A common question many folks have regarding counseling is how it works and how it is supposed to help. I practice a particular type of counseling, known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

A common question many folks have regarding counseling is how it works and how it is supposed to help. I practice a particular type of counseling known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Here is a bit about it:

ACT, sometimes known as the Psychological Flexibility model, is an approach to human thriving, built on a robust research tradition in psychological science that has direct applications for anyone who wishes to live more fully and purposefully. Psychological Flexibility refers, broadly, to one’s ability to adapt successfully to changing life circumstances. Unfortunately, this is often much harder than it sounds. Often, with many changes swirling at once it becomes easy to become engaged with comforting but perhaps unproductive patterns of action.

The phrase "comforting but perhaps unproductive patterns of action" is really a euphemism for "all the stuff you do that you know are only making things worse." Don't lie. We all do it. For some of us, it's worse than others.

And for all of us, it is usually a bit more subtle than I am presenting it here. The actual term for this is "experiential avoidance." What this means is that people generally have a tendency to avoid things that are uncomfortable. Thus we "avoid experience." This is obvious, of course. Heck, pretty much all sentient animals tend to avoid things that are uncomfortable. This is sensible. Why would it be a problem?

It is not a problem, inherently. BUT, it can become one if we are not careful. Let's go with a made-up example.

Darcy is a person who is very unhappy in her job. When she gets there, she feels a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She is behind on her paperwork, and her hole just keeps getting deeper. She remembers a time when she liked her job, but that only seems to make it worse. As soon as she gets to work, she goes into her office. She turns on her Google Glass and starts to peruse the internet while she pretends to shuffle papers. She reads about Tiny Houses and dreams of someday building one on a lake. As she does this she feels better. In fact, she feels fine. She has successfully engaged in experiential avoidance.

Sadly, the result of the avoidance is nothing but guilt and further delinquency regarding the basic functions of her job. She tells herself she needs to make a change, to either knuckle down and catch up, find another job or cop to her superiors that she's fallen behind and get support on a plan to catch up.

The catch is that all of those courses of action entail major unpleasantness. In fact, when viewed through a short-term, immediate lens, pretty much the only thing that will help her to "feel better" are various forms of experiential avoidance. Any course of action that puts her on a different track will entail a certain amoount of pain. At this point, she will either orient her behavior around a) avoiding unpleasantness or b) making a meaningful change in her life.

It is important to keep in mind that, in addition to being instinctively drawn to avoiding pain, we're also basically trained by our culture to do so. "Feel-goodism" refers to the predominant cultural notion that material comfort and ease are the primary goods in life. Sadly, material comfort and ease are at times directly at odds with many of the most meaningful human exeriences. Parenting, a meaningful career, a strong marriage, an aesthetically pleasant home all take a great deal of ongoing work and commitment that does not neccesarily feel good in the short term.

Experiential avoidance is common, and it is damaging. Behavioral research demonstrates that it is highly correlated with all manner of psychological problems. In many ways, it's like being on a treadmill. It takes a lot of  effort, but you don't get anywhere.

It's not just a matter of willpower to overcome it, either. "Just do it" is a great marketing slogan, but for deeply entrenched behavior patterns, slogans are inadequate. There are things that work, however. Skills such as acceptance of troublesome experiences, creating distance from problematic thoughts, mindfulness, looking at things from various points of view, clarifying values and making specific commitments are all ways to help overcome the destructive tendency towards experiential avoidance. I'll write more about those things in the future.

Please visit Spoon River Counseling.