Updated: Sep 15, 2021
As someone who's spent years attempting to navigate and make sense of the complex stream of thoughts, emotions, and sensations that come and go in my life, I can confidently say that it's often a dizzying experience for me. While I'm likely to draw up a few working hypotheses at any given moment about what's currently going on between my ears, I'm never really certain that I know precisely what's happening.
The more I practice introspection, the more willing I am to sit in this uncertainty, but there's nothing particularly easy about it. On my best days, I kindly remind myself that it's all just practice in growing my self-awareness. On more trying days, I find myself getting caught up and wrestling with the content of my thoughts and feelings, desperately trying to pin them down in search of answers for my concerns, or longings, or questions. Thankfully, I've read enough self-help books and behavioral research to know that I'm not alone in this, even though it can often feel that way.
What We All Yearn For
This past week, I finally revisited the book A Liberated Mind by Steven Hayes, which I've been reading slowly (i.e. procrastinating and avoiding). In the book and in his ACT Immersion Course, he not only outlines the skills that help us approach life with greater flexibility and openness, but also the shared desires that are core to our human experience.
I want to paraphrase those here and attempt to distill some of the wisdom from A Liberated Mind in case you don't find the time to sit down and read through it. That said, I definitely recommend making the time. Hayes is one of the most important contributors to our current understanding of human behavior. His work offers a set of practices that can help us show up to life in the ways that matter most to us, and many of the ideas outlined here are borrowed directly from his work and the larger contextual behavior science community.
While these yearnings haven't and won't provide every answer that we find ourselves searching for on those trying days, I think they provide a great deal of clarity in helping us determine what parts of the map we're currently exploring in our minds. The yearnings, then, serve as trail markers, or signposts, that can help us identify the paths we're currently on. When we walk these trail systems in our minds for so many years, the markers can serve as reminders of what challenges and difficulties to expect along the way.
Here are six desires that we commonly share as humans:
Our desire to have a logical, organized, and clear sense of how to order all of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Belonging
Feeling connected, cared for, and included as a part of a larger community. Feeling The need to experience the full spectrum of emotions that are available to us — happiness, sadness, heartbreak, joy, frustration, calm, disappointment, ease, irritation, loss, warmth, etc. Orientation
Having a sense of where we are in time and place; having a clear idea of who we were, who we are now, how we got here, and where we're going.
Being able to freely choose and decide what matters most to us in our lives; determining what we care about.
The desire we have to be proficient and capable; to learn and accomplish various things as we engage with the world.
As Hayes writes, all of these yearnings are part of our evolutionary history. The great news is that there are some really productive and fulfilling ways that we can go about satisfying them. Unsurprisingly, though, there are also some very unhelpful and painful ways that we can contort ourselves to address them. By pivoting from rigid, inflexible practices to more flexible, open ones, we can spend less time doing what hurts and more time doing what matters.
Before we wrap up, we'll briefly outline two overarching behaviors that cause us to adopt rigid, inflexible practices. If you're looking for a deeper dive on the specifics of each yearning, Part 2 is here, which includes a closer look at understanding, belonging, and feeling.
What Causes Rigidity?
There are two major contributors that cause us to work ourselves into rigid and inflexible ways of being. The first is rule-following behaviors that we act on without considering our circumstances. The second is experiential avoidance, which is really about avoiding things that are short-term difficult, challenging, or unpleasant. To be really clear, neither rule following or experiential avoidance are inherently bad or problematic. In fact, these actions often provide some relief.
The key point here is that context really matters. There are plenty of instances where following rules and avoiding difficulty are completely appropriate (e.g. not running red lights often keeps us safe; using a bridge to cross a stream keeps our feet dry).
Rules and avoidance behaviors only start to become unworkable when when we begin applying them broadly without consideration, or unconsciously using them in specific situations that work against us. For example, say that I start to rigidly live by the rule "anything I do, I must do expertly." At first, this works because I'm energized by the additional efforts that I'm putting into my projects and relationships. If I decide that I must rigidly follow this rule, though, my options become limited. I must find ways to limit myself to only the things I'm good at, which means either overworking to prove my expertise or procrastinating so much that I won't be found out. Soon enough, trying new experiences might be off the table. What starts out as a rule to help meet my desire to feel competent can unintentionally start disrupting other things I care about (e.g. prioritizing relationships, learning new skills, etc.).
Or say that I come to believe that I must "be nice, no matter what." This may cause me to avoid expressing my frustrations. As a result, when someone crosses a boundary or hurts my feelings, I simply shut down and get quiet, and I refuse to be open with my coworkers, friends, or loved ones. What starts out as a strategy to belong and feel connected (because nice people tend to be well-liked and accepted by the group) actually starts to harm my relationships. People around me start to perceive me as closed off or withholding. Before I recognize it, I'm suppressing my desire to feel all of my emotions (another core desire) and only giving myself permission to feel and share the pleasant ones.
Hopefully it's clear that if we apply rigid rules and avoid difficulty consistently or entirely, we cut ourselves off from learning, growing, and living in ways that matter to us.
As we wrap up part one of this post, here's a reflection question to consider:
Are there any typical rules that I follow (or assumptions that I make) that help me avoid challenges in the short-term, but end up causing me frustration or harm long-term?
If you spend a few minutes here and think of something, I'd encourage you to jot it down. See if you can't come up with specific examples or scenarios where that rule or assumption showed up previously, and keep an eye on that this week to see if it shows up anywhere else.
We all have rigid and inflexible aspects of our lives, and at the source of the rigidity is often some form of self-protection — a desire to shield or keep safe something that we care about deeply. Our minds to protect us from difficulty in the short-term with these rigid rules and avoidance tactics; it's on us to figure out when they're overdoing it so that we don't move away from what matters most to us in the long-term.
That's all for now. Check out Part 2 when you're ready for more!