Did you know that your willingness to change is the surprising antidote to anxiety? If you want to learn more about it, keep on reading.
Imagine that you’re engaged in a tug-of-war with your difficult thoughts and emotions. The more anxious you feel, the more you struggle to not feel anxious. In ACT they use the metaphor of saying- If I scrapped you in a chair over a tank of sharks and said to you -if you get anxious, I’ll drop you in, don’t get anxious! Would you be able to control your anxiety by just trying to force it to go away? No, that just not how anxiety works, it’s not how emotions work.
Or if we go back to the relationship example, have you ever tried to change someone else? A spouse or child for example? How well did that go?
Willingness To Change
In the previous post we learned that avoidance doesn’t work, trying to force our feelings to change doesn’t work. But neither does giving in to them, just letting anxiety run the show or make your decisions.
So, what the heck do we do with anxiety? The fundamental antidote to problematic anxiety is willingness, learning how to feel anxiety, make space for it, listen to it, but not be bothered or controlled by it.
Willingness is learning how to drop the struggle with your feelings, so that you can free your hands, your life, to do what you really care about.
Willingness is the most powerful tool for managing anxiety, because when you have willingness, anxiety can’t control you anymore. So, in this video you’ll learn what willingness is, how to develop it, and you’ll get to practice it to see what it feels like.
What is willingness? OK, I’m going to tell you a few things about willingness, then we’re going to jump in and try.
• Present Moment- We’re going to direct our attention to the here and now
• Exploring- Letting go of judgment about emotions and describing them instead- Beginner’s mind, fresh experience. (tongue example)
• Allowing- Dropping the struggle with emotions, it’s accepting that they exist. It’s not liking, wanting or enjoying feeling something- it’s just acknowledging the reality- that I am feeling this, and allowing that feeling to be there.
• Curiosity- Being curious about them instead of resisting them
• Expand- Replacing aversion with openness- leaning in, making space. Being flexible and open instead of rigid and trying to control something you can’t control.
Why would I do that? Because resisting feeling is what’s messing up your life. Trying to not feel anxious forces you into avoiding the things you care about, hardening your heart, cutting off possibilities.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re afraid of public speaking, but you’re asked to give a speech at your best friend’s wedding.
You know you’ll feel anxious, you know you’ll worry about it, that you might lose sleep or your stomach might feel queasy or your hands might sweat. But your alternative is to either- not give the speech, which isn’t really being the friend you want to be, or some other options like using a lot of substances like cannabis or alcohol to numb those feelings so that you don’t feel anxious, but that will impact your ability to be the friend you want to be.
On the other hand- willingness says “I don’t enjoy public speaking, the anxiety is really uncomfortable, but I care so much about my friend, that I’m willing to feel those feelings, because I care”. You allow yourself to feel a little anxious and remind yourself that it’s ok, that anxiety just means you care about your friend and the other people in the wedding.
After the speech, you realize it wasn’t that bad, and you’re proud of yourself for doing it.
So, in essence, willingness is not about liking or wanting unpleasant experiences, but about being open to them when they occur, as a part of the human experience, and not letting them stop you from living a life that’s meaningful to you.
OK, so we’ve talked about it, let’s practice, we’ll start with a clever example from art.
Then we’ll practice with some physical sensations.
Then we’ll practice willingness with some emotions.
Here we go!
The Ugly Duchess
OK, so this first exercise comes from a painting by the Flemish artist Quinten Massys around 1513. Take a look at this painting, what are your first impressions? What do you feel when you look at it? What do you think about this woman? Take a moment and write it down. Is this a comfortable painting to look at? Is it enjoyable or pleasant? For most people, probably not initially. It’s been titled “The Ugly duchess” or the “Grotesque old woman” most people initially feel revulsion, judgment, and perhaps seek to look away or laugh to avoid their feelings.
Now, let’s watch a video from the National Gallery:
Now that you’ve spent more time with this painting, has your experience changed? Willingness is about sitting with our feelings, sitting with comfort or discomfort, making space, and being curious, this opens us up to lots of options.
OK, now let’s do it again with a physical sensation. I want you to do a wall sit. Go ahead, get up, find a wall, press your back on it, try to put your legs at a 90-degree angle and hold it. If you don’t have a wall just hold a squat.
You didn’t think that we were just going to intellectualize about this did you?
Your body holds your feelings, your body is the receptacle of your emotions
Your physical sensations are key to understanding what you’re feeling.
So, here’s how we practice.
Close your eyes and get into your body.
What sensation are you feeling in your legs? What does it feel like? Pretend you’re a curious scientist who has never felt that feeling before, how would you describe it. Hot? Cold? Stabbing? Throbbing, pulsing? Comfortable? Notice where you feel tight or loose.
We’re not going to use judging words here- not bad or good, not wonderful or terrible, instead we’re describing. Notice any resistance or urge to avoid the discomfort, and practice staying present with the physical sensations. Observe the sensations as they arise and fall away, allowing them to be present without trying to change them.
What’s going on with your breathing? Just notice it. Don’t try to change your breathing, just notice it.
What’s going on with your hands? With your face? Just notice it.
If you can keep going, keep going, if not take a break but keep listening to your body. If you notice your mind wandering, come back to the present moment.
Getting out of your head and into your body is essential to willingness. Feelings are fundamentally physical. And we can use physical practices to help us learn how to get better at feeling. So, try to make some space for those sensations, can you allow yourself to feel that discomfort and just let it be there?
OK, go ahead and sit back down.
Our body is the anchor for our emotions, and when we run from our body, we never feel at home. Dr. Becky from Good Inside says: “At the core, anxiety is the state of being uncomfortable in your body. Not feeling at home in yourself and wanting to be anywhere else. It’s the fear of a feeling, and it’s only a problem when your rules say you can’t have it.”
Fear Of Heights Video Exercise
OK, now let’s try with an emotion- Let’s go back to that video with the fear of heights, as you watch these guys, what emotions come up? Can you notice them? What thoughts come up? Can you make space for them? What happens if you allow yourself to feel a little scared? Can you handle that feeling?
The opposite of Willingness is believing “I can’t handle that” (and we’re not talking about a situation, we’re talking about a feeling or thought that seems unbearable). It’s when people believe they can’t handle feeling something- perhaps because they’re afraid they might cry, or lose control, they just don’t know what to do to “make the hurt go away”. All these forms of resistance make people do anything to suppress their feelings- drugs, alcohol, avoiding people they care about. The desperate desire to avoid feelings shrinks down our life, it makes us rigid and fragile. Willingness on the other hand opens us up, it makes us resilient, flexible, and actually quite capable.
I really like a mantra here, pick one that works for you but I like “I can feel this feeling and still be ok” or “I can allow myself to feel what I am feeling”
In the full course, I’m going to give you a few more exercises to practice willingness, specifically with painful thoughts or uncomfortable emotions. I’m also going to help you build up the skills to face your fears, situations, or triggers that you’d normally avoid. We’ll start with baby steps and then gradually move up.
Remember, practicing willingness is an ongoing process. Start with small steps and gradually challenge yourself to expand your willingness in various aspects of your life. Willingness is a muscle that you can grow. Life is going to give you a gazillion opportunities to practice this. When you make space for your feelings, you’re going to improve your life.
In the rest of this course, you’ll learn a bunch more skills that can help influence or decrease your anxiety, but they can backfire if you’re still stuck in resistance. When your default setting is willingness, it makes space to learn and try new things, when your default setting is resistance then you limit your options and can get stuck in a struggle with your emotions.
Throughout the rest of the course, we’re going to practice willingness as our default setting. If you find yourself using any of the other skills I teach as an attempt to suppress, control, or resist your feelings, it’s not going to work. It’s going to backfire.
So, revert back to opening up, making space, and let willingness be your default setting when it comes to anxiety.
This post is taken from day 5 from the course, Break the Anxiety Course in 30 Days. If you want to learn more about it, click below.