QUICKSAND/ STRUGGLE SWITCH/ CLEAN & DIRTY DISCOMFORT
Have you ever seen one of those old movies where the bad guy falls into a pool of quicksand, and the more he struggles, the faster it sucks him under? If you should ever fall into quicksand, struggling is the worst thing you can possibly do. What you’re supposed to do is lie back, spread your arms, and lie as still as possible, floating on the surface. (Then whistle for your horse to come and rescue you!)
Acting effectively in this situation is tricky, because every instinct tells you to try to escape; but if you don’t stop struggling, pretty soon you’ll sink beneath the surface. Sure, it’s not exactly fun to be floating on quicksand, but it beats the hell out of drowning in it!
The same principle applies to difficult feelings: the more we try to fight them, the more they Smother us. Now, why should this be? Well, imagine that at the back of your mind is a switch—we’ll call it the “struggle switch.” When it’s switched on, it means we’re going to struggle against any physical or emotional pain that comes our way; whatever discomfort we experience, we’ll try to get rid of it or avoid it. For instance, suppose the emotion that shows up is anxiety. If our struggle switch is ON, then that feeling is completely unacceptable. So we could end up with anger about our anxiety: “How dare they make me feel like this!” Or sadness about our anxiety: “Not again! This is tragic!” Or anxiety about our anxiety: “This can’t be good for me. I wonder what it’s doing to my body.” Or guilt about our anxiety: “I shouldn’t let myself get so worked up! I should know better. Once again, I’m acting like a child.” Or maybe even a mixture of all these feelings at once! What all these secondary emotions have in common is that they are unpleasant, unhelpful, and a drain upon our energy and vitality. And then we get angry or anxious or depressed about that! Spot the vicious cycle?
Now imagine what happens if our struggle switch is OFF. In this case, whatever emotion shows up, no matter how unpleasant, we don’t struggle with it. Thus, when anxiety shows up, it’s not a problem. Sure, it’s an unpleasant feeling, and we don’t like it, but it’s nothing terrible. With the struggle switch OFF, our anxiety levels are free to rise and fall as the situation dictates. Sometimes they’ll be high, sometimes low,—and sometimes there will be no anxiety at all. But more importantly, we’re not wasting our time and energy struggling with it. Without struggle, what we get is a natural level of physical and emotional discomfort, depending on who we are and the situation we’re in.
In ACT, this is called “clean discomfort.” There’s no avoiding “clean discomfort”; life serves it up to all of us in one way or another. But once we start struggling with it, our discomfort levels increase rapidly. And all that additional suffering, we call “dirty discomfort.”
Our struggle switch is like an emotional amplifier—switch it on, and we can have anger about our anxiety, anxiety about our anger, depression about our depression, or guilt about our guilt. We could even have guilt about our anger about our anxiety—and then depression about that!
But it doesn’t stop there. With our struggle switch ON, we are completely unwilling to accept the presence of these uncomfortable feelings, which means, not only do we get emotionally distressed by them, we also do whatever we can to get rid of them, or distract ourselves from them. For some people, this means turning to drugs or alcohol, which then leads to addictions, relationship issues, and a whole host of other messy problems. Others may turn to food as a distraction, which can then lead to obesity or eating disorders. Humans find an almost infinite number of ways to try to avoid or get rid of unpleasant feelings: from smoking to sex, from shopping to surfing the Internet.
Most of these control strategies are no big deal, as long as they’re used in moderation - but any of them is problematic if used excessively. For example, I’ve had clients who developed huge credit card debts from excessive shopping, and others who destroyed their relationships by making unreasonable sexual demands. All these secondary problems, and the painful feelings associated with them, fall under the heading “dirty discomfort.”
With the struggle switch OFF:
Our emotions are free to move.
We don’t waste time and energy fighting or avoiding them.
We don’t generate all that “dirty discomfort.”
With the struggle switch ON:
Our emotions are stuck.
We waste a huge amount of time and energy struggling with them.
We create a lot of painful and unhelpful “dirty discomfort.”
(Russ Harris The Happiness Trap)