other mental disorders. From 2010-2012, I facilitated an open and free support group at the Eating Disorder Foundation for those who are struggling with eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia, binge eating, or any type of disordered eating behaviors. Each and every week, I was honored and overwhelmed by the amount of support, strength, and wisdom that the participants in the group shared with one another. The experience very much made me wish I had taken advantage of support groups in my own recovery more than I did.
What do support groups have to offer to recovery from an eating disorder?
Support groups, whether they are focused on helping members recover from eating disorders, alcohol addictions, drug addictions, or any other type of disorder, are special tools on our life journeys. I learned so much from the members of the group, and continue to process their words of hope, wisdom and dedication towards recovery. One of the fondest memories I have is the ability of members to use humor in eating disorder recovery. Who would have thought that laughing about these afflictions could bring so much relief as well as a different perspective? As I embark on my newest venture of co-facilitating the mens’ support group on Thursdays, I am eager to again take part of the healing power of a community.
The Eating Disorder Foundation is growing. It is offering many new support groups, most of which are rare to find anywhere else. Check out their website for a list of groups and their Spring Class Schedule (registration ends on Friday!!): www.eatingdisorderfoundation.org.
Groups (all FREE!) offered include:
Empower yourself. Empower others. Take advantage of the amazing offerings that support eating disorder recovery!