To introduce Comparison Judgement, As you read through the emotions listed below just notice, without thinking too hard about it, which ones you automatically judge as ‘good’ or ‘positive’, and which you automatically judge as ‘bad’ or ‘negative’:
You have just read a list of the nine basic human emotions, from which all others are derived by combination. (At least, this is what many scientists believe—it’s still the subject of considerable debate.) Most people tend to automatically judge the first six emotions as ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ and the last three as ‘good’ or ‘positive’. Why is this so? It’s largely because of the stories we believe about emotions.
Our thinking self loves to tell us stories, and we know how they affect us when we fuse with them. Here are some of the many unhelpful stories that our thinking self may tell us about emotions:
- Anger, guilt, shame, fear, sadness, embarrassment and anxiety are ‘negative’ emotions.
- Negative emotions are bad, dangerous, irrational and a sign of weakness.
- Negative emotions mean I am psychologically defective.
- Negative emotions will damage my health.
- People should hide their feelings.
- Expressing feelings is a sign of weakness.
- Strong emotions mean I’m out of control.
- Women shouldn’t feel angry.
- Men shouldn’t feel afraid.
- I must keep my emotions under tight control.
- If I don’t control my emotions, something bad will happen.
- Negative emotions mean there’s something wrong with my life.
You may agree with some or all of the above, or you may have beliefs that are quite different; it depends largely on your upbringing. If you grew up in a family where ‘positive’ emotions were freely expressed but ‘negative’ emotions were frowned upon, then you quickly learned that the ‘negative’ ones were to be avoided.
If your family tended to suppress or hide their feelings, then you learned to keep your feelings bottled up. If your parents believed in ‘getting anger off your chest’, you may have learned that it’s good to express anger. It’s another version of Comparison Judgement. But if you were frightened by a parent’s display of anger, you may have decided that anger is ‘bad’ and should therefore be suppressed or avoided.
What Was Your Childhood Programming?
It’s a useful exercise to spend some time thinking about your childhood programming regarding emotions. This can often give you an insight into how and why you struggle with certain feelings. Please take some time to write some answers (or at least think about them) to the following questions:
- As you were growing up, what messages were you given about emotions?
- Which emotions were you told were desirable or undesirable?
- What were you told about the best way to handle your emotions?
- What emotions did your family freely express?
- What emotions did your family suppress or frown on?
- With what emotions was your family comfortable?
- With what emotions was your family uncomfortable?
- How did the adults in your family handle their own ‘negative’ emotions?
- What emotional control strategies did they use?
- How did the adults in your family react to your ‘negative’ emotions?
- What did you learn from observing all this as you grew up?
- As a result of all this programming, what ideas are you still carrying around today about your emotions and how to handle them?
Comparison Judgement of Our Emotions
One reason we tend to judge emotions as ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ is because they feel unpleasant; they create uncomfortable sensations in our bodies. We don’t like those sensations, so we don’t want them. On the other hand, we do like pleasant sensations, so naturally, we want more of them.
If you judge an emotion as ‘good’, you’ll probably try hard to get more of it; and if you judge it as ‘bad’, you’re apt to try even harder to get rid of it. Thus, judging sets you up for a struggle with your feelings.
In ACT we encourage you to let go of judging your feelings altogether and to see them for what they are: a stream of constantly changing sensations and urges, continuously passing through your body. Just because some of these sensations and urges are uncomfortable doesn’t mean they’re ‘bad’. For example, if you grew up in a family where people didn’t openly express love and affection, then you may find loving feelings uncomfortable. Does that mean they’re ‘bad’?
And isn’t it interesting that many people judge fear a ‘bad’ emotion, yet they will pay good money to watch a horror movie or read a thriller, precisely to experience that very feeling! So no emotion is in itself ‘bad’. ‘Bad’ is just a thought: a judgement made by our thinking self. But if we fuse with that thought—if we literally believe that the feeling is ‘bad’—then, naturally, we will struggle with it all the harder. (And we know where that leads.)
Any defusion strategy can help you deal with unhelpful thoughts about your feelings. For example, suppose your mind says, ‘I can’t stand this feeling.’ You could then acknowledge, ‘I’m having the thought that I can’t stand this feeling.’ Or, more simply, you could reply, ‘Thanks, Mind!’
One strategy for dealing with judgements specifically is to label them as such. Suppose your mind says, ‘This anxiety is terrible.’ You could then acknowledge, ‘I’m making the judgement “This anxiety is terrible”.’ Or suppose your mind says, ‘This guilt is awful.’ You could then acknowledge, ‘I’m making the judgement “This guilt is awful”.’
Using this phrase makes you aware of the process of judging. Then you have a choice in how much you buy into those judgements. Alternatively, each time you notice a judgement you can silently say to yourself, ‘Judging…’ and let it be.
Notice that I said the aim is to let go of judging; I didn’t say to stop judging. Your thinking self is an expert at judging, and it’ll never stop doing it for long. But you can learn to let go of those judgements more and more, simply by defusing them, as in the above examples.
But what if the feeling really is awful? Then we come back to the pragmatic approach: is this thought helpful? If you fuse with the thought, ‘This feels awful!’, will that help you deal with your emotions or does it simply make you feel worse?
How Comparison Judgement Adds To Our Emotional Discomfort
Judging is one of the most common ways that our mind adds to our emotional discomfort, however, there are plenty of others. Below is a list of common questions the mind asks, or comments that it makes, which often stir up or intensify unpleasant feelings.
‘WHY AM I FEELING LIKE THIS?’
This question sets you up to run through all your problems one by one, seeing if you can pinpoint what caused your feelings. Naturally, this just makes you feel worse, because it creates the illusion that your life is nothing but problems. It also leads to a lot of time lost in unpleasant thoughts. (And does this process help you in any practical way? Does it help you take action to change your life for the better?)
‘WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS?’
This question sets you up for self-blame. You rehash all the ‘bad’ things you’ve done, so you can figure out why the universe decided to punish you. As a result, you end up feeling worthless, useless, ‘bad’ or inadequate. (And again, does this help you in any practical way?)
‘WHY AM I LIKE THIS?’
This question leads you to search through your entire life history looking for the reasons why you are the way you are. Frequently this leads to feelings of anger, resentment and hopelessness. And it very often ends in blaming your parents. (And does this help you in any practical way?) ‘WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?’ This is another great question for setting you up to spend hours sifting through all your faults, flaws and defects. (And how do you usually feel as a result?)
‘I CAN’T HANDLE IT!’
Variations on this theme include ‘I can’t stand it’, ‘I can’t cope’, ‘It’s too overwhelming’, ‘I can’t take it anymore’, ‘I’m going to have a nervous breakdown’, and so on. Your mind is basically feeding you the story that you’re too weak to handle this, and something bad is going to happen if you keep feeling this way. (And is this a helpful story to pay attention to?)
‘I SHOULDN’T FEEL LIKE THIS.’
This is a classic! Here your mind picks an argument with reality. The reality is this: the way you are feeling right now is the way you are feeling. But your mind says, ‘Reality is wrong! It’s not supposed to be this way! Stop it! Give me the reality I want!’ (And is this effective? Does it change anything? Can you ever win an argument with reality?)
‘I WISH I DIDN’T FEEL LIKE THIS!’
Wishful thinking: one of the mind’s favourite pastimes. (‘I wish I felt more confident.’ ‘I wish I didn’t feel so anxious.’) This can keep us wrapped up in second-guessing ourselves for hours, imagining how our lives could be so much better if only we felt differently. (And does this help us deal with the life we have now?)
And the list could go on and on. Suffice it to say, the thinking self has lots of ways either to directly intensify our bad feelings or else to get us to waste a huge amount of time uselessly brooding on them.
So, from now on, intend to catch your mind in the act when it tries to hook you with these questions and comments. Then simply refuse to play the game. Thank your mind for trying to waste your time, and focus instead on some useful or meaningful activity.
You may find it helpful to say something to yourself like, ‘Thanks, Mind, but I’m not playing today.’
Comparison Judgement Resolved – For Now
Now you can see how the struggle switch got there. Our thinking self created it by telling us that uncomfortable feelings are ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous’, that we can’t cope with them, that we are defective or damaged for having them, that they will take over or overwhelm us, that they are ruining our life or that they will hurt us in some way.
If we fuse with these stories, the switch goes ON and we perceive uncomfortable emotions as a threat. And how does our brain respond to a threat? It activates the fight-or-flight response, which then gives rise to a whole new set of unpleasant feelings!
To draw an analogy, suppose a distant relative shows up on your doorstep. You’ve never met this relative before, but you’ve been told a lot of stories about her. You’ve been told that she’s bad, that she’s dangerous, that no one can stand her, that the only relationships she has are with defective or damaged people, and that she always ends up hurting or damaging those people or taking control of them and ruining their lives. If you truly believed those stories, what would your attitude be toward this relative?
Would you want her in your house? Would you want her anywhere near you? Of course not. You’d do anything you could to get rid of her as fast as possible. But what if all those stories were false or exaggerated? What if this relative were actually an okay person who had just been the victim of malicious gossip? The only way you’d ever find out would be to spend some time with her, put aside all the gossip and slander, and check her out for yourself. You’ve probably already experienced something like this in your own life.
Perhaps there was once someone at school or at work whom you’d heard a lot of bad things about. Then you spent some time with them and discovered they were nowhere near as bad as their reputation. You may also have experienced the opposite. You may have heard a lot of great stories about someone and then finally met them, only to discover they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. In both cases the lesson is the same: your own direct experience is more reliable than all the stories you’ve been told.
And so it is in learning to handle unpleasant emotions; what you need to do is have a direct experience of them, to connect with them directly via your observing self, rather than automatically believing the stories of your thinking self. When you do this, you’ll discover that those feelings are nowhere near as ‘bad’ as you thought and you’ll realise they can’t possibly hurt you or overwhelm you. One thing that will help you in this process is more defusion practice.
Therefore, you should use the following techniques several times a day, whenever you find yourself getting caught up in unhelpful judgements. (And as always, don’t have any great expectations—just try them and notice what happens.) If you have a judgemental thought such as ‘X is bad’, then simply acknowledge, ‘I’m making the judgement “X is bad”.’
Alternatively, if you notice an unhelpful judgement, then acknowledge its presence, and silently note it as ‘Judging…’ Sometimes when I tell people that their emotions can’t hurt them, they mention the research which shows that chronic anger and depression can have bad effects on your physical health. However, the key word here is ‘chronic’, which means ongoing, over a long period of time. Painful emotions become chronic only when you struggle with them.
Once you stop struggling, they are free to move and they generally do so fairly quickly (although not always). So when you respond to your emotions with acceptance, they don’t become chronic, and therefore they don’t hurt you. Acceptance breaks the vicious cycle of struggle and frees you to invest your time and energy in life-enhancing activities. And guess what? In the next chapter you’ll learn how to do this.
Russ Harris explains that the way most of us go about trying to find happiness ends up making us miserable, driving the epidemics of stress, anxiety, and depression. This empowering book presents the insights and techniques of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) a revolutionary new psychotherapy based on cutting-edge research in behavioral psychology