How resisting the moment leads to unhappiness, and what you can do about it.
I’ve been watching a few Tony Robbins videos lately, and one had him sharing the idea that embracing the moment is the key to feeling fulfilled in life. You can be successful in life and not fulfilled (his example was Robin Williams) and you can be fulfilled and not outwardly successful (and very few people know your name then). The key to fulfillment is how satisfied you feel at any given moment. Satisfaction = fulfillment = happiness. This idea is also central to the ACT psychological therapy approach and so I thought I’d explore it with you today.
How do you get to feel fulfilled? It’s pretty much the opposite of what you’ve been led to believe. Generally, if you feel unhappy, the idea is that something is wrong and you should fix it. You should change something (the situation, yourself) until you feel better. This is hard work and in the case of situations beyond your control, impossible.
A particular problem with this attitude is that often in the process of trying to change what’s happening, you stop blaming your situation or your mindset for your problems, and instead start to blame poor ol’ ‘you’. The you that doesn’t have the power/discipline/motivation to keep going and pushing and changing things until your magical happiness arises.
Enter the idea of embracing the moment.
To take a really broad view, it is accurate to say that resisting whatever is happening right now is what causes suffering. Being afraid of it, hating it, feeling upset by it, getting angry at it, all these are examples of resisting whatever is happening. Why is it a problem? Because when you say ‘I don’t like it’ you create a stress response in your body. Your body can’t tell the difference between your mind not liking a situation out of personal preference, and your mind not liking a situation because it’s a real danger to our physical health.
A small dose of this stress response it what helps us to fix situations and problems we can fix. That’s good! But too easily the stress response becomes big enough that the stress produced in our body is no longer to be able to be used helpfully. Instead, we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed, anxious or unable to take any helpful actions.
Because of this, the truth is that most of the time, your resistance to a situation isn’t helping it to go away. It’s making it worse. For example, when we’re stressed, we’re all terrible communicators and we end up creating more friction every time we open our mouth. This then prolongs our pain: we’ve created more of a situation that we don’t like!
The only real way to get happiness long term is to be able to be happy no matter what the outside world is doing. The world is far too big, chaotic and full of other people and their needs and desires to be able to fulfill your needs in a consistent way.
Given that most of us can only be happy when things are going the way we would like them to (I’m one of the worst offenders in this respect!), how do you aim to be happy when things aren’t going the way you’d like?
Stop trying to control the situation
Rushing and stressed because you’re afraid you’ll be late? Maybe just be late instead. Let yourself experience the freedom of just letting go and embracing that situation. The flip side of this is that once you actually experience the consequences of being late, then you’re more likely to change your behaviour the next time. You can go many, many days rushing around, afraid of what might happen, and not changing anything. Be late once. If the consequences are negative for you, you’ll be way more motivated to get up earlier the next day than if you just imagine what might happen. And if there’s no consequences, well, what were you ever rushing for?
Stop trying to problem solve the situation in your mind
Problem solving in your mind often sounds something like this: ‘If only other people would help me more, then I wouldn’t be so rushed. If only they were more understanding and stayed out of my way, I’d be ready on time’. Your mind is trying to solve the problem of running late by coming up with solutions. Solutions like expecting other people to change! It’s not exactly an effective solution. Yet very rarely are we late and think that we should have got up earlier to anticipate problems occurring – we just wish the world would run perfectly, in stark contrast to how the world actually is.
Avoid any problem solving that relies on things other than yourself changing – it’s guaranteed to cause you more stress as it encourages feeling helpless and powerless.
Breathe into the moment instead
Drop the physical resistance to what’s happening by taking a long, deep breath in and on the out breath, dropping your shoulders/ relaxing your jaw/unclenching your fists. Just let yourself actually spend a second in this situation and see how bad it really makes you feel, without the ‘fix it’ energy or the problem solving of your mind. Without these, most uncomfortable situations aren’t actually that bad!
Don’t make a big deal out of it
Don’t get too caught up in trying to be perfectly accepting – trying too hard will only cause you more stress and make the problem worse! Although it’s quite difficult to truly accept whatever’s happening with grace and ease, just the act of consciously trying to lower your resistance will do a lot to limit your stress response – and that’s half of your problem solved right there. Remember, you’re actually aiming to stop doing unhelpful things, rather than doing anything more, so keep in tune with this idea by making sure you acceptance isn’t something else you’re ‘doing’. The aim is to ‘be’ with the situation instead.
Do you need help learning what to tell yourself to help you accept the present moment more fully? Contact me for a personal coaching session today.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.