Embracing Feelings: Understanding Experiential Avoidance and Harnessing Acceptance and Willingness Strategies

Let’s delve into a significant concept in psychotherapy: experiential avoidance, and explore how acceptance and willingness strategies offer a way out of the maze of self-compounding discomfort.

It feels natural to shirk from discomfort; like a reflex action, we often sidestep pain. When we encounter a pot of boiling water, our instincts tell us to keep our distance to avoid getting scalded. It’s an inherent part of survival. But what if the very act of avoidance, especially when dealing with our internal experiences - thoughts, feelings, and sensations - actually amplifies our pain? 

Experiential Avoidance: The Reflexive Shield

Experiential avoidance is an umbrella term for strategies we unconsciously employ to dodge uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It feels as innate as blinking when a gust of wind sweeps past our eyes. It could manifest as self-medication, numbing, procrastination, or a pattern of unhealthy relationships.

But why does this avoidance instinct, which seems so natural, end up causing more harm than good? The paradox lies in how avoidance tends to reinforce the intensity and frequency of these unwanted experiences. We amplify our fear of these experiences, creating a vicious cycle that perpetuates and even exacerbates the very discomfort we’re trying to escape.

Embracing Acceptance and Willingness

To disrupt this cycle, we need to turn to two critical therapeutic strategies: acceptance and willingness. Rooted in the foundations of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), these strategies teach us to alter our relationship with our thoughts and feelings, rather than attempting to change or avoid them.

Acceptance, in this context, means actively embracing our full range of experiences - both pleasant and unpleasant - without judgment or resistance. Willingness, on the other hand, is about being open to encountering these experiences, even when they're uncomfortable, as part of a valued direction in life.

While acceptance is about cultivating an open stance towards our internal experiences, willingness is about the behavioural component – taking action in alignment with our values, even when it brings discomfort.

Willingness and Acceptance in Action

So how do these strategies look in our everyday life? Let’s explore five practical examples:

Confronting Social Anxiety: Many people with social anxiety avoid parties or gatherings, exacerbating their anxiety over time. Acceptance might look like acknowledging your feelings of anxiety without judgement, while willingness could mean attending the social event despite your anxiety, valuing the potential for connection and enjoyment.

Facing Grief: After losing a loved one, it's natural to want to avoid the crushing pain of grief. Acceptance, in this case, means allowing yourself to fully feel that grief, rather than pushing it away. Willingness might involve sharing memories of the loved one, despite the sadness it evokes, because it honours their life.

Handling Work Stress: Work-related stress can lead to avoidance behaviours like procrastination. Here, acceptance could mean acknowledging your feelings of overwhelm, and willingness might be taking small, manageable steps towards your tasks despite the discomfort, because you value your career and productivity.

Managing Chronic Pain: For those with chronic pain, acceptance might mean acknowledging the pain without trying to fight or resist it, while willingness could mean continuing with meaningful activities despite the pain, because they align with your values of leading a fulfilling life.

Coping with Negative Self-Thoughts: Negative self-thoughts can lead to a spiral of self-deprecation and avoidance. Acceptance here is acknowledging these thoughts without judgement or resistance, and willingness might involve engaging in self-affirming activities despite these thoughts because you value self-love and growth.

Inviting Playfulness into the Practice

Like any new skill, acceptance and willingness can feel unnatural at first. It can seem counterintuitive to lean into discomfort rather than away from it. But consider this - as children, we intuitively understood the value of challenging ourselves, often through play. We’d climb a tree despite the risk of falling because we valued the thrill of the climb and the view from the top.

I invite you to approach these strategies with a sense of curiosity and playfulness. Try them out in different situations, gauge your reactions, and gently tweak your approach as needed. By doing so, you're not only learning to disarm experiential avoidance, but you're also actively fostering a more enriching, value-driven life.

Embracing feelings, thoughts, and experiences - the pleasant, the unpleasant, and everything in between - may be a radical shift from what feels natural. However, through understanding the pitfalls of experiential avoidance and the promise of acceptance and willingness strategies, we have the power to bring about profound transformation. This is not just about surviving but about thriving. Remember, you are not alone on this journey. As you navigate the contours of your internal landscape, let acceptance and willingness be your trusted guides.

Breaking Therapeutic Patterns: Shifting from Experiential Avoidance to Acceptance and Willingness

As therapists, we strive to alleviate our clients' distress. However, in this process, we can unintentionally reinforce experiential avoidance, by focusing solely on helping clients get rid of their unwanted feelings. While this approach might offer temporary relief, it doesn't address the underlying resistance that maintains and fuels the problem in the long term.

By incorporating acceptance and willingness strategies into our practice, we can help clients confront their discomfort, explore their values, and foster resilience. Here are five practical tips to guide this shift:

Normalize Discomfort: Instead of immediately seeking to eliminate discomfort, normalize it as a part of the human experience. Dialogue might include: "It's understandable that you're feeling this way. All emotions, even the uncomfortable ones, are part of our human experience."

Reframe 'Problem' Emotions: Shift the dialogue from framing certain emotions as 'problems' to be solved, towards seeing them as experiences to understand. You might say, "Instead of trying to eliminate this anxiety, let's try to understand what it’s trying to tell us. How does it function in your life?"

Highlight Values: Encourage clients to identify their values and take actions aligned with them, despite discomfort. You could ask, "What are some things that are really important to you? How would you behave if you were living in line with these values, even if discomfort shows up?"

Foster Acceptance: Teach clients to accept their inner experiences without judgement. Guide them with phrases like, "Can we sit with this feeling for a moment? Let’s explore it together without trying to change it."

Promote Willingness: Help clients be open to experiencing discomfort as part of moving toward their values. You can suggest, "What if we saw this discomfort as a passenger on your journey, not as a roadblock? How might this shift your actions?"

Incorporating these strategies into your therapeutic practice is an ongoing process. It might feel unfamiliar, just as it might for your clients. But as you navigate this path, remember that you're equipping your clients with tools for life - not just for therapy.

By fostering acceptance and willingness, we help our clients discover a way of being that transcends the cycle of experiential avoidance. In the end, therapy is not just about surviving or 'getting rid' of discomfort, but about thriving amidst the full range of human experiences. It's about enabling our clients to live lives that are aligned with their values, even when discomfort comes along for the ride. And isn't that a journey worth embarking upon?

An incredible technique for therapists can learn, that helps foster genuine acceptance is The Willingness Ladder by Howard Cooper.

It reliably and rapidly neutralises the perceived threat of experiencing such things.

The Willingness Ladder isn't reliant upon hypnosis. It takes the form of a gentle and engaging conversation formed from 6 transformative questions to...

  • Empower clients to rapidly conquer intrusive thoughts
  • Efficiently curtail clients' worries about cravings
  • Guide clients towards a future unhindered by anxiety
  • Assist people in alleviating suffering from chronic pain
  • Offer a straightforward self-help tool for your clients

Jacquin Hypnosis Academy are hosting Howard Cooper to teach this in a live online workshop on July 30th. You can get the details here.