One thing that we are never really taught at school (or anywhere else for that matter) is how to work with negative feelings and negative thinking. Our natural reaction is to fight against the way that we feel, or to fight against the thoughts that we are having, and everyone around us generally encourages us in this. If I am feeling down then the people around me will usually tell me to try to think of positive things instead of negative things. This is of course a basic way of ‘fighting against the way that I am feeling’ because I am trying to change my low mood into a more optimistic or positive mood. This seems very sensible, but for reasons that we will explore shortly it is actually doesn’t do any good.
In the same way if I am anxious people very much tend to advice me to try to calm myself down. What I generally hear is that I should ‘take it easy and relax a bit’. Or perhaps someone might helpfully suggest that I ‘stop worrying about it’. Here again the basic idea is that I should fight against my tendency to worry, and by my own will power overcome this type of thinking. This also seems perfectly sensible on the face of it, but experience shows that fighting against anxious thoughts in this way does not help in the slightest. For a person who has never experienced severe anxiety it may seem like a simple enough matter to push away the anxious thoughts, or over-rule them with the force of our will-power, but when it comes down to it this just doesn’t work. This doesn’t mean that we don’t keep trying to do it, but what it does mean is that the type of inner (or mental) struggle that we engage in when we suffer from anxiety is completely futile.
PUTTING PRESSURE ON MYSELF TO FEEL BETTER
Fighting against the way we way we feel when we feel bad feels at the time like the right thing to do – we do it by reflex, it happens instinctively without us having to think about it. But just because this is the type of reaction that we automatically have when we feel bad doesn’t mean that it is the best thing to do. Quite the opposite is true in fact, automatically fighting against our feelings or thoughts is the worst thing we could do – it creates problems rather than solving them. Obviously, this is a very important thing to understand.
In the case of anxiety we can see quite easily why fighting against the anxiety makes things worse. If you are anxious and I tell you to ‘calm down’ this simply puts you under even more pressure than you were before and the more pressure you are under the more anxious you will feel. The principle here is very simple – the more pressure you are under not to be anxious, the more anxious you will be. If I really wanted to help then I would not put you under any more pressure than you are under already; in other words I would not give you the message that ‘you ought not to be anxious’. ‘You must not be anxious’ is a classic anxiety-provoking message and it is the message that we all give to ourselves whenever we are anxious – by pressurizing ourselves we make ourselves worse off rather than better off.
The same basic principle is true with negative or distressing feelings. If you are feeling bad in some way, and I suggest to you that you should distract yourself from the feeling, or try to look at things in a more positive way, then I am sending you a subtly ‘punishing’ (or blaming) message. The message I am giving you is that you ought to be able to ‘snap out of it’. I am telling you that it is perfectly possible for you to do so if you try hard enough, and so if you can’t (or don’t) snap out of it then this clearly means that it is ‘your fault’. As everyone who has ever suffered from depression knows, the people around us tend to give us this message a lot, even though they are not generally aware of this, and don’t consciously mean to be blaming.
BEATING YOURSELF UP…
Ultimately, it is not the intolerant attitude of other people that is the real problem, but our own intolerant attitude towards ourselves. When I am feeling very bad I automatically give myself the message ‘you ought not to be feeling this way.’ This is what I tell myself over and over again, and by telling myself this (or by constantly thinking this basic repetitive thought) I am putting pressure on myself – essentially, I am ‘beating myself up about it’. If I am feeling bad and I am putting pressure on myself not to feel bad, then what happens is that I feel even worse than I did beforehand. I was feeling bad to start off with, but when I fight against the way that I am feeling, I make things a hell of a lot worse for myself. Instead of simply ‘feeling bad’, I am now ‘feeling bad about feeling bad’. I feel that I have a responsibility to stop myself feeling that way, and along with the weight and anxiety of this responsibility I also feel weak and stupid (or like a failure) because I am not able to do anything about my situation.
REFUSING TO ACCEPT REALITY
As we have said, the pressure that I am putting on myself not to feel the way that I do creates a new and particularly wretched type of suffering on top of everything else. Another thing about the new type of suffering that I have created for myself is that it is ‘sterile’ or ‘futile’ suffering. What this means is that I am basically locked into a ‘stalemate situation’ that can go on and on indefinitely without anything changing. I am locked into a nightmare that just goes on and on.
The reason fighting against our feelings produces a ‘stalemate situation’ is because it is essentially a form of psychological denial. I am refusing to accept the pain that is there, but because I cannot make it ‘not be there’, I end up fighting against seeing my situation as it really is. If I am in a situation that I cannot change, but which I totally refuse to accept, then what inevitably happens is that I end up struggling against seeing the truth – which is to say, I end up struggling against facing up to the fact that ‘this is the way things are’. This struggle is distressing and exhausting and ultimately futile – in other words, no matter how long I keep at it, I am always in the same place.
I could be caught up in this type of futile struggle for days or months or even years, but at the end of all that time nothing would have changed – the pain would still be there, and I would still be there, locked into my rigid mental posture of refusal. This is pretty much like being in a sulk, which is a good example because we are all very familiar with what happens when we go into a sulk. When something offends or upsets me and I go into a sulk ‘time stands still’ in a way, and although my sulk-type reaction offers me the short-term benefit of feeling ‘in control’ (in a dysfunctional sort of a way, at least), it is really just a dead end.
This is obvious if everyone ignore me, which is of course the best thing to do to someone in a sulk. If everyone ignores me than I am forced to ignominiously climb-down from my position and ‘pick up where I left off’ before I went into the sulk. In other words, the sulk doesn’t solve anything, and if I don’t succeed in successfully manipulating the people around me (which is why I go into the sulk) then it becomes obvious to me that the sulk is ‘futile suffering’ and that there is no point to continuing it.
FUTILE VERSUS NON-FUTILE SUFFERING
The point about futile struggling is of course that all the effort we put into it is wasted effort, because it accomplishes nothing, and never can accomplish anything. Furthermore, all the pain and agony that I go through is also for nothing, simply because I learn nothing at all as a result of it. If I went through pain but learned something valuable as a result, so that I would not have to go through that pain again, then clearly that type of suffering would not be futile at all, but useful – even though I still wouldn’t like it at the time. The difference between futile and meaningful suffering is therefore that futile suffering results in no change at all (and so cycles around in a repeating pattern forever) whereas ‘meaningful’ suffering does result in change, and so does not repeat endlessly.
THE DOUBLE-BIND OF ‘HAVING TO BE HAPPY’
We have all been brought up to believe that we ought to be in control of our feelings. At the heart of this belief is the assumption that we can exercise choice over our states of mind. ‘Mind over emotion’ people sometimes say. If we were to reflect on this idea for a moment, we would see that it is totally absurd. To give an obvious example, suppose I wake up one morning and say to myself “I am going to be happy today.” This is of course a totally unreasonable responsibility to place upon myself because it is not within my power to ensure that I will be happy.
I might want to be happy (and who can blame me for this) but there is no way I can force myself to be happy just because I can’t bear the prospect of being unhappy. In other words, the refusal of unhappiness is not a good basis for happiness. In fact the unconditional refusal of unhappiness isn’t the basis for any sort of happiness at all, it is only the basis for an endless continuation of unhappiness. There is a classic double-bind here and the double-bind can be stated like this –
If I feel that I have to be happy, then I cannot be happy
DOUBLE-BINDS AND VICIOUS CIRCLES
So if I give myself an order or instruction to be happy (like a sergeant major on a parade ground) then I am creating a double-bind for myself. It is a double-bind because no matter what I do from this point I cannot escape from my predicament. What has happened is that by making it my responsibility to be happy, I have put myself into a trap – I have made my happiness into an issue and when my happiness is an issue then I cannot be happy. If something is an ‘issue’ then to some extent I must be worried by it, and so if my personal happiness is an issue to me then I must be worried about whether I am to be happy or not. Basically, I am concerned with the perceived need that I have to ‘secure my own happiness’. But if I am worried about whether I am to be happy or not then this is itself an unhappy (or neurotic) state of mind. Therefore, just as soon as I make my personal happiness into an issue this straightaway puts me into a trap from which I cannot deliberately escape.
We can trap ourselves in double-binds like this in many different ways. For example, if I make it into an issue that ‘I must not be anxious‘ then this automatically traps me. The other way of looking at this particular double-bind is to say that if I give myself an order or instruction which says ‘I must be relaxed‘ then I cannot be relaxed. Similarly, if I make it into an issue that ‘I must not be afraid‘ then I cannot be free from fear. A related double-bind is the double-bind that relates to freedom in general. If I make it into an issue that ‘I must be free‘ then I cannot be free because I am not free from the need to be free, and a ‘need’ can be defined precisely as a ‘fundamental lack of freedom’.
LOSS OF INSIGHT DUE TO STRUGGLING
All these are double-binds that we routinely put ourselves into. We spend a lot of time in mental traps like this – anxiety is a classic example as is the double-bind of ‘having to be happy’ (which as we have said is a good definition of neuroticism in general). Yet although we spend a lot of time caught up like this, this doesn’t mean that we have any insight into that we are creating the problem for ourselves by our own attempt to solve it, or escape from it. On the contrary, when we are caught in the trap of neuroticism any insight that we might have regarding our own role in creating that trap very quickly dwindles to zero. The reason we have no insight is simply because we automatically struggle to get out of it – when I am in a double-bind I simply struggle blindly to escape it, and my blind struggling traps me even more.
The more I struggle to escape from my predicament the worse it gets. Furthermore, the more preoccupied with ‘escaping’ I get, the less chance I have of gaining insight into how it is me that is perpetuating the problem by my desperate attempts to fix it. Insight is the only thing that can really help, but usually I am in far too much of a hurry to ‘do’ something to allow the insight to arise. The reason I am in a hurry is of course because I am either in pain, or afraid, and this pressurizes me so that I don’t feel able to ‘take my time’. This blind haste is my undoing because I cannot obtain insight into my situation until I find it within myself to tolerate the pain or the fear without immediately trying to escape.
‘BLIND FORCING’ VERSUS ‘INTELLIGENCE’
The reason we get locked into the vicious circle of ‘neurotic struggling’ is because all our energy goes into willing ourselves to be free, and no attention at all goes into considering the question of whether what I am endeavoring to do is actually possible in the first place. Basically, I put all my money on brute strength – on desperately straining to get what I want – and no money at all on intelligently relating to my situation. When I am feeling bad the only question I am interested in is the question “How can I get out of here?” In other words, what I am asking for is a powerful lever, a powerful tool to help me escape from where I am. But if I find myself asking this question then that shows that I am in control mode – it shows that I am struggling against the way I feel. As soon as I see this, then I also know that I am busy locking myself into a double-bind, and when I know this, then straightaway this means that I am intelligently relating to my situation.
These are the only two possibilities here; either I go one way or I go the other. The two possibilities are –
 I blindly try to force the situation to be the way I want it to be, and create an endlessly tormenting type of trap for myself
 I relate intelligently to my situation
At any particular point in time these two possibilities are always going to be open to me – it’s up to me whether I go down the one road or the other. The first road is the road of ‘futile suffering’, which is when we are in a double-bind without realizing that we are in a double-bind. The second road is the road of ‘awareness’, which is when we are awake to our difficulties, rather than closing our eyes to them and simply trying to ‘bull our way out’ by pure force.
When we are under pressure and desperately looking for an immediate solution, then the idea of seeing that there is no immediate solution does not seem very attractive to us, and so we opt for ‘not accepting that there is no solution’. This locks us into endless futile suffering, which is the type of suffering that we are most familiar with. What we don’t see, in our desperate hurry to find a way out, is that the road we are going down doesn’t actually go anywhere. To opt for this path is therefore worse than useless. On the other hand, the other road does go somewhere – intelligently relating to our situation always helps us, even though we cannot see at the time how it will.
This idea is expressed in the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text ascribed to Lao Tzu dating back to the fourth century B.C. –
It is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it.
The sage meets with no difficulty. It is because he is alive to it that he meets with no difficulty.
THE REALIZATION OF FREEDOM
The reason being aware of our situation helps is because the situation itself is never a problem – it is only our refusal to be in that situation that creates the problem. It’s only a problem because I say to myself that it is a problem. The truth is that I am already quite free to be in that situation – I am naturally ‘free’ to be there, there is nothing in that situation stopping me being in it. It is only me who causes the obstruction; it is only me who is saying “I have to get out of here”. It is only me who is taking the freedom out of the situation, and putting myself thereby under enormous pressure to do something.
This may sound like nothing more than clever talk but it isn’t. Actually it is the most profound realization that anyone could possibly have. When you are in a dreadful situation, being afflicted by overwhelmingly painful feelings and overwhelmingly frightening thoughts, to suddenly discover that you don’t have to get rid of these feelings or thoughts is immensely liberating. It is important to stress that this is a purely practical discovery – it has nothing to do with clever thinking or fancy psychological theories. In other words, I don’t tell myself that it is okay for me to be feeling the way that I am feeling when deep-down I am not really sure about it at all, but rather I discover the truth of this for myself. I do not have to give myself that freedom – which is what I usually try to do. The responsibility is not on me to create the freedom for myself – it is already there.
When I am suffering, when I am enduring an ordeal that seems beyond the limits of my endurance, I automatically take upon myself the ‘false responsibility’ of escaping that suffering. This false responsibility puts me under an impossible pressure; rather than helping me it actually creates a far worse type of suffering for me – it traps me in an endless meaningless cycle of futile, useless pain. False responsibility causes me to commit myself to a struggle that I cannot ever win, but which I believe I have to win.
My ‘true’ responsibility is not to escape reality, or to hide from the truth. On the contrary, my true responsibility is the responsibility that I have to ‘relate intelligently and honestly to my situation’, whatever that situation might be. In simple terms, my responsibility is to ‘be aware’.
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.