When we suffer emotionally, we often try as hard as we can to change those emotions – we try to hide them, we try to push them away, or we try to not feel them at all. In our attempt to do this, we realize that the opposite usually tends to happen. In trying to hide our emotions, we may isolate ourselves from our friends and family so that they do not see our suffering. In trying to push them away, we struggle and we fight and, most times, we fail. And in trying to not feel them at all, we avoid participating in our lives with the hope that if we avoid situations that produce the emotions, we can avoid the emotions altogether. The reality is, emotions – whether pleasant or unpleasant – are part of the human experience, and we cannot change that.
I love the words of the serenity creed authored by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971):
Although we cannot control or change the emotions we experience over the course of our lives, we can respond to them differently. Behavioural Activation (BA) can help us to do just this. The goal of BA is to increase our engagement with meaningful activities no matter what emotions may be present. For example, if you are feeling anxious, particularly in social settings, the goal of BA would be to follow through with a planned valued action, such as getting together with friends, despite that anxiety. If you cancel your plans with friends because of how you are feeling, you are attempting to control the anxiety through avoidance, and you are reinforcing the idea that you can only engage with your friends when you are not feeling anxious. The problem here is that avoidance creates a pattern in favour of short term relief, such that each time you feel anxious, you will avoid interacting with friends in order to feel less anxious. Choosing to behave based on how you feel can cause you to lose sight of your values and lose your sense of purpose in this world, but behaving based on what is important or meaningful to you – your values – can increase fulfillment, pleasure, and achievement in life.
We must find the serenity to accept that we cannot control our emotions – they will come and go as they please – and the courage to change our behaviours and behave in a way that will enrich our lives. In order to do this, take some time to think about what matters to you, and what gives your life purpose. Remember, there are many different domains of life, so decide what you value in each of those domains – family relationships, social relationships, health, work, community, spirituality, personal growth – and then set goals to move in the direction of those values no matter what is going on in your internal repertoire of emotions.
Here is an example of how you can implement this in your life TODAY!
Value: Physical Fitness
Goal/Planned Activity: This afternoon, at 5:30 p.m. I will go for a 30 minute run outside (even if I am tired from work, or sore, or fearful that I will not be able to run for a full 30 minutes)