At the root of many mental health problems is experiential avoidance. As touched upon in a previous entry, experiential avoidance is trying to avoid, suppress, or get rid of certain private experiences (i.e. emotions, physical sensations, thoughts, memories), regardless of the toll it takes on us or others around us, or of how effective those efforts are. Control strategies, then, are what we use to try to avoid feeling the things we don’t want to feel. A few examples of control strategies include substance abuse in effort to drown out distressing memories, isolating ourselves so as to try to escape social anxiety, or perhaps surrounding yourself with yes-men so as never to have to face any critical feedback or being told “no” (lookin’ at you, Mr. President).
We all use control strategies to engage with our environment/situations, and these often work reasonably well for navigating the external material world. For example, getting burned by fire is super unpleasant, so we avoid sticking our hands in it. On the other hand, it is far less clear how to avoid getting burned by the fires in our minds, which can feel just as painful and threatening to our existence as real fire. We can often recognize external threats and adjust our behavior to avoid unnecessary suffering, but the same strategies simply do not carry over to our internal experiences. The regulation of our thoughts and feelings are largely unresponsive to our verbal/cognitive control efforts.
Do not, under any circumstances, think of a pug rolling down a hill. Did you think of a pug rolling down a hill? I bet you did, even though I told you not to. That’s because trying to control our emotions and thoughts is a rigged game. There are ways that we can manipulate our environments to encourage certain emotional states (e.g. distracting ourselves by watching a movie, invoking moods through music or art, etc.), but these are very limited and temporary solutions. The cruel fact of our lives is that the harder we try to push certain internal experiences away, the harder they come back to hit us in the face, over and over and over again.
The use of control strategies for our inner world are not all bad and harmful! It is when we adhere to them rigidly, uncritically, or without concern for their impact on ourselves and others, that we get in trouble. There are times when we CAN push away certain experiences - but doing so costs us or those around us greatly. We can avoid conflict in our interpersonal relationships, but how often does compulsive conflict avoidance lead to those relationships rotting at their core, or leading to unfulfilling, shallow, husks of connection? We can use drugs and alcohol in such a way as to never be sober enough to experience the psychic pain we’re running from, but at what cost to our bodies and relationships? We can isolate ourselves from the world so as never to experience the anxiety of facing a sometimes dangerous or hostile world, but then what is made of the life we’re desperate to preserve?
We can constrain our lives in ways that make our world and ourselves smaller and smaller until we barely exist, but then how is that meaningfully different from already being dead?
Sometimes, even, the things we’re the most desperate to try to avoid are things that are most essential to our vitality. Sometimes we’re afraid of the very things that make us special, that makes us feel alive, or that makes our lives worth living.
This inability, this unwillingness, to have certain internal experiences is at the heart of social ills across all levels of social organization. Depending on access to status and power, our control strategies can seem more effective as we shunt our pain down onto others – often resulting in a feedback loop of more and more egregious abuses in order to escape or cover up underlying painful private experiences (e.g. insecurity, shame, having to self-reflect on our weaknesses or harmful behaviors). If we have the means and will to manipulate or coerce others into acquiescing to our desires, to avoid receiving negative feedback or conflict, to suppress their needs in order to meet ours – these things give the illusion of control and perhaps even happiness. And who’s to say it’s not real happiness? (It’s me – I believe that, but you don’t have to.) But there is a kind of shallowness/hollowness to those relationships - when others resent you, are afraid of you, or even worship you, how much of you are they truly able to know and appreciate? There is evidence that suggests that those with high power are more isolated and socially distant (to be expanded upon in future entries).
And there are definitely limits to how far you can push people. No matter how much power you accumulate, you simply cannot control everyone and everything around you. (Trump certainly does not seem like a happy dude to me, for example - but I digress.) (It also highlights the problems of entrenched systems of power, how power accumulates, and who inherits the positions of power regardless of capacity to use it responsibly - but that’s another can of worms we’ll unpack at a later date.)
Of course, this is not to say we need to pity the rich and powerful, and ESPECIALLY not to excuse their abuses of power - but instead, it’s worth acknowledging the fundamental flaw of striving to obtain more power and status as a panacea for our suffering. There are limits to our ability to control our environment and our internal experiences, and there are costs to our attempts to do so. Our efforts to escape our demons often only make them haunt us more persistently. The more unwilling we are to sit with our internal experiences, the more we end up abusing ourselves and others, and the more we constrain and limit ourselves.
To live lives worth living, pain and psychological discomfort is inevitable, so we might as well learn how to embrace and learn from it. Of course, learning how to do so is a scary and difficult process, but I’d argue that not doing so is far harder.
Life being the rich tapestry that it is, our control strategies manifest in a myriad of complicated ways, so it’s worth spending some time to reflect on the following questions:
- What are the most difficult emotions for me to experience?
- Some of the most commonly struggled with emotions are: shame, fear, anger, anxiety, uncertainty, despair, helplessness, weakness, confusion, embarrassment, sadness, grief, etc. Sometimes even positive emotions like happiness and pride are difficult for people to experience. What emotion are you currently trying to avoid the most?
- What memories or thoughts do I try not to have?
- What do I worry about in a way that feels excessive?
- Rumination, which is compulsively focused attention on certain aspects of your distress, can also be an effort to avoid. Often people will feel like if they are constantly worrying about something, it will keep them vigilant or reduce the chances of that thing happening. Or it can be a way of avoiding sitting with uncertainty.
- What kinds of situations do I avoid due to how they might make me feel?
- For example: parties, dating, trying for certain kinds of jobs, etc.
- What behaviors do I use in order to reduce or mitigate certain internal experiences?
- For example: using substances, overusing your cell phone, dominating or steering conversations, “ghosting” people, distracting yourself with movies or social media, etc.
- How have these control strategies worked in the long run?
- Some of these might be helpful to some degree! What we’re most concerned with here is workability. Some might have worked in the short-term but lost efficacy over time. Some might still work occasionally, but have limited utility. Have your attempts to control or limit your painful experiences helped reduce the pain in the long run, or have they worsened your suffering?
- What have these control strategies cost me?
- Have you lost relationships, health, jobs, or previously valued activities? What parts of yourself or your valued life might you feel cut off from? What does it feel like when you engage in these strategies? How does it feel to “emotionally check out”?
- How might things be different if you chose to deal with these painful experiences more directly?
Many of these questions can be scaled up when thinking about our interpersonal/group dynamics in our communities and movement building. Are there formal mechanisms or informal norms in your social groups that are rigid in their control strategies? What kind of collective or interpersonal emotional experiences are trying to be avoided? What are the benefits of these mechanisms and what are the costs? How might things be different if the group deal with these things more directly? What role might you play in maintaining, establishing, or challenging these dynamics?