Resistance and Suffering: Stepping Back from Motivational Pressures
Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
W & J Staff Psychologist
I found myself struggling to write a blog this week. There are many topics I could select, but nothing seemed to fit as I reflected on my experience and the experiences of those around me. A few weeks ago I wrote a blog on motivation. Although, I hope these tips were relevant and helpful to others, I have started to question our collective approach to staying motivated and productive during the current pandemic.
I recently came across a reflection posted by Alaa Hijazi, a trauma psychologist in Beirut, where she described feeling horrified about the push to learn a new skill or calls to be productive. At first, I resisted her reflections as I have prided myself on staying productive and oriented toward self-improvement over the past few weeks. Nevertheless, as I read further, Dr. Hijazi went on to plea for more self-compassion and acceptance of the difficult emotions that come up for us and to find ways of soothing our pain and the pain of those around us. The suffering is real. The loss of control is real. The uncertainty is real. She further labeled our experience as a collective trauma and noted the profound loss and panic as well as the overstimulation of our nervous system as we attempt to cope. Indeed, it is not surprising that so many people are struggling with sleep and feeling increasingly on-edge. In the end, these reflections struck me as an important message to balance the calls for self-improvement and productivity during this time.
To be clear, distraction, particularly when it is focused on healthy activities and self-improvement, remains an important tool for coping with distress. It also allows for us to step outside of negative thoughts and can reduce the intensity of our emotions. However, when our attempts to feel better become grounded solely in resistance of pain or we completely check-out from reality, we often experience increased suffering and only struggle further to tolerate and cope with distress. For example, we might work hard to be productive and positive, but feel increasingly stuck as we fall short of our goals. We might work even harder as a result, only to find ourselves increasingly exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed. We might compare ourselves to others, as we often do, and make faulty assumptions about others being much more productive. In the end, we might find ourselves feeling more and more stuck in a place of suffering.
A well-known Buddhist notion about suffering is helpful for this discussion. The simplified equation is pain + resistance = suffering. In other words, when we resist pain and actively strive to push away our distress, we can find ourselves stuck in a place of suffering. Therefore, it might be useful to consider how efforts to be highly productive can manifest as resistance and how this can make us feel worse.
The answer to these questions is challenging. If we do not actively resist or distract, then we must accept. Acceptance can be incredibly hard, even as it is often viewed as weakness or
mistakenly dismissed as a form of giving up. Indeed, acceptance takes great strength as it requires us to more directly face and acknowledge what is difficult in our lives. Below are a few ways of incorporating greater acceptance into your life.
Begin by accepting reality. Take time to accept how you are feeling and acknowledge any fears or apprehension you have about the future. Take time to look at whatever is currently causing you the most stress and acknowledge it. Notice how much time you spend checking-out of reality.
Cope with distress. Take a moment to pause, breathe slowly, and allow the intensity of your emotions to dissipate. Instead of distracting yourself, stay in the moment as best you can and allow the impulse to distract to dissipate. If you are able to stay in the moment long enough, the intensity of your emotions should subside.
Practice Mindfulness regularly throughout the day. Getting better at something takes practice. Mindfulness is the best way to practice the skills and mindset for moving toward acceptance. Take a moment to become aware of your surroundings. Focus your attention on your body and your breath. Notice what thoughts come to mind when you take a moment to pause. Notice what feelings come up. Practice using non-judging awareness of all that arises and ground yourself in the present.
Use RAIN as a guide. Tara Brach, a well-known psychologist and meditation teacher, provides a useful tool for practicing mindfulness and acceptance using the acronym RAIN. Recognize what is happening; Allow the experience to be there, just as it is; Investigate with interest and care; Nurture with self-compassion. This simple, yet powerful practice is a great way to practice acceptance and self-compassion.
In the end, it is possible to be both more accepting, while remaining productive. The key is to take time to pause and check to see if our approach is balanced. If we are only striving to be productive, we might be neglecting other aspects of our experience that need to be recognized and acknowledged. We might be setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves or unknowingly pushing ourselves to a point of emotional exhaustion. When we take more time for self-compassion and acceptance of all that comes up for us during these difficult times, we are actually more likely to be productive and more likely to be a positive support to others.
Is motivation and productivity something we must be striving for and fighting against ourselves to achieve? Might it be better to approach productivity as a side effect or outcome of acceptance and self-compassion as we naturally accomplish things at a pace that is both realistic and grounded?