Willingness in difficult times: Holding the cactus gently

“When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him,

he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool”

— Chinua Achebe

I may be singlehandedly responsible for more cactus sales in Portland than any other person. Yes, I’m into low maintenance gardening, but that’s not why I encourage my therapy clients to buy cacti.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) we often focus on helping people develop a sense of acceptance or willingness in their lives. So, as an ACT therapist, as you might expect, I often need to practice being willing to have my experiences… I think I’m particularly good at it as long as those experiences are pleasant for me. J  I have no trouble at all being willing to have the experience of joy or happiness or confidence. However, when it comes to painful experiences in my life — like sadness, self doubt, or anxiety, let’s just say my willingness can look a little different – like nonexistent. Sometimes it looks like the person who is afraid of flying who is  “willing” to fly by white knuckling through the whole flight, with maybe a few drinks in route to help with “willingness.” I too sometimes try to white knuckle my way through emotional pain. But I don’t really think that’s what we mean by “willingness”.

Willingness is an action

Willingness isn’t the same as wanting. Instead, acceptance or willingness is being willing to experience, without struggle, difficult thoughts and feelings in the service of our values. It’s that whole “without struggle” part that can be the trickiest because as soon as we’re struggling to try to change, decrease, alter our thoughts/feelings/sensations, we aren’t really willing to have them. That puts us in a power struggle with our own insides. And it can even be hard to know when we’re really being willing versus white-knuckling. This is where the cactus come in….

One of my favorite metaphors for willingness comes from a friend and colleague, Dr. Hank Robb, who first related this metaphor to me:

Imagine extending your hand and having a feather placed in your open palm. The feather is soft and pleasant and you can hold it gently. Now image extending your hand and having a small cactus placed in your open palm. The cactus is prickly and unpleasant, AND you can hold it gently. That’s willingness. Being willing to let the cactus be there, without struggle (you can imagine what happens when you struggle with a cactus!).

Just like you can hold a cactus gently, even though its prickly and uncomfortable, we can learn how to hold difficult thoughts and feelings gently.

Hold difficult feelings gently

So if you notice yourself going through a particularly challenging time, you might imagine holding your difficult thoughts and feelings gently, like a prickly cactus. As I often suggest to my clients, you might even buy a small cactus and practice holding it as a reminder of what willingness means. We may want to have those nice pleasant thoughts and feelings, but we can also be willing to hold gently those prickly thoughts and feelings when that’s what is present.

On the Virtues of Being Wrong

“Wow. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”

Take a moment and consider, what are you wrong about right now? Are you aware of being wrong about something in this moment? I mean really stop and check. Can you think of something that you know you are wrong about right now?

Most of us walk around with a perpetual feeling of being right. In most moments of our lives we feel right about what we are doing and believing. And if we do feel wrong, it’s usually only in some small part of our lives. Doesn’t this seem odd that all of us are right almost all the time? Logically, it must be the case that we are wrong about something almost all the time.  Why don’t we know it?

One way to think about is to think about our thoughts as stories. Our minds are masterful storytellers, spinning new stories all the time. And most of the time we don’t even notice it. And these stories almost always seem to be true. Rarely do we tell stories that we know we are wrong about (unless we are telling a lie, in which case we usually know that we are telling a lie and know that’s right).

Unfortunately, our inability to notice when we are wrong can hold us back. We can miss information that can help us to grow. We can be right about things that don’t help us to move forward in our lives.

If you’re up for it, below I offer a brief exercise (including a video) on how believing our own stories can stand in our way. The whole process takes about 30 minutes.

Part 1

First, take a minute to think about a direction that you’ve wanted to head in for a while now. Something you’ve wanted to do and either haven’t been able to follow through on or haven’t been able to find the time for. Write out what you want to do. Write that out in a few sentences.

Second, think about why you haven’t done it. We all have explanations for our behavior. What is your story about why you haven’t progressed in this area? Write that out in a few sentences.

Third, once you have written out your explanation, check out whether your reasons seem right or wrong to you. I would bet that it’s pretty unlikely that your explanation seems wrong, as you wouldn’t have written the explanation if you felt it was wrong.

Fourth, keep your direction and explanation in mind as you watch this TED Talk by Kathryn Schultz:


Part 2

Now that you’ve watched the TED Talk, make a new plan for how you will move in this direction that you’ve been wanting to progress in. If you are willing to be wrong about your reasons, it opens up new possibilities. What possibilities might there be for how you could get this done? Outline your plan briefly in writing.