In reviewing my posts on The Happiness Trap, I was surprised to find such an obvious oversight. In my post The Struggle Switch, I ended with a teaser: This is where the critically important technique of expansion comes in… but then I neglected to write a post about expansion. Oops!
Expansion is the technique for accepting your unpleasant feelings, whereas defusion is the technique for accepting unpleasant thoughts. Dr. Harris states, “Basically, expansion means making room for our feelings.” By contrast, the words that tend to describe feeling bad are about restriction – “tension,” “stress,” “under pressure” and “strain” for example. Through expansion, we’re giving our feelings space so they can move, and eventually, move on.
In this section, Dr. Harris revisits the concept of the Thinking self versus the Observing self. The thinking self produces our thoughts, judgements, images, fantasies, and memories – it’s commonly called “the mind.” The observing self is responsible for awareness, attention, and focus. Expansion requires sidestepping the thinking self with the aim of observing your emotions. This way, you can experience unpleasant emotions without passing judgement on them, creating scary images, or associating with memories of past emotions.
Dr. Harris admits the obvious problem – the thinking self never shuts up! While practicing expansion, you’ll also have to defuse thoughts that pop up to distract you from the pure awareness of your feelings.
The Four Steps of Expansion:
The four basic steps of expansion are: observe your feelings, breathe into them, make room for them, and allow them to be there. Sounds simple doesn’t it? That’s because it is. It’s also effortless. However, that does not mean it’s easy! Remember the quicksand scenario? Lying back and floating on quicksand is both simple and effortless – yet it’s far from easy.
Step 1: Observe
Observe the sensations in your body. Take a few seconds to scan yourself from head to toe, noticing any uncomfortable sensations. Pick the one that upsets you the most – lump in your throat, knot in your stomach, etc. and focus on it. Observe the feeling with curiosity.
Step 2: Breathe
Breathe into and around the sensation. Begin with a few deep breaths, being sure to empty your lungs completely. Slow, deep breathing is important – it lowers your levels of tension and provides a center of calm within you. “It’s like an anchor in the midst of an emotional storm: the anchor won’t get rid of the storm, but it will hold you steady until it passes.”
Step 3: Create Space
In breathing deeply into and around the sensation, it’s as if you’re somehow making space within your body. You’re expanding rather than tensing. Open up and create a space around this sensation, giving it plenty of room to move. And if it gets bigger, give it even more space.
Step 4: Allow
Resist the urge to get rid of the feeling. Allow it to be there, even thought it’s unpleasant and you don’t like it. Let it be. When your mind starts judging and commenting, simply thank it and bring your attention back to observing.
This process is the natural progression from defusion of thoughts. Essentially it’s the same process, only with feelings. In both defusion and expansion, the goal is acceptance not “getting rid of” the thoughts and feelings. Harris explains:
As you practice this technique, one of two things will happen: either your feelings will change or they won’t. It doesn’t matter either way, because this technique is not about changing your feelings – it’s about accepting them. If you have truly dropped the struggle with this feeling, it will have much less impact on you, regardless of whether or not it changes.
At the end of this section, Dr. Harris asks readers to practice expansion with an unpleasant feeling. This practice is done so you can develop the willingness to have unpleasant emotions. You don’t have to like the feeling or want to feel it, but since unpleasant emotions will arise throughout your life, you will benefit greatly from changing your relationship with them. Instead of trying to avoid them or get rid of them, the willingness and acceptance of these feelings with make them less threatening.