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  • Helen Dempsey-Henofer

#16: When thoughts/feelings hurt

one consideration for relieving suffering

As 2023 comes to a close, I find myself returning to the first post/letter I wrote this year about workability. Workability is that concept that actions that are workable take us closer to what's most important to us.


As we rang in this year that we've just lived through together, I wished you workability.


As the year ends and I reflect on my work and my relationships, the one persistent question that's noodling around (directly tied to workability) is this: what if we didn't treat feelings and thoughts as problems?


I wonder how you're reading the question. It would make total sense if you were skeptical.


The thoughts that I see people get most insistent are problems are thoughts about suicide. Perhaps you've had the experience of someone you care about posting their suicidal thoughts on the internet. If you have had this experience, you've likely witnessed the well-intentioned comments from family and friends. Typically they boil down to this: Don't feel that way. Don't think that.


So, if in response to my suggesting that we not treat feelings and thoughts as problems you're skeptical and you've got a long long list of "no no" thoughts and feelings you tell yourself you're not supposed to think and feel, the comment section suggests you've got plenty of company. As a society, we are super uncomfortable being with pain.


My question for you is: how is it working?


Is trying to turn off unpleasant, painful, and even scary thoughts and feelings bringing you closer to what matters in life? If you're struggling and someone tells you to "stop it," does that alleviate your suffering? Check your experience.

There's a lot of reasons why this may seem like a far-fetched suggestion: not treating thoughts and feelings as problems. Let's consider your life. How many times have you been told not to cry? To suck it up? To feel better? Sometimes the message not to feel your feelings or think your thoughts is well intentioned. Some kind person doesn't want you to hurt. At it's root it may have more to do with people avoiding their own discomfort at your not-so-pleasant experiences. Chances are throughout your life the message to treat thoughts and feelings like problems has been repeatedly reinforced.


Since I brought up suicidal ideation as an example of thoughts people tend to be most uncomfortable with... when struggling with these thoughts in yourself or in others I recommend getting competent support that won't tell you not to feel your feelings. A list of hotlines is available on the website.


If we're going to try not to treat thoughts and feelings as problems, it's important to differentiate between internal experiences (thoughts, feelings) and external actions. Differentiating between feelings and actions is a common struggle. People often believe anger or pain itself is going to lead to destruction when what leads to destruction is destructive action.


Let's acknowledge that the world we live in has taught us to be really ineffective in the presence of our own and others' most painful internal experiences. Rather than saying, "Yeah, this really is painful." people are much more likely to say, "Don't cry."


All I suggest you to do is to check your experience. How effective has it been to treat thoughts and feelings like problems? How much time and energy are you putting in to trying to change them? Is there any action that might be more effective in connecting you with what matters in your life?

Reading an article isn't therapy. While not a substitution for the individual care of mental health treatment, this blog is intended to put therapy concepts into writing so that they can be accessed more widely. If you know someone who'd benefit, forward this on to them. There are two ways to sign up, a consent checkbox for new clients in intake, or easy-peasy from the website... available for anyone.

 

As 2022 comes to a close, I have personal reflections I'd like to share with you. I was honored this year to get to work with clients, to be part of the social work special interest group board for the Association of Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS), and to present at two conferences. I also attempted things that didn't work: groups and courses that didn't fill, book writing that is still a messy work-in-progress full of missteps and reorientations, chasing "oh! that's interesting"s rather than being intentional in how I pursued professional development.


On the foundation of 2022's successes and stumbles, I consider the year ahead and set some intentions. Among my professional intentions for 2023:

  • Present at 4 conferences to address barriers to inclusive services (specifically addressing religious bias, minority stress, and intersectional experiences)

  • Continue in the book writing/learning process

  • Prioritize continuity and alignment of efforts with the group's values as co-chair of the ACBS social work SIG board

  • Focus professional development to strengthen services affirming TGNB, neurodivergent, and neuroqueer experiences

  • Grow the practice, helping more people overcome barriers (anxiety, self-doubt, being mired in thoughts and feelings) to self-acceptance and authenticity

And my final intention in my professional world is to keep it limited to those 5 domains. It is so so easy for me to chase good ideas, and then diverge (hey hey hey to my own ND).


In my personal life, I'm prioritizing adventure, art, and connection. TBH, I think of art as being a form of adventure and connection, but my own wellbeing benefits from artistic messes.


I invite you to reflect with me. What worked well this year? What didn't? Join me in setting some intentions. You'll hear from me again in 2023.


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