Why do we often feel stuck with the challenges we face? Why is it so difficult to move on and break free from the shackles of stress, anxiety and worry?
While there are no foolproof answers to the second question, it can help us to understand any issues we have and let go of the unpleasant feelings by letting go of one question: why?
It’s a strange notion to accept at first. Surely we need answers to why things happen in our lives and why we’ve been left to carry the burden of consequences. Often, clinging on to the “why?” leaves us helpless. Sometimes there is no answer, and even when there is one, it can feel insufficient.
No matter how hard we might try, none of us can have a better past, and no one deserves the suffering that comes with dwelling on situations and events we can’t change.
I was recently privileged to be part of the first Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) workshop series in Malaysia, hosted by SOLS Health and led by Martin Wilks, a UK-based clinical psychologist, ACT practitioner and trainer.
As a mindfulness-based therapy, the ACT approach makes a lot of sense to me, and Martin did a wonderful job to make the practices, concepts and principles as accessible as he was entertaining.
ACT explores our traits and behaviours, and helps us to minimise coping strategies that don’t work for us. It invites us to make a values-based commitment towards positive change and helps us to become unstuck whenever we hit a brick wall.
Having a keen interest in developing mental health services in Malaysia, I think a major part of helping people to flourish is to spend less time in the past and more time in the here and now.
Of course, where relevant, it can be helpful to look to the past for patterns and guidance. On the other hand, dwelling on a time that’s come and gone can deepen feelings of being a helpless victim and a slave to one’s circumstances.
This needn’t be the case. In fact, oftentimes where we can get stuck in overcoming our problems is by thinking that there’s something “wrong” with us, and that we are in need of some kind of label for our current state. Or in other words, to be diagnosed.
Again, I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes diagnoses can be helpful, but there are often misdiagnoses of psychological issues that actually lead to more problems for the person. Wilks put it beautifully when I asked him what the purpose of ACT is.
“It helps people to optimise their situation, and enables them to understand that we’re all part of this human condition and that’s it’s OK to give yourself permission to make mistakes and be imperfect,” he said.
“As human beings, we all have issues in dealing with the complexities of life. We’ve all got our histories and some of them have been quite damaging. But where we are now, it’s helpful to accept that our experiences have taken place and that we do have challenges.
“From there, we think about what kind of life we would like to lead, working towards our goals through our values, without denying the difficulties that we have. Rather than trying to suppress the symptoms of our troubles in order to get on with life, we get on with life in order to meet the symptoms of our troubles and finding ways of accommodating them.”
As the First Noble Truth in Buddhism suggests, life is challenging. There’s no one who can be completely free from struggles, obstacles and setbacks. So it becomes a question of, “What matters most to me? And how can I work with all that I am now to best bring about how I would like to live my life?”
The Serenity Prayer, written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, eloquently describes this endeavour of being able to hold the two tensions of our human condition, our hopes and desires.
He wrote, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”
Such a beautiful prayer invites us to move away from either – or thinking that we’re all fond of. Life is neither good nor bad. It has many shades, and we can learn something from each when we realise it’s in the here and now that we can make positive changes and shape the life we want to lead.
As American author and evangelical Christian pastor Rick Warren puts it, “We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.”
Like any prison, it’s impossible to go anywhere else while we are inside it. It’s only when we free ourselves from the confines of our mental prisons that we can take charge of our life’s journey and where it should be headed.