How to prevent bad events from dragging you down in other areas of life

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Let’s say that tomorrow morning at breakfast, you have a major disagreement with your significant other. Suddenly you’re no longer certain about the future of your relationship. You’re desperate to resolve the situation, but there’s no time to talk it out because you’re late for work and have an important meeting to prep for.

By the time you get to your desk, you’re probably experiencing one or more of the following negative emotions:

  • grief and sadness about the prospect of losing the most important person in your life
  • anger at your significant other for the way he or she treated you
  • anger at yourself for not communicating better or de-escalating
  • fear of being alone

Unfortunately, your brain isn’t wired to switch off your emotions when they become inconvenient—especially intense feelings like the hurt, anger, and agitation that can go along with relationship conflict. As Freud noted, love and work are the cornerstones of what it means to be a human. How do you prevent problems in one area from spilling over into the other, which could quickly lead to a downward spiral? In the example above, how can you keep relationship problems from interfering with what you’re trying to accomplish at work?

The usual approach is to take steps to calm yourself down, pump yourself up, and get motivated so you can do what you need to do to stay on track. For instance, you could practice disputing and reframing your negative thoughts by telling yourself something like this:

“I’m overreacting. This argument is unpleasant, but it’s not the end of the world. We’ve been through worse before and we’ve always found a way to work it out, and I’m sure we’ll get through it again this time. And even if we do break up, I’m going to be OK. My happiness in life doesn’t depend on being with this particular person. I’m going to be fine.”

The idea of disputing and reframing negative thoughts comes from a therapeutic tradition called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Originally designed to treat depression, CBT emphasized changing thoughts and behaviors as a way of changing feelings.

According to CBT, it is our thoughts and interpretations about life events that cause anxiety and depression, and we can feel better by learning to dispute, reframe, and move toward an optimistic perspective. The idea of “feeling better” has long been a primary focus; indeed, one of the classics of the field is Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.

But here’s the problem: reprogramming the way you think can take months or years. And the mere act of reframing a negative event won’t instantly make anxiety melt away. Even if you convince yourself on a rational level that you’re going to be OK no matter what happens with your relationship, you’ll probably still feel anxious and upset. So what can you do to focus on other important areas of your life?

The answer, some psychologists believe, is a tool called “psychological flexibility,” part of a new way of thinking about emotion called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” (ACT).

Psychological flexibility is defined as the ability to be in contact with the present moment without avoidance.4 That means being aware of your experience in the moment without trying to change it or run away from it. In good times and in bad, you accept your thoughts and feelings as they are, focusing instead on taking action. When you let go of trying to avoid negative emotions, the theory goes, you are then freed to make any choice you want rather than being constrained by how you feel.

Most of us are ruled by our feelings, doing whatever they say most of the time. If you have an itch, you scratch it. If you have a craving for a certain food, you eat it. That’s how we operate.

Psychological flexibility seeks to break the automaticity of the connection between your feelings and your behavior. As psychologist Noam Shpancer puts it, psychological flexibility means “getting to know unpleasant feelings, then learning not to act upon them, and not avoiding situations where they are invoked.”

We all have the natural sense that the thoughts and feelings that come to our mind are real and true. ACT challenges that assumption, reminding us that thoughts are just thoughts and feelings are just feelings. Just because a thought occurs to you doesn’t mean it’s true, and just because a feeling comes up doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Having an itch doesn’t mean you have to scratch it; you can choose to scratch it or not, regardless of what the feeling is telling you.

We don’t have much control over what feelings we have, or when they come and go. What we can control is how we respond to our feelings and what actions we take. The key is to acknowledge your feelings without letting them rule you. According to the ACT model, then, our endless focus on trying to feel better misses the larger point. After all, what makes for a meaningful life is not your feelings, but the actions you take.

So, if you find yourself at the office too upset about your relationship to get your work done, take a moment to think. Challenge the assumption that in order to do something, you must first feel like doing it. Instead, you can decide to work because it’s important to you, and achievement in this area helps give your life meaning. Once you accept that you don’t have to feel better in order to do the things you want to do, you become free to do anything.

References

Moran, D.J. (2015). Acceptance and commitment training in the workplace. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2, 26–31.
Forsyth, J.P., & Eifert, G.H. (2008). The mindfulness and acceptance workbook for anxiety: a guide to breaking free from anxiety, phobias, and worry using acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger.
Bond, F.W., & Flaxman, P.E. The mindful and effective employee: an acceptance and commitment therapy training manual for improving well-being and performance. Fredrik Livheim.
Hooper, N., & Larsson, A. The research journey of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Chapter 14: Work.
Shpancer, N. (2010). Emotional acceptance: why feeling bad is good. Psychology Today.