How can the mind be trained to accept ongoing mental or emotional
Experiential avoidance: avoiding what we don't like
From the lens of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), the process of regressing to a favourable past experience of escapism would be a maladaptive response to experiential avoidance. We avert our attention and stray away from the very things that cause us distress, e.g. we shift our attention to favourable past experiences with previous relationships when we are fighting with our loved ones in the present. We avoid the very things we need to deal with by distracting ourselves with other behaviours.
Experiential avoidance is defined as (EA; Hayes, Strohsahl, Wilson et al., 2004):
... [an] unwillingness to experience feelings, thoughts and sensations as
well as attempts to alter them.
For example, to avoid feeling loathe and resentment for their partner, a person resorts to seemingly pleasurable activities like gambling and drinking.
Mindfulness and psychological flexibility: seeing things the way they are
How do we then train the mind to address behaviours that arise from experiential avoidance?
The model of psychological flexibility is a good starting point in understand how to address ongoing distress, both physical and mental. The theory of psychological flexibility is around cultivating a sustained capability to observe experiences non-judgmentally while committing to value-driven activities (Masuda et al., 2011):
it is an overall behavior pattern of experiencing whatever one is
experiencing as it is fully and non-judgmentally without excessive
defense (i.e., mindfulness), while engaging in value-directed
activities at the same time (i.e., commitment to actions).
Firstly, in the context of a loveless marriage, the mental training involved would be around cultivating mindfulness to observe the experiences that cause the craving for 'mental and physical pleasures'. To see things clearly is paramount. The descriptor 'loveless' is not an indicator of factual evidence that a relationship is slowly dissolving. Recognising how one uses language and how it affects cognition is important in practicing mindfulness.
Secondly, values are the key catalyst for behavioural change. By systematically seeing things as they are through non-judgmental awareness, one can train their mind in focusing on acting in-line with 'what truly matters to them'. This has eudaemonic roots but has practical implications for psychological flexibility. Consider this very simple hypothetical example:
X believes that he or she is in a 'loveless' marriage. This causes X a
lot of psychological distress, e.g. X feels anxious and hopeless
about the future with Y (partner). This anxiety manifests in thoughts
such as 'I don't love Y. Why am I with Y?'. This is the language
component that considerably causes a high amount of distress for X. X
recognises the distress he/she feels and learns to become
non-judgmentally aware and accepts that these thoughts and emotions
for what they are. X identifies the values in his life that holds
dear. As a result, X finds that he has greater clarity around how he
should behave - he wants to be in a committed and flourishing
relationship and does not want to resort to seemingly pleasurable
activites, e.g. excessive alcohol, cheating etc.
Freedom in experiencing and choosing
So the key to accepting ongoing mental or emotional suffering is to acknowledge them non-judgmentally and recognise any avoidant behaviours that are arising. Regarding the loveless marriage, the same concept applies: be aware of the thoughts and feelings causing the avoidant behaviours, tap into your values (i.e. for a better marriage, better relationship) and act accordingly to those values. Thus, rather than consumed in mental and physical pleasures - one has the freedom to take a step back and respond to their needs rather than react to ongoing emotional turmoil. This is by no means passive resignation.
Additional: Simple explanation on mindfulness and values
As humans, our thoughts and feelings seem like the only source of truth in understanding ourselves and the world. However, we can get caught up in thoughts and feelings believing that they are true when they are not. This is where mindfulness and values are important.
Mindfulness refers to non-judgmental awareness of our thoughts, feelings and experiences. In some ways, we become observers of our thoughts and feelings and we "take a step back" rather than act on them instantly. Some of these thoughts can cause behaviours where we avoid addressing how we feel rather than sort them out. For example, assume that X has a thought - "She/He never wants to have sex. I'm so frustrated about this." Because of this, X might go and cheat on his/her partner. This is the avoidant behaviour: X behaves in a way that he/she does not address how he/she feels or is thinking. Therefore, practicising mindfulness may help us recognise how we feel and think and not act so quickly.
What next? Well, clear values help us know how we want to behave. X may realise that his/her value is to have loving, intimate and sexual relationship with someone he/she cares about. He/she may then decide to communicate with his/her partner about the problem or decide to move on. Either way, X behaves according to his/her values and not simply how he/she feels.
- Hayes, S.C., Strohsahl, K., Wilson, K.G., et al. (2004). Measuring
experiential avoidance. A preliminary test of a working model.
Psychological Record, 54, 553–578.
- Masuda, A., Anderson, P.L., Wendell, J.W., Choi, Y.Y., Price, M. & Feinstein, A.B. (2011). Psychological flexibility mediates the relations between self-concealment and negative psychological outcomes. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(2), 243-247.