The big tool that both Ruby Wax and Russ Harris advocate is acceptance, which can be reached through mindful practices. We’re going to feel difficult emotions, we may be anxious about looking good at the Christmas party, envious of someone having more invitations than us, angry that we’re doing all the work. But if we can accept these feelings, rather than telling ourselves off for having them, or trying to pretend we don’t have them, or ignoring them altogether, we’re likely to be better placed to keep going.
Russ talks about the ‘struggle switch’. When it’s switched on, we’ll be doing our level best to avoid any negative, painful, difficult emotions. And this may give rise to other difficult stuff – we’ll feel angry that we’re anxious, or worry that we’re overloading our bodies by feeling stressed, or guilt that we’re letting things get on top of us. We may try to avoid or get rid of the feelings, by overworking, overeating, drinking too much, spending hours on Facebook. There’s no problem if we distract ourselves in these ways in moderation, but they can lead to addictions, problems in our relationships, health concerns etc.
Our childhood experience will inevitably have an impact on our tendency to label emotions as good and bad, positive and negative. You might find it useful to think about the messages you received about which emotions were acceptable and which were not, and about how feelings were dealt with in your family – was anger freely expressed? Were you encouraged to be different, and have your own view?
As Russ sees it, the problem with judging feelings as good or bad is that we’ll struggle to avoid the ‘bad’ ones. It’s the struggle that wears us out, rather than the feelings themselves. He urges readers to ‘let go of judging your feelings altogether and see them for what they are: a stream of constantly changing sensations and urges, continuously passing through your body’.
Ruby puts it like this: ‘This doesn’t mean that you sit there like a lump of tofu with a bindi on your head, listening to the sitar. It means when your mind does what all of our minds do, which is change – change constantly and never stop chattering – you don’t fight it, but rather understand and accept it for what it is.’ She believes that: ‘Pain exists but suffering is optional. You can’t stop the unhappy mood but you can stop what happens next. Fear is in fact never as bad as the fear of fear.’
If we can recognise the struggle and flick the switch off, we let the feelings come. They may be unpleasant, and we may not like them, but we try to let them be. ‘With the struggle switch off, our anxiety levels are free to rise and fall as the situation dictates. Sometimes they’ll be high, sometimes low, and sometimes there will be no anxiety at all. But more importantly, we’re not wasting our time and energy struggling with it.’
That’s all very well, I hear you say. But how? Next time we’ll think about how we might move towards some feelings of acceptance.