The Happiness Trap: Images and Emotions

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happiness trapAfter explaining how to handle unpleasant thoughts through defusion, Dr. Harris briefly describes how these techniques can also be used with images. Whereas thoughts are just words in your mind, images are pictures in your mind. Images can be disturbing and cause people a lot of pain. The techniques for minimizing the impact of images are similar to thought defusion; basically you are not taking the image seriously and seeing it for what it really is- just a picture in your mind that cannot hurt you.

Personally, I find images from scary or disturbing films to be the most troublesome. I recently made myself watch The Shining for two reasons: 1) my husband loves it and asked me to watch it numerous times and 2) so that I could practice these image defusion techniques and not fear disturbing images as much. Interestingly, the image that stuck with me (and disturbed me the most!) immediately after watching the film wasn’t one that bothered me while I actually viewed it. There are several scenes where a ton of red liquid (supposedly blood) pours through the closed elevator doors. It’s used to foreshadow that something evil is happening. This darn image kept popping into my mind as I’d walk through the dark hallway or room at home. After a few times, I thought to myself “How could I alter this image so it loses its power to scare me?” I ended up changing the red liquid to green slime, as in Nickelodeon’s “You Can’t Do That on Television”.  Suddenly, it wasn’t an evil, scary image but actually kind of silly!

After defusion, Harris segues into the second core principle of ACT: expansion, a technique to help you accept your unpleasant emotions. First, he sets the stage by illuminating what emotions are and debunking some popular myths regarding emotions.

People tend to believe that their emotions control their actions. Harris explains that there are “action tendencies” that are associated with various emotions, but “…emotions definitely do not control our behavior”. He goes on to provide examples of people facing intense fear or anxiety who are still able to act calmly. The goal is to be able to acknowledge your emotions and therefore make good decisions about how to behave. Harris says:

“… if we consciously bring our awareness to how we are feeling and consciously observe how we’re behaving, then no matter how intense our emotions are, we can still control our actions.”

This concept reminds me of a quote from Viktor Frankl that I came across about 10 years ago and really helped grow my awareness of personal responsibility. He is a Holocaust survivor and author that Harris discusses later in the book. Frankl stated:

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

So true. It’s incredibly liberating when you realize that other people or situations are not responsible for your conduct. You are still ultimately in control of your actions and behavior despite how you’re feeling.

As mentioned in an earlier post, this is the section where Harris describes emotions as being like the weather. There’s always some weather condition present, just as you are always feeling some type of emotion. However, many emotions are not distinct or strong enough to be significant. The aspect of this metaphor that I focus on is that emotions are always changing. A rainy day will pass and the sun will shine again.

Finally, Harris wraps up this introduction to emotions by explaining how the primitive flight or fight response is responsible for informing whether your emotion is perceived as being harmful and negative or beneficial and positive. He states that emotions are not positive or negative but neutral. Of course, he admits, all of us prefer to feel positive/good emotions versus negative/bad ones. This is human nature. But, when that preference begins to impact your behavior and you actively avoid negative emotions – you’ve just engaged the “struggle switch”.

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