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What to do with Painful Thoughts and Feelings

How we react to painful thoughts and feelings will be one of the most defining aspects of how we live our lives. For the past few months, I have been exploring values and how to better live them out. A few months ago we explored how to connect with values on a daily basis and last month we dove into how to address problems that get us stuck and unable to live out values. Now it is time to put it together in the nitty-gritty moments where we experience painful thoughts or feelings.


Our default response to pain is to protect, run away, shut down, etc. Ultimately, we want to be safe and to heal. With thoughts and feelings, they can come up in any which way - trying to stuff them down and prevent all painful thoughts and feelings is a fool’s errand. In fact, it will make everything worse. Our task is to learn how to notice our thoughts and feelings and learn what actions lead us towards vitality and which ones lead us towards suffering.

Russ Harris unpacks this in his book ACT Made Simple in three steps:


  1. Take time to notice! Most of us struggle to even be aware of our thoughts and feelings. This could be simply not taking the time, but it could also be a deeper fear or avoidance of them because we fear they will get out of control. Therefore, step one is to just notice - what painful thoughts or feelings showed up today?

  2. Reflect on what you did that led to more vitality when thoughts and feelings showed up. What enriched life and made it healthier - both for you and your relationships?

  3. Reflect on what you did that led to more suffering when thoughts and feelings showed up. What made things worse or was draining for you?


The goal after really becoming skilled in the above three steps is to then both be able to better expand and have capacity for difficult thoughts and feelings and to be able to better do actions that lead toward vitality.


In my work with many clients, I have found that the hardest step is simply not avoiding painful thoughts and feelings. It can take weeks, months or even years to change this habit. So many of us have been trained that the very presence of anxiety or a negative feeling is bad. Life is much different when we do not have to fear negative thoughts and feelings, but they can instead be a part of life.


Russ Harris puts it well: “Having negative thoughts and feelings means I’m a normal human being.”


- Dr. Andrew Cuthbert