Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Not Judging the Judgments

I was talking with a group about mindfulness and acceptance today - as in the Acceptance part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which teaches people to accept rather than resist unwanted thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness, the skill of observing one's thoughts, feelings, sensations, and other aspects of internal experience without "buying into" them (seeing them as Facts) or acting on them.

We are often taught from a very young age that we should be able to "control" our thoughts and feelings, and our culture suggests that we can avoid or get rid of whatever we don't like. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, neither of these messages is true: we actually can't control our thoughts and feelings (and trying to do so typically causes them to intensify, even if they initially seem "controllable"), and more often than not in life, we can't get rid of things we don't like. In fact, trying to control the uncontrollable may cause more distress than whatever it is we were trying to avoid experiencing.

By deciding to accept (rather than avoid, control, or otherwise fight) an experience (thought, feeling, etc.), we take away this added distress, and free up mental and emotional space for what is truly important to us - our values.

Easier said than done, however! Take, for example, one member of my group. Trying to understand the concept, she said: "So, instead of telling myself I shouldn't have hurt feelings, and not to be so weak, acceptance would be telling myself that everyone is weak sometimes and it's ok?"

Now, she's heading in the right direction by giving herself permission to have hurt feelings. However, she's not quite there yet: she is still judging hurt feelings as "weak."

DBT teaches that mindfulness should (try to) be nonjudgmental of whatever thoughts and feelings we experience. Of course, some of the thoughts rattling around in our heads at any given time are likely to be judgments of one form or another. Mindfulness involves stepping back from judgment by recognizing these thoughts as judgments, without becoming attached to the them as "facts." Acceptance means also accepting that you will have judgments...and treating them like any other thoughts.

As my group member summarized: "So I guess I should not judge the judgments either, huh?" I think she's getting it!

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