Ok, so we talked about the 2 types of discomfort: state and trait. (You can review that HERE if you need to.) I promised that we’d talk about how we make ourselves uncomfortable and also how mindfulness can help us change our internal state. Let’s get started.
First up – The Cycle of Discomfort (CoD). This little gift comes out of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and it’s a real gem! Sometimes we can feel like we have no say in how we feel, and the CoD can really help us see just how much agency we have.
The basic idea is that what we think contributes to how we feel and act. It looks like this:
An Event happens: Let’s say that you get called into your boss’s office.
You have a Thought about the event: Oh, no. I’m in trouble. Here’s the thing about thoughts. They are almost all judgments that amount to this is good or this is bad. When our brain hears this is good, it translates that to, this is SAFE. On the other hand, when it hears, this is bad, it translates that to, this is a THREAT. Our bodies respond accordingly, and
You have an Emotion that includes Physical Sensations: Anxiety (or anger, fear, sadness, dread, guilt, happiness, etc). Physical sensations might include flushing, chills, tummy upset, shaking, tension, and a plethora of others.
Your mind might Jump to the Past and see past trauma or pain (that is somehow related to the current event): Oh, gosh. The last time she called me in, she yelled at me for an hour. OR
Your mind might Jump to the Future and see possible consequences (that are somehow related to the current event): She found out that I’m late on my filing and is going to fire me this time.
Your emotion and the accompanying physical sensations Increase. Put another way, the energy in your body goes up.
You have Difficulty Concentrating. Your mind may feel like it’s going a mile a minute, you might not be able to think of what papers you should take into the meeting, or maybe you won’t be able to focus on your work for the rest of the day.
You might have Intrusive Thoughts (that are related to your current emotion and physical state but may NOT be related to the current event). For example, you begin to think that you may have left the door unlocked and the oven on.
You React. There are a couple important notes here. First: this reaction is NOT about the original Event (I know. I know. You want to think that it IS.) This reaction is about how you FEEL inside your body – your internal state of discomfort. This reaction is like a teapot that whistles on the stove when the water boils – this whistle relieves the pressure. Your reaction is meant to relieve the internal state of emotion and physical sensation. Second: whenever you react based on your internal state, you risk Value-less versus Value-based Behavior. For example, you might call your coworker and impulsively start trash-talking your boss, or you might race into your boss’s office an hour early demanding to know what you’ve done wrong.
You feel Regret about your reaction. That’s easy to understand, right?
Regret hurts, so you practice Avoidance. Again, this is NOT about the event anymore. Now, it’s not even about your first feeling. It’s about your regret over how you reacted. There are any number of ways to avoid feeling regret over your actions. Blaming someone else, stuffing food in your mouth, distracting yourself with Netflix or YouTube videos, minimizing or rationalizing your actions (we’ll talk about cognitive distortions soon), pretending that you’re not hurting, going on a shopping spree, or drinking alcohol are some examples of avoidance techniques You probably have several of your own that you use to change how you feel.
The trouble is that you’re not stupid, and eventually, you wake up from your avoidance technique. Waking up is accompanied by:
Increased Shame and Lower Self-Esteem. Ouch. You hurt yourself when you take actions that are not Value-Based. The more often you react to your internal states rather than respond based on your value systems, the more shame build-up you’ll have, and shame colors your perceptions (read: Shame makes you THINK through a filter of Shame. Remember the beginning of this thing? An Event happens and you have a thought that makes you feel. Imagine if that thought is filtered through shame – how does that feel?)
Shame hurts so you Self Sabotage or Limit Yourself in some way. Maybe you leave the office early so that you avoid your meeting, or maybe, if you’re really rolling in this, you quit your job before you can be fired.
You feel a little bit of Relief, temporarily. Why? Well, if you quit your job, you don’t have to worry about getting fired, do you?
So there it is. The Cycle of Discomfort. It’s a tricky little thing because it’s largely UNCONSCIOUS! That’s right, picture it as a wheel turning constantly underneath your conscious mind. (Actually, you might imagine several wheels turning over the top of each other. Some are bigger and faster than others. Some are interlinked). Sometimes, you might tune in and recognize that you’re over-reacting about something or that you are having “ugly thoughts.” But more often than not, you’re moving from event to event completely disconnected from the thoughts (perceptions/judgments) that are driving how you feel and react.
The first step in getting off this thing is to WAKE UP.
I have more to tell you about how we make ourselves uncomfortable, and I’ll do that in the coming days, but for now, the next time you catch yourself having a feeling, see if you can identify your THOUGHTS. Just start to notice the connection.
We’ll talk more soon.
Still to come:
- Cognitive Distortions
- The Problem with Subjectivity
- Mindfulness and the Way Out