All of these months after first reading The Happiness Trap, the concept I most regularly revisit is “the struggle switch”. In my mind, there are two oppositional states: relying on myself, striving, and struggling to control my thoughts and emotions versus surrendering to God’s power, being in the moment and accepting my thoughts and feelings. In shorthand, the former state is when the struggle switch is activated.
Dr. Harris gives a great metaphor for this type of struggle – quicksand: “If you ever fall into quicksand, struggle is the worst thing you can do. What you’re supposed to do is lie back, stretch out, keep still, and let yourself float on the surface.” He admits that while floating on quick-sand is effortless, it isn’t easy! Likewise, with our difficult or unpleasant emotions, struggling against them only makes them more powerful:
“… imagine that at the back of your mind is a switch – we’ll call it the “struggle switch.” When it’s turned on, it means we’re going to struggle against any physical or emotional pain that comes our way; whatever discomfort we experience, we’ll see it as a problem and try hard to get rid of it or avoid it.”
The struggle switch is like an emotional amplifier, Harris explains. When you fight against a particular feeling, it creates added emotions. You could then have anger about your anxiety or guilt about your anger, etc. But, even worse are the control strategies people use to get rid of or avoid the discomfort of these difficult emotions. There are the obvious dangers of using alcohol or drugs to numb feelings, but humans also resort to gambling, food, shopping, or an infinite number of other strategies to avoid what they’re feeling.
So, how does the struggle switch develop?
Harris gives this little quiz-
Read the following list of the nine basic human emotions and just notice which you judge as good/positive and which you judge as bad/negative:
He explains that most people judge the first six emotions as bad/negative and the final three as good/positive. Why? Because we’ve been programmed to believe this by the stories we’re told (and believe) about them.
Harris states that these uncomfortable sensations in your body cause you to judge particular feelings as bad. (Funny, I’d never consciously thought about the fact that “feelings” are literal in that they cause your body to feel something different!) The emotions themselves are neither good nor bad; they’re just feelings passing through the body. However, the judgment we make about each feeling is what sets us up to avoid negative feelings and seek out positive ones.
The idea that thoughts and feelings are separate things was mind blowing for me! Perhaps since anxiety is the emotion I struggle against the most and it’s characterized by compulsive thoughts, I’d associated thoughts and feelings so closely that I could not differentiate between them. That’s the beauty of ACT, I think. It addresses the issue of thoughts first, so that they can be defused; then moves on to feelings, knowing that you will have to be able to accept your thoughts effectively in order to deal with your emotions.
So, the issue with judging your feelings is that it activates the struggle switch and creates urges to avoid or get rid of the feeling, thus only intensifying your discomfort. The mind not only produces thoughts and judgments about your emotions but also stirs up questions and comments that make you feel worse. Harris goes through a list of several common thoughts, such as:
“Why am I feeling like this?” –people ask this because they want to figure out what made them feel badly so they can avoid it in the future or get rid of the feeling.
“Why am I like this?” – leads to you searching your life history for explanation and typically ends in feeling resentful and blaming parents.
“I shouldn’t feel like this.” – Harris notes “Here your mind picks an argument with reality.”
Oh, I sure can. When this period of anxiety started I spent many fruitless hours wondering what sparked this feeling and arguing with myself about why I should really feel happy. So ironic that it was my need to stay happy that was the problem!
Harris concludes this section:
“Now you can see how the struggle switch got there. Our thinking self created it by telling us that uncomfortable feelings are “bad” or “dangerous,” that we can’t cope with them, that we are defective or damaged for having them, that they will take over or overwhelm us, or that they will harm us in some way. If we fuse with these stories, the switch goes ON and we perceive uncomfortable emotions as a threat. And how does our brain respond to a threat? It activates the fight-or-flight response, which then gives rise to a whole new set of unpleasant feelings.”
In order to effectively deal with uncomfortable emotions, then, you must accept the running commentary of thoughts about the feeling as only words and instead engage your observing self in feeling the emotion directly. This is where the critically important technique of expansion comes in…