“We hurt where we care and care where we hurt”…

Stephen Hayes is the creator of the ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) model. Recently I watched his TED Talk and during it he said something that made me pause, think and rewinded…so I could hear it again, “We hurt where we care and we care where we hurt.” His quote felt like truth to me. I wonder if it rings true for you today too?

So let’s explore, together, this thought and others. And I’ll share a link at the end of the blog to his powerful video, incase you’re interested.

For the last few weeks we’ve been exploring ways to cope with disappointment and difficulties. At the end of the most recent blog “When things don’t go our way…(part 2)”, the plan was to share some ideas about meeting disappointments with the help of the ACT model.

So some years ago I saw a video of a four step ACT exercise designed to help navigate the “difficulties of life”…large and small. It was presented by an ACT psychologist, whose name I can’t now recall. I’ve tried and failed to find the video to share with you (and give him credit)…I’ll update with link and credit, if I find it. But in the meantime, I want to look at the four steps with you, because I’ve found them immensely helpful personally and I’ve witness their positive impact with clients.

Don’t worry the four steps take much less time to DO than they take to explain. Once you’re clear on your strongest values (explored in step 4) you can move through all the steps in a minute or so…or you can take  more time with them, if you want.

For example’s sake let’s think about “getting stuck in traffic and being passed by drivers who are zipping up the soon-to-be-ending-lane to cut back over, last minute…way ahead of us!” as our universally annoying (or am I alone in this?) and mild “difficulty of life”.

Step one…Hold Yourself Gently: This step is about opening up to one’s own self and experience and cultivating self compassion.  During this first, and often hardest, step you notice what you are feeling in the context of the situation that the feeling arose and you speak to yourself gently, as you would a good friend or a loved child who is in a difficult situation. It can be audible, if alone, or it can be an internal dialogue. So in the above mild “traffic situation” I might say to myself, “Wow, Teresa, it’s tough to feel rushed to get home to your Loves and have others cut in front of you. It feels frustrating to wait your turn and for others to not do so. You’re tired and looking forward to being HOME.” This step is just noticing and describing the feeling and the situation with gentle kindness and compassion. During this step you can also pause to notice any body sensation tied to the emotion.

This is not the time to brainstorm, criticize, judge or denigrate oneself. So during this step (or any step in this exercise, for that matter) it’s not the time to say, “Calm down!” or “Why do you let yourself get upset by these minor annoyances?” or “You should’ve exited at Walnut; then you wouldn’t be stuck right now.”  

And yet, if you do notice harsh or critical unbidden internal dialogue cranking up (old habits die hard); just notice this and turn your attention to opening to and feeling compassion for both the part of you that feels attacked or criticized by the negative self talk and the part of you that believes that it’s job is to direct, criticize and prod. Now there are two “self parts” as well as at least two layers of suffering to notice and open to, because the pain of self criticism is on top of our pain of the original difficult situation. This is okay, we can open wide enough to be with all of our layered experience of this situation and ourself compassionately. 

“We hurt where we care and care where we hurt.” ~Stephen Hayes

Let’s meet those hurts with compassion. Because as we explored a bit in an earlier blog, “Embracing Imperfection”, it’s often our areas of early woundings where the internal critic seems to scream the loudest.

If you are in a situation where you feel able to do so, often placing a hand firmly on your chest and taking full breaths, as you engage in step one, can be very helpful. Please don’t fret if you find this whole step difficult…just like most things we practice, we get “better” at meeting ourselves with openness and compassion the more we practice doing so.

Step two…Drop Anchor: During this step we turn our attention to grounding ourselves in the present moment. This finds us changing the focus of attention from our inner experience to the here and now experience of the world through our senses. One way we can do this is to begin noticing and naming 5 things we can see; 4 things we can feel (the floor under our feet, the air on our face, the sensation of the chair on our bottoms and legs or the touch of the shirt cloth on our arms, for instance); 3 things we can hear; 2 things we can smell (cue the scented hand lotion); and lastly something we can taste (either the natural “taste in our mouth” in that moment) or pop a lemon drop.

Step three…Find the Treasure: Here we turn our attention once again to the situation that we find difficult and we ask ourselves, “Where is the possible ‘good’ in this ‘bad’?” or “What gold is here for me?” or “If I had to think of one benefit of this situation what would it be?”  This step opens us up to looking at the situation from a different perspective, which can be the difference in staying stuck in a battle with “what is” and having space to wiggle, breathe and choose.

For me sometimes the treasure is as simple is “I get to practice my ACT steps in navigating this difficult situation so that when more difficult things come along (and they will!), I am better able to meet them with a measure of equanimity.” Or simply “I’m growing equanimity!” Sometimes the treasure seems more profound, “In this situation, I’m becoming aware of old wounds or patterns and I’m having the opportunity to practice opening to and meeting them with healing compassion.” It can be practical things or “silly perspectives” like, “I’m safer on the ride home in this traffic jam because driving 5mph is safer than driving 50mph.”

Just keep digging until you can find at least one bit of gold or jewel in the mud of the situation. One of the great benefits of engaging with this step, again and again over time, is that in doing so we increase our mental flexibility, which is a harbinger of overall mental health.

The fourth (and final step)…Take a stand: Okay, here we can begin by exploring our values.  Especially if we haven’t looked at our values in a while, we can begin this step by asking ourselves questions like “What kind of person do I want to be?”; “What characteristics do I value in others/myself?” “What are my highest values?” “What do I think is important in life?” “What previous compliments from others have most landed in my heart?” or my fave… “What value(s) does my very own heart point to as most important?”

Perhaps, not in this moment of coping…but at some point, if you don’t feel real clear on what you value, you can find “values clarifications” exercises, online, that you can work through to gain clarity. (Hint, it’s not what society values, or what others value or even what you think others think you should value that’s important here. It’s what you deeply value and hold as most important), This might be a topic to be fleshed out in a future blog…yay!

After you have established what values you hold most dear, pick out one and ask yourself “What would living my value of “blank” look like in this situation?” If the value is “being loving”….perhaps, in the traffic situation, it would look like calling my Sweetheart to let him know I’m going to be home later than planned…or using the “extra” time stuck in traffic to pray for or call someone who’s been on my mind…or perhaps it’s waving someone in from the ended lane and doing so with grace and loving presence of mind. Next, you might ask yourself the same question using another strongly held value (Though one may be plenty!)…”Okay what would living out my value of “hard work” look like in this situation?” (“Let me use this time in traffic to listen to that management book on Audible.”) If I value “humor or fun”…then my valued-action might be to turn up the 80’s dance tunes and get my car P-A-R-T-Y started.

So the idea is that we use our highest values to inform and choose and follow through with an action that is in line with what we hold as most important, during this difficult situation.

One of the things I find most interesting about this step is how often our go-to reactions, during difficult situations, and our value-chosen-actions are so different from one another. Without asking “What’s my highest value(s) and how do I live it out in this tough situation?” we are often stuck in patterns of responding to “life” that don’t reflect the core of who we are or what we value.

As promised, you can check Stephen Haye’s insightful and powerful talk out here. Heads up….watch it until the end, as he clarifies some important points late in his talk.

You might consider writing the steps on an index card as a reminder for when times get tough:

  1. Hold Myself Gently
  2. Drop Anchor
  3. Find the Treasure
  4. Take a Stand

Whew, that was a LONG one….Thanks for making it to the finish!

Today may you breathe more deeply, smile more often and feel more at home in your own life…