In December I’ll graduate with my Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. For the past six months, I have been completing my practicum hours at a center that has a focus on trauma, including physical, emotional, sexual, and emotional abuse. One of my clients said to me “in order to heal, you have to let go of any denial you’re holding onto.” On a subconscious level, we shut our minds off to things as a defense mechanism. Our minds like to put a sheet over things that will be painful to us, hiding them from our awareness. Many of us like to tell our brains to “stop”. We may mentally swat these thoughts or feelings away.
Thoughts and feelings coming into our awareness can be thought of as droplets coming down, creating “ripples” in a sense – other thoughts and feelings ripple off. When the initial thought or feeling is unpleasant, our ripples can become extremely upsetting. We have a tendency to try to bat these unpleasant thoughts and feelings away from us, interfering by splashing around. This creates more ripples, allowing our unpleasant thoughts and feelings to swirl around us uncontrollably. What would it be like to stop splashing? When these “droplets” (unpleasant thoughts or feelings) come in, we can choose to let the ripples naturally subside, observing them without judgment rather than meddling with them. Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, and let them pass on their own.
I intentionally choose the word “acknowledge”. The particular therapeutic approach I ground my beliefs of thoughts and behaviors in is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The word acceptance here, though, is used differently than how I’ve used it in the past. The key here is acceptance from a neutral perspective. I’ve always paired the word “acceptance” with a positive meaning. There were many things in my past I couldn’t let go of because I couldn’t act like those things were acceptable. I couldn’t accept that how a certain person hurt me was okay. I couldn’t accept that a loved one of mine died – I felt that “accepting” that devalued that person’s life. The past was so stuck for me – I wasn’t moving forward. I felt that “accepting” certain things meant I would have to view them positively, and I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I can acknowledge those things, though. I could acknowledge from a neutral perspective things that people had done to me, and that a loved one died in a tragic way. Once I began acknowledging those things neutrally rather than trying to force myself to feel a certain way, I began to move forward. I began to process what had previously been stuck. I would often get frustrated with myself for holding onto things in the past. I would get mad at myself for thinking of certain things, judging myself simply for having human feelings. I would tell myself to stop – I would try to act like nothing was wrong, pushing these thoughts and feelings down further and further. The harder I tried to stop thinking about something, the more it affected me. Suppressing our feelings ultimately gives them more room to grow.
I can’t tell a client to try something that I haven’t tried, myself. When I began learning of this concept in school, I applied it to my life. I took a mental step back from my thoughts and feelings, simply noticing what I was feeling and thinking. I didn’t try to explore why a thought popped into my head, and I didn’t judge myself for having certain feelings. When I was no longer trying to control my thoughts and feelings, I actually felt more in control. When I tried to control them in the past, they overpowered me. I ruminated on things. When I let go, I was able to feel unpleasant thoughts and feelings settle on their own. They no longer ruined my days. I became mentally healthier. I am now able to have mental and emotional closure with painful events in my past.
We’re human – our brains are not wired for happiness. They’re wired for survival. You’re not abnormal for living in the unpleasant more than you’d like to. Give yourself some understanding – let go of judgement, and foster acceptance. Let those ripples subside.