Pregnant in Heels (Rosie Pope): Couples Counseling & Experiential Avoidance

Dr. Ryan on Pregnant in Heels with Rosie Pope working with couple as therapist

For anyone who knows me well, television may be the last place he or she would expect to see me.  I’m fairly self-conscious (ok- very) and generally uncomfortable with attention.  In fact, I had no idea I was on the Rosie Pope show tonight, until I received emails and text messages letting me know.  And writing this is no piece of cake – but I’m pushing myself.

My anxiety has been largely responsible for how long it has taken me to even begin a blog- what will my colleagues think? What about academics who don’t know me? Or the ones who do?  At the same time, making cognitive-behavior therapy (or any effective treatment) more accessible to those who may be needlessly suffering or getting in their own way of leading a more satisfying and meaningful life is something that is also important to me- so I experience significant ambivalence around putting myself out there, even when I can disseminate treatments that work.  Wanting to avoid an uncomfortable feeling and at the same time knowing I won’t be fully participating in something important to me, mirrors the issue I addressed in the show.

On the Rosie Pope show, I briefly mentioned a concept known as experiential avoidance.  Experiential avoidance is an unwillingness to prolong experiencing an internal state, such as a memory, feeling, sensation, thought, urge, or craving.  Western cultures, in particular, tend to promote this strategy.  I often refer to our culture as the Heineken-Hallmark culture, not to pick on these two brands, because any beer commercial or even psycho-pharmaceutical marketing campaign sends a similar message – and most box office hits do too (air brushed, smiles, lounge chairs- is any viewer imagining the thought bubbles of the models in these ads are self-loathing rants or existential angst of a 7-year-old Woody Allen character?).

Happiness, from this perspective is pretty neat and tidy, it is the absence of negative thoughts and feelings, and a lot of good feelings and positive thoughts – and if you just do or buy the right thing, you can get rid of all of those negative thoughts and feelings.  If you are feeling anxious or sad- take a pill, buy these shoes, go to this casino, or resort.  Get into the right college, land the right job, marry the right person and you will live happily ever after- maybe you will. But my guess is, if you think you can’t fail, tolerate a disappointing entry level position, or risk rejection – you may be less likely to reach those mile markers, savor them less if you do, and be unclear if they are really yours- or something you are supposed to do. That could be said for dropping out of school, choosing to be unemployed, and never opening up to a meaningful relationship, just as easily. The key is understanding what is important to you, and willingly walking through the storms on the journey.

This may sound strange coming from a psychologist.  Isn’t therapy about eliminating “bad” feelings?  That is the notion many of us hold. My overall goal is to improve clients’ satisfaction with life – happiness.  That often means clients do shed some of the excess time and intensity of particular emotional episodes.  But how we approach that work matters a great deal, and is specific to each individual.  The bottom line is that for most of us, the things that are most meaningful require struggle, i.e., hard work and the experience of aversive emotions and thoughts.  And that’s where I help clients go, when they are willing.  Now most of the time their beliefs shift and they don’t feel “bad” as often or at least aren’t as upset about feeling the “bad”, but it isn’t because they think they can’t or shouldn’t feel bad.

Ultimately, we often have to feel bad to get better.  There are few things that are meaningful that don’t require walking through emotional storms or carrying tough thoughts with us.  The work in life (or psychotherapy) may be learning how to relate differently to these emotions and thoughts, so we are less distressed about having them, creating a greater capacity to carry aversives with us, while increasing our ability to go and do the things that matter most.

If I believe I can’t handle being rejected- I won’t ask anyone out.  If I’m unwilling to be hurt, I won’t open my heart.  If I’m unwilling to lose – then I can’t play the game, and I’m bound to only watch.  Do you want to be in the stands when the whistle blows, or on the field?  There isn’t a right answer, just a choice.

But, if we close the door to the negative emotions and thoughts, it is closed to the possibility of some of the richest of life experiences- we can’t leave the room we are in, we simply limit where we can go.  It isn’t necessarily the wrong approach, just one I encourage each of us to make in a conscious informed way.

What do you want?  What “bad” feelings and thoughts appear to stand in your way?  How long could you choose to have them if it meant you could still pursue what you want?  No really – will you consider answering those three questions?