Overcoming suffering: Emotional acceptance

by Kaj_Sotala 5 min read29th May 201144 comments


Follow-up to: Suffering as attention-allocational conflict.

In many cases, it may be possible to end an attention-allocational conflict by looking at the content of the conflict and resolving it. However, there are also many cases where this simply won't work. If you're afraid of public speaking, say, the "I don't want to do this" signal is going to keep repeating itself regardless of how you try to resolve the conflict. Instead, you have to treat the conflict in a non-content-focused way.

In a nutshell, this is just the map-territory distinction as applied to emotions. Your emotions have evolved as a feedback and attention control mechanism: their purpose is to modify your behavior. If you're afraid of a dog, this is a fact about you, not about the dog. Nothing in the world is inherently scary, bad or good. Furthermore, emotions aren't inherently good or bad either, unless we choose to treat them as such.

We all know this, right? But we don't consistently apply it to our thinking of emotions. In particular, this has two major implications:

1. You are not the world: It's always alright to feel good. Whether you're feeling good or bad won't change the state of the world: the world is only changed by the actual actions you take. You're never obligated to feel bad, or guilty, or ashamed. In particular, since you can only influence the world through your actions, you will accomplish more and be happier if your emotions are tied to your actions, not states of the world.
2. Emotional acceptance: At the same time, "negative" emotions are not something to suppress or flinch away from. They're a feedback mechanism which imprints lessons directly into your automatic behavior (your elephant). With your subconsciousness having been trained to act better in the future, your conscious mind is free to concentrate on other things. If the feedback system is broken and teaching you bad lessons, then you should act to correct it. But if the pain is about some real mistake or real loss you suffered, then you should welcome it.

Internalizing these lessons can have some very powerful effects. I've been making very good progress on consistently feeling better after starting to train myself to think like this. But some LW posters are even farther along; witness Will Ryan:

I internalized a number of different conclusions during this period, although piecing together the exact time frame is somewhat difficult without rereading all of my old notes. The biggest conclusion was probably acceptance of the world as it is, or eliminating affective judgments about reality as a whole. I wanted to become an agent who was never harmed by receiving true information. Denying reality does not change it, only decreases our effectiveness in interacting with the world. An important piece of this acceptance is that the past is immutable, I realized that I should only have prospective emotions, since they are there to guide our future behavior. [...]

More things fell into place in early 2010, during a period in which I was breaking up with Katie at the same time our cat was dying of cancer. I learned to only have emotions about situations that were within my immediate control - between calls with the vet making life-or-death decisions about my pet, I was going to parties and incredibly enjoying myself. This immediately eliminated chronic stress of any kind, which has been greatly beneficial for my overall happiness and effectiveness. I felt alive in a way that I hadn't experienced before, living every moment with its own intensity. I don't (yet) experience this state constantly, but it does seem to happen much more frequently than it used to. This moment-intensity also induces incredible subjective time dilation, which I appreciate quite a bit.

I am not sure exactly when, but sometime during this period I began to develop sadness asymbolia - sadness lost its negative affect, and so I no longer avoided experiencing it. I came to the realization that sadness was precisely the right emotion I needed to internalize negative updates! Being able to internalize bad news about the world without fear or suffering is one of my biggest hacks to date, as far as I am concerned. I think this was related to internalizing the general idea of emotions as feedback, instead of some kind of intrinsic truth about the world.

In April 2010 I came to the realization that my systematic avoidance of certain things was in fact the emotion of fear. It seems obvious when stated this way in retrospect, but for most of my life I had prioritized thought over emotion, and at that time did not have particularly good access to my emotional state. Once I came to this realization, I also realized that my fear pointed towards my biggest areas of potential growth. Although I have not yet developed fear asymbolia, I have developed a habit of directing myself straight towards my biggest fears as soon as I recognize them. [...]

...my subjective experience of the pain-sensation did not seem to change much, what changed was a mental aversion to the stimulus.

Sadness... oh such sweet sadness! My enjoyment of all emotions scales with its intensity, so I actively try to cultivate more sadness when it occurs. I long for the feeling of warm tears rolling down my cheeks, my breath and body racked with sobbing... Emotional pain now feels euphorically pleasurable to release, and in its aftermath I am left with warmth and contentment. It is almost as though the pain realizes I have incorporated its lessons through my acknowledgment and expression, and then no longer demands my attention. The sensation itself is difficult to describe... it is definitely painful, but in no way aversive.

Some other LW posters who've made considerable progress on this are Jasen Murray, Frank Adamek and Michael Vassar. I invite them to post their experiences in this thread, and in future posts of their own.

How does one actually achieve emotional acceptance? It is a way of thought that has to be learned with practice. There are various techniques which help in this: I will cover one in this post, and others in future ones.

Mindfulness practice

"Many [mindfulness exercises] encourage individuals to attend to the internal experiences occurring in each moment, such as bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Others encourage attention to aspects of the environment, such as sights and sounds ... All suggest that mindfulness should be practiced with an attitude of nonjudgmental acceptance. That is, phenomena that enter the individual’s awareness during mindfulness practice, such as perceptions, cognitions, emotions, or sensations, are observed carefully but are not evaluated as good or bad, true or false, healthy or sick, or important or trivial ... Thus, mindfulness is the nonjudgmental observation of the ongoing stream of internal and external stimuli as they arise." -- Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review (R.A. Baer 2003, in Clinical psychology: Science and practice).

Mindfulness techniques are very useful in realizing that your thoughts and emotions are just things constructed by your mind:

"Several authors have noted that the practice of mindfulness may lead to changes in thought patterns, or in attitudes about one’s thoughts. For example, Kabat-Zinn (1982, 1990) suggests that nonjudgmental observation of pain and anxiety-related thoughts may lead to the understanding that they are “just thoughts,” rather than reflections of truth or reality, and do not necessitate escape or avoidance behavior. Similarly, Linehan (1993a, 1993b) notes that observing one’s thoughts and feelings and applying descriptive labels to them encourages the understanding that they are not always accurate reflections of reality. For example, feeling afraid does not necessarily mean that danger is imminent, and thinking “I am a failure” does not make it true. Kristeller and Hallett (1999), in a study of MBSR in patients with binge eating disorder, cite Heatherton and Baumeister’s (1991) theory of binge eating as an escape from self-awareness and suggest that mindfulness training might develop nonjudgmental acceptance of the aversive cognitions that binge-eaters are thought to be avoiding, such as unfavorable comparisons of self to others and perceived inability to meet others’ demands."

"All of the treatment programs reviewed here include acceptance of pain, thoughts, feelings, urges, or other bodily, cognitive, and emotional phenomena, without trying to change, escape, or avoid them. Kabat-Zinn (1990) describes acceptance as one of several foundations of mindfulness practice. DBT provides explicit training in several mindfulness techniques designed to promote acceptance of reality. Thus, it appears that mindfulness training may provide a method for teaching acceptance skills."

It also has clear promise in reducing suffering:

"According to Salmon, Santorelli, and Kabat-Zinn (1998), over 240 hospitals and clinics in the United States and abroad were offering stress reduction programs based on mindfulness training as of 1997. ... The empirical literature on the effects of mindfulness training contains many methodological weaknesses, but it suggests that mindfulness interventions may lead to reductions in a variety of problematic conditions, including pain, stress, anxiety, depressive relapse, and disordered eating."

I recommend the linked paper for a good survey about various therapies utilizing mindfulness, their effects and theoretical explanations for how they work.

While I haven't personally looked at any of the referenced therapies, I've found great benefit from the simple practice of turning my attention to any source of physical or emotional discomfort and simply nonjudgementally observing it. Frequently, this changes the pain from something that feels negative to something that feels neutral. My hypothesis is that this eliminates an attention-allocational conflict. The pain acts as a signal to concentrate on and pay attention to this source of discomfort, and once I do so, the signal has accomplished its purpose.

However, often I can do even better than just making the sensation neutral. If I make a conscious decision to experience this now-neutral sensation as something actively positive, that often works. Obviously, there are limits to the degree to which I can do this - the stronger the discomfort, the harder it is to just passively observe it and experience it as neutral. So far my accomplishments have been relatively mild, such as carrying several heavy bags and changing it from something uncomfortable to something enjoyable. But I keep becoming better at it with practice.