Struggle Switch


Have you ever seen one of those old movies where the bad guy falls into a pool of quicksand and the more he struggles, the faster it sucks him under? If you should ever fall into quicksand, struggling is the worst thing you can possibly do.

What you’re supposed to do is lie back, spread your arms and lie as still as possible, floating on the surface. (Then whistle for your horse to come and rescue you!)

Acting effectively in this situation is tricky, because every instinct tells you to try to escape; but if you don’t stop struggling, pretty soon you’ll sink beneath the surface. Sure, it’s not exactly fun to be floating on quicksand, but it beats the hell out of drowning in it!

The same principle applies to difficult feelings: the more we try to fight them, the more they smother us.

Now, why should this be? Well, imagine that at the back of your mind is a switch—we’ll call it the ‘struggle switch’. When it’s switched on, it means we’re going to struggle against any physical or emotional pain that comes our way; whatever discomfort we experience, we’ll try to get rid of it or avoid it.

For instance, suppose the emotion that shows up is anxiety. If our struggle switch is ON, then that feeling is completely unacceptable. So we could end up with anger about our anxiety: ‘How dare they make me feel like this!’ Or sadness about our anxiety: ‘Not again! This is tragic!’ Or anxiety about our anxiety: ‘This can’t be good for me. I wonder what it’s doing to my body.’ Or guilt about our anxiety: ‘I shouldn’t let myself get so worked up! I should know better. Once again, I’m acting like a child.’ Or maybe even a mixture of all these feelings at once!

What all these secondary emotions have in common is that they are unpleasant, unhelpful and a drain on our energy and vitality. And then we get angry or anxious or depressed about that! Spot the vicious cycle?

Now imagine what happens if our struggle switch is OFF. In this case, whatever emotion shows up, no matter how unpleasant, we don’t struggle with it. Thus, when anxiety shows up, it’s not a problem.

Sure, it’s an unpleasant feeling and we don’t like it, but it’s nothing terrible. With the struggle switch OFF, our anxiety levels are free to rise and fall as the situation dictates. Sometimes they’ll be high, sometimes low, and sometimes there will be no anxiety at all. But more importantly, we’re not wasting our time and energy struggling with it.

Clean Discomfort

Without struggle, what we get is a natural level of physical and emotional discomfort, depending on who we are and the situation we’re in. In ACT, we call this ‘clean discomfort’. There’s no avoiding ‘clean discomfort’; life serves it up to all of us in one way or another. But once we start struggling with it, our discomfort levels increase rapidly.

And all that additional suffering, we call ‘dirty discomfort’. Our struggle switch is like an emotional amplifier—switch it ON and we can have anger about our anxiety, anxiety about our anger, depression about our depression, or guilt about our guilt. We could even have guilt about our anger about our anxiety—and then depression about that! But it doesn’t stop there. With our struggle switch ON, we are completely unwilling to accept the presence of these uncomfortable feelings, which means, not only do we get emotionally distressed by them, we also do whatever we can to get rid of them, or distract ourselves from them.

For some people, this means turning to drugs or alcohol, which then leads to addictions, relationship issues and a whole host of other messy problems. Others may turn to food as a distraction, which can then lead to obesity or eating disorders.

Humans find an almost infinite number of ways to try to avoid or get rid of unpleasant feelings: from smoking and sex, to shopping and surfing the Internet.

As we saw earlier, most of these control strategies are no big deal, as long as they’re used in moderation, but any of them is problematic if used excessively. For example, I’ve had clients who developed huge credit card debts from excessive shopping, and others who destroyed their relationships by making unreasonable sexual demands.

Dirty Discomfort

All these secondary problems, and the painful feelings associated with them, fall under the heading ‘dirty discomfort’.

With the struggle switch OFF:

  1. Our emotions are free to move.
  2. We don’t waste time and energy fighting or avoiding them.
  3. We don’t generate all that ‘dirty discomfort’.

With the struggle switch ON:

  1. Our emotions are stuck.
  2. We waste a huge amount of time and energy struggling with them.
  3. We create a lot of painful and unhelpful ‘dirty discomfort’.

Take the case of Rachel, a 43-year-old legal secretary. Rachel suffers from panic disorder, a condition characterised by sudden episodes of overwhelming fear: so-called panic attacks. During a panic attack the sufferer has an intense feeling of impending doom, associated with distressing sensations such as breathlessness, chest pain, a thumping heart, choking, dizziness, tingling in the hands and feet, hot and cold flushes, sweating, faintness and trembling. This is a common disorder, affecting up to 3 per cent of the population in any given year.

Rachel’s major problem is actually her intense dislike of anxiety. She thinks anxiety is something terrible and dangerous, and she will do anything possible to avoid it. This means that as soon as she feels any sensation that remotely resembles anxiety, such as a racing heart or tightness in the chest, that sensation will itself trigger further anxiety. Then, as her anxiety level rises, those unwanted sensations grow even stronger. This in turn triggers even more anxiety, until soon she is in a state of full-blown panic.

Rachel’s world is steadily shrinking. She now avoids drinking coffee, reading thrillers, watching scary movies or doing any physical exercise. Why? Because all these things make her heart beat faster, which can then set off the whole vicious cycle. She also refuses to ride in elevators or aeroplanes, drive on busy roads, visit crowded shopping centres or attend large social gatherings because she fears she might feel anxious in those situations, and that might lead her to have a panic attack, which is something she wants to avoid at any cost!

Rachel’s case is an extreme example, but to a lesser extent we all do the same thing. All of us, at times, avoid challenges in order to escape the stress or anxiety that goes with them. And as I’ve said before, in moderation this is not a problem. But the more habitual that avoidance becomes, the more we start to suffer in the long run.

‘Yes, that all makes sense,’ I hear you say, ‘but how can I stop struggling with difficult feelings when they feel so bad?’ The answer is by using a simple technique called ‘expansion’. But before we come to that, there’s an interesting bit of history we need to explore.